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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

U.S. shouldn't 'zero-out' Israel defense aid

  • Published 21:19 06.12.11
  • Latest update 21:19 06.12.11
Anyone who has a clue about our relationship with Israel understands that a robust, wide-ranging foreign aid program benefits U.S. interests in the region.

By Tom Dine

The recent political pledge made by Republican presidential contenders Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney to "zero out" foreign assistance appropriations and start over would be a direct assault on our security relationship with Israel. Anyone who has a clue about our relationship with Israel understands that a robust, wide-ranging foreign aid program is not only vital for Israel's security, but also greatly benefits our interests in the region and around the world.

F-15 - Neil Cohen / IDF Spokesman - 2008 An Israel Air Force F-15 during takeoff.
Photo by: Neil Cohen / IDF Spokesman

The subsequent insistence by the Perry-Gingrich-Romney troika that Israel would somehow be exempt from this policy of slash-and-burn budgeting could only be read as a disturbing misunderstanding of the vital role foreign economic assistance and security aid play in U.S. diplomacy, or worse, a deliberate attempt to distort the issue in order to score cheap political points.

I certainly expect they will take the opportunity to explain this indefensible policy on Wednesday when they address Jewish American Republicans gathered in Washington.

Last month, during a Republican debate, Gov. Perry said, "the foreign aid budget in my administration, for every country, is going to start at zero dollars. Zero dollars. And then we'll have a conversation."

His call to zero out all foreign assistance and then restore selected grants was surprisingly echoed immediately by both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Fearing the reaction from voters concerned about Israel's security, all three candidates later insisted they were not proposing to end or dramatically slash Israel's aid, but efforts to walk back their comments smacked of political opportunism, not thoughtful policy.

For several decades, the United States has played a vital role in supporting Israel's security, and in 2007, the United States committed to providing Israel with $30 billion in security assistance over the next decade. The policy advocated by the Gov. Romney, Gov. Perry, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would break that trust.

When there are calls for the zeroing out of foreign aid - a program that makes up less than one per cent of the annual U.S. federal budget - it is the job of top Executive and Legislative branch leaders to remind Congress and the public that support for a robust foreign aid program not only serves the Jewish state of Israel, but the interests of the United States around the world.

There is no question that preserving security assistance to Israel remains a priority, especially as the Israeli people face grave threats from an Iranian regime pursuing nuclear weapons and a region in the midst of a sometimes-chaotic transition. But at the same time, it is also vital we remember the important role U.S. assistance plays in advancing our vital interests in the region.

Gutting America's foreign aid programs is not in the interest of Israel and it certainly isn't in the interest of the United States.

Centrist pro-Israel groups have long advocated expanding, not reducing, foreign aid programs - both as a boost to critical U.S. interests and because of Israel's continuing need for assistance. To his credit, President Obama has increased U.S. assistance to Israel to unprecedented record levels. The President seems to understand that a strong Israel, one supported by the United States, is important to maintaining security in the region.

Anti-foreign aid advocates have a long history of recklessly exploiting misperceptions about foreign assistance. They exaggerate its impact on the federal deficit, conspicuously ignore the boost it provides to America's image around the world and downplay its role in bolstering America's critical allies.

Drastically cutting or even eliminating aid entirely would severely damage America's interests while having little impact on our deficits; then arguing we should carve out an exemption for Israel is a cynical bit of political sleight of hand that would weaken the critical U.S.-Israel alliance and threaten political support for the special U.S.- Israel relationship.

Critically examining foreign aid grants and ensuring that every dollar is used efficiently must be a priority for the next administration and Congress. But promises of wholesale, indiscriminate cuts or even eliminating foreign aid entirely is extremely dangerous and either reflects an egregious lack of foreign policy judgment or, at worst, a cynical willingness to political gain above America's national interests.

The current crop of Republican presidential candidates claim they would "restore" U.S. leadership of the Free World, but seem willing to end programs that are critical to that role.

Now is not the time to retreat from America's leadership role, nor is it time to resort to political gimmicks that isolate Israel and harm American interests. Our security remains on the line - and so does that of our democratic friend and ally Israel.

Tom Dine was for thirteen years executive director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for four years an Assistant Administrator of USAID.

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