The misguided attacks on foreign aid

Towards the end of last night’s debate, a voter raised a question that probably resonated with many viewers: “The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?”

Rick Perry quickly embraced the sentiment, not only endorsing cuts to foreign aid, but also questioning the value in helping fund the United Nations. Mitt Romney was asked the same question.

“Foreign aid has several elements. One of those elements is defense, is to make sure that we are able to have the defense resources we want in certain places of the world. That probably ought to fall under the Department of Defense budget rather than a foreign aid budget.

“Part of it is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people.”

Let that one rattle around in your brain for a moment. Mitt Romney believes the United States should no longer take the lead in international humanitarian relief — we should simply cede our leadership role to China.

Some may find this satisfying, in a know-nothing, knee-jerk sort of way. There’s polling data to suggest Americans believe 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, so when asked where policymakers can cut spending, this is generally at the top of the list.

And then there’s reality: the foreign aid budget represents about 1 percent of all federal spending. In a time of humanitarian crises and global political uncertainty, it’s absolutely critical — and in our interests — for the United States to stay engaged in our “smart power” efforts and maximize our influence in the world.

Republicans appear to believe the opposite. Mitt Romney is eager to let China replace us in this area of global leadership.

This debate isn’t limited to rhetoric from misguided presidential candidates; it includes efforts from congressional Republicans who agree with Romney about these investments. The cuts the GOP has in mind “have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.”

The right’s hostility towards American global leadership never ceases to amaze me.