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U.S. needs to maintain robust foreign aid budget

The death of Moammar Gadhafi on Thursday was a victory for the Libyan people, for the NATO coalition, for U.S. forces and for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision of “leading from behind.” Criticism of the effort to oust the Libyan dictator ― that it was unfocused and too slow ― looks silly in retrospect. Even Sen. John McCain, no fan of the president, said the administration “deserves credit” for the outcome.

And yet the wild swings in the Libya campaign are a reminder that events in the broader Middle East are best understood over time, not judged by way of the 24-hour cable-news cycle. Gadhafi’s end is a major milestone, but it will be years before we can accurately assess what has happened in the past seven months. What happens from now on will be just as essential to that assessment as Gadhafi’s death.

Gadhafi demolished the country’s civic structure over 40 years, and its inexperienced new leaders must rebuild their nation from scratch. Obama pledged Thursday that the United States will support them, but our ability to do so is constrained. Congress cut $8 billion from the foreign aid budget in the spring, and House Republicans proposed an additional $12 billion cut this fiscal year ― 20 percent. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, has proposed smaller but still significant cuts.

The New York Times reported this month that these cuts already were limiting the State Department’s ability to assist the people of Tunisia and Egypt, who rose up to oust dictators this year.

Understanding of the value of international development work is shockingly absent among some budget-cutting zealots. The GOP candidates for president all seem to favor cutting if not eliminating foreign aid. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, chairwoman of the House subcommittee overseeing foreign affairs, recently told the Times her reaction to the United States’ sending $250 million to Pakistan for flood relief: “I said I think that’s bad policy and bad politics. What are you going to say to people in the United States who are having flooding?”

You’re going to help them too, of course. America is still the wealthiest nation on Earth.

Slashing foreign aid, which is less than 1 percent of the federal budget, will lead to more military spending. It would be smarter to make modest trims to the far larger Pentagon budget so that the State Department can continue to pursue development and diplomacy alongside our military missions.

That fits with Obama’s view that America doesn’t need to carry a big stick to get big results. The proof is the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. In Libya, we got the job done by working with our NATO allies and remaining behind the scenes while using our intelligence and technological capabilities.

Democracy is marching on in the Middle East, but there’s no guarantee that will continue or that it will go in a direction beneficial to the U.S. Remember Hamas’ victory among the Palestinians. Continuing to support freedom fighters through diplomacy and foreign aid is the best way to ensure we will not be called upon to fight again.

(Editorial, San Jose Mercury News)

(MCT Information Services)
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