Should US aid ex-cold warriors?

As US foreign aid shrinks, a battle erupts over funds for ex-Soviet weapons experts.

They were once a pampered elite, scientists and technicians who designed and built the weapons of the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal.

But like millions of Russians, they have fallen on hard times, earning on average under $100 a month. Some of these former cold warriors may be selling their deadly skills to foes like Iraq, North Korea, or terrorist groups.

To avert this threat, President Clinton wants the United States to underwrite peaceful research that would keep 40,000 Russian weapons experts working. Yet this proposal faces opposition from the GOP-run Congress.

This new political and ideological tussle over foreign aid comes amid a 15-year decline in the assistance the world's richest country provides the poorest. In fact, as a percentage of gross national product, the US gives less foreign aid than any of the world's 20 most developed nations.

"The general trend is that foreign aid is becoming a lower and lower priority for US policymakers," says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Analysis. She believes the gap between wealth and poverty can lead to conflict that threatens American interests.

"Yet there is no effort to do any preemptive spending, which is always less than the cleanup costs or the costs of war," Ms. Bennis says.

As Republican congressional leaders cut Mr. Clinton's proposed funding to keep former Soviet scientists working, the issue of preemptive spending is becoming the heart of the ideological battle over foreign aid.

Clinton is threatening to veto the House and Senate versions of his fiscal 2000 foreign-aid budget because of $1.9 billion in cuts from his proposed $14.6 billion aid plan. The cuts, he charges, will hurt programs designed to bolster international stability and keep the US out of wars.

"Underfunding our arsenal of peace is as risky as underfunding our arsenal of war," Clinton told a Veterans of Foreign Wars group this week in Kansas City.

Foreign aid is less than 1 percent of the US budget, he noted, and less than one-fifteenth of Pentagon spending, "If we end up underfunding our diplomacy, we end up overusing our military."

Nonsense, conservatives retort. They assert that US assistance has never helped avert crises and disasters that threaten American interests. To the contrary, they say, US aid has helped keep dictators in power and failed to prevent the collapse into chaos of countries like Somalia and Haiti.

Other priorities closer to home, such as the Congress-approved $792 billion tax cut, are more important, they say.

A senior administration official says funding the tax reduction while keeping the federal budget balanced is a major reason for the GOP foreign aid cuts. "[Republicans] are in an impossible budget situation right now, and traditionally one of the budgets with the smallest domestic constituency is the most convenient to take hits from."

Foreign-aid spending hit its zenith in 1947, the height of the Marshall Plan for the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe. It then declined steadily until President Reagan boosted it as part of his strategy to undermine Soviet power by advancing American influence through largess to anticommunist regimes.

The decline resumed with the end of the US-Soviet rivalry, tight federal budgets, and a post-cold-war belief that free trade and private investment are better ways of reducing global poverty and instability. Aid supporters, however, point out that the expansion in global markets has failed to halt the gap between rich and poor nations.

Foreign aid is now half of what it was 15 years ago. About 50 percent is military assistance - most of which goes to Israel and Egypt - or aid designed to bolster US security, according to the Council for a Livable World, a Washington-based arms-control group.

While Clinton's proposed fiscal 2000 budget would not increase assistance, the House and Senate both would slash Clinton's requests. He is threatening a veto unless House and Senate negotiators restore the cuts when they meet next month to reconcile their bills.

The two houses slashed more than $200 million in aid to the former Soviet union, leaving it up to the administration to decide how to distribute the rest. But Clinton says the total is insufficient to fund economic-reform projects and expanded arms-control cooperation, including the program to fund peaceful research by the Russian weapons experts.

Republican lawmakers also slashed spending on aid to Africa designed to promote development, democratization, and conflict resolution on a continent mired in poverty and strife.

Clinton seeks $500 million in aid to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians under the Wye River accord he brokered earlier this year. The Senate withheld the funds for Israel and the Palestinians pending implementation of the agreement. The House slashed the entire amount.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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