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Dunsmore: Foreign Aid Cuts

10/07/11 7:55AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(HOST) Foreign Aid has never been a very popular Federal budget item. And as commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore tells us this morning, that's particularly true this year.

(DUNSMORE) As virtually every item of Federal spending this year is subject to skeptical review - Congress can't wait to get its knives out for the annual giveaway known as foreign aid. The lead story in the New York Times last Tuesday was headlined, "Foreign Aid Faces Major Cutbacks In Budget Crisis." Members of both parties are apparently eager to show they are serious about budget cutting. Or are they?

I am certainly not going to defend sending big money overseas, when there is clearly major need here at home. Can sending millions to Pakistan to cope with disastrous floods be justified when very many Americans are suffering from the aftermath of our own floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wild fires?

But let's put foreign aid into perspective. I have heard numerous average Americans say they thought foreign assistance ate up as much as a quarter of the federal budget. They assume that if all that money was not being sent abroad, America would not have such a large deficit and national debt. I get the impression some members of Congress have the same notion.

The problem is that for many people, the billions, eventually trillions being shoveled out the door to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what used to be called the War on Terror, is confused with foreign aid. It is not. Those items that the Bush Administration never put in the budget and certainly didn't defray with new taxes, are major factors in the deficit and national debt. But those huge military expenses are not part of the State Department's foreign assistance.

One of my favorite quotes was spoken by the former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, while testifying on Capitol Hill on the Pentagon budget. With Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at his side Gates said, "We have more people playing in military bands than the State Department has diplomats."

In fact, the foreign aid budget is relatively small. It amounts to just 1 percent of all federal spending. According to the Times report, the proposed slashing of financing for the State Department and related aid agencies quote "raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa; in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan; in political assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East and even for the Peace Corps."

With limited funds to support those new Arab democracies, it's notable that Israel - which every year receives an aid package worth more than $3 billion, making it the largest single recipient - is also the only country where assistance is not being reduced.

A final thought. The head of a major international relief agency told the Times, there needs to be a balance between the actual financial benefits of the cuts - which may be negligible - versus their impact in eroding both America's influence and its moral standing as a generous nation in times of crisis. Those noble concerns, I fear, the budget cutters will most probably ignore.

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