February 14, 2011

Monday Grab Bag: Traveling, Some Reading, and A Conservative Take on USAID

I will be traveling for the next two weeks in Europe and the Middle East. I suspect I will be able to post material to the blog during that time, but have patience if a few days go by without any updates.

I'm taking Jon Sumida's Decoding Clausewitz
(per Gian Gentile's suggestion) and David Grossman's Someone to Run With
with me on the trip, but as far as recommendations for the readership are concerned, let me recommend both Peter Bergen's The Longest War
and Bing West's The Wrong War. I reviewed the latter on assignment and should not say too much about it until the review is published, but I can whole-heartedly endorse the former, which I finished a few weekends ago and feel bad for not having mentioned on the blog just yet. It is really excellent.

I will leave you, meanwhile (and in honor of the soon-to-be-released defense base budget), with the following dissenting opinion on USAID, which I solicted from a Hill staffer who took offense to an earlier post I had written. I stand by what I wrote, but I'm always willing to entertain thoughtful dissent:

A few weeks back, Abu Muqawama criticized the proposal to defund USAID as a part of a larger package of cuts to federal spending introduced by the Republican Study Committee
(aka the conservative wing of the House Republicans).  It should be
noted that although there are 165 members of the RSC, only twenty or so
actually cosponsored this bill,
and no vote was taken--merely a bill introduced and press releases sent
around.  This was a marker in the ongoing debate about how to deal with
our staggering federal debt.  And while the readers of this blog are
probably very aware of this fact, it should also be noted that CBO's recent estimate
for the FY2011 single year budget deficit is $1.5 trillion, which is
more than the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001
combined.  We are borrowing more this year than we have spent in ten
years of two wars.  


The argument Abu Muqawama put forward is that
conservatives don't realize that USAID has a role in national security.
 I think this is largely true.  However, I'm not sure that USAID's role
in national security is all that vital.  Go read USAID's budget justification for FY2011 [pdf].
 It leads with USAID's request for $646 million to fight global climate
change. Not only does this drive up the blood pressure of the Fox News
crowd, but also, when we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend,
should we really spend over a half a billion dollars helping other
countries with "sustainable landscaping" and clean energy?  And while I
understand the argument that climate change could have long term
geopolitical consequences, if this is USAID's contribution to national
security, I'm not sure it's worth it.  Of the $39 billion requested in
FY11 in the Foreign Ops accounts, only $7 billion of it is under the
category of "International Security Assistance", most of which USAID
itself doesn't even manage.  Yes, avoiding wars over resources or clean
water would be nice, but our financial situation is unsustainable, and
that has to trump lower priority efforts... which is most of what
USAID's money goes to.
Secondly, while some specific types of aid can
produce clear national security benefits (Haiti, Afghanistan, Pakistan),
even these are easily overplayed or misused and often do not lead to
the long term results we are hoping for.  The question is effectiveness,
and others can have this debate at a much deeper level than I, but the
perception is that most of our foreign aid is not a good investment.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, the
conservative desire to sunset USAID is a philosophical one.
 Conservatives believe that the federal government should only do what
the federal government alone can do and is allowed to do by the
Constitution.  Most of the work that USAID is doing is also being done
by various other NGO's around the world.  Americans are a very generous
people, but we should encourage their generosity via good NGO's rather
than require it via taxation.
So while I agree that most conservatives don't
understand the national security components of foreign aid, I'm not sure
that canning USAID would really hurt our nation's security all that
much.  And in financially tough times like these, we need to be serious
about cutting anything that isn't truly vital.