U.S. Helps Others to Help Itself

Scott B. Lasensky is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

When President Bush unveiled his budget in January, not only did he propose the largest increase in foreign aid in two decades but for the first time he also called for holding recipients accountable -- requiring them to fight corruption, democratize and make investments in education and health care.

These new conditions for American assistance reflect an emerging consensus that aid works best as a development tool when given to countries that are pursuing sound economic policies.

Yet Bush took it even further by insisting that recipients also meet strict standards on human rights as well as good governance. It's a good plan that deserves our support.

But don't be fooled. These strict new rules affect only a small part of the U.S. foreign aid program.

The truth is that most U.S. aid does not go to countries that meet these strict accountability standards and probably never will.

For that matter, aid does not go to those that need it most. American aid for the foreseeable future will continue to go to countries that are not poor or not free or both.

This should be no cause for moral outrage. It simply reflects the cold fact that foreign aid -- $18 billion in 2004, under the president's budget -- is still allocated primarily on the basis of American political and strategic needs and priorities, rather than pure humanitarianism.

And this is how it should be.

In fact, the largest recipient of American foreign aid today is Israel, a wealthy democracy that receives more than $2.5 billion each year. American inducements have been astonishingly successful, consolidating Arab-Israeli peace agreements for three decades. Our aid also provides security for this close friend.

Our second-largest recipient is Egypt -- a corrupt autocracy that gets about $2 billion annually. That money has been flowing ever since Egypt signed the Camp David accords in 1978 and has earned returns for American national security interests vis-a-vis Israel, nuclear nonproliferation and Persian Gulf security. As we move closer to war with Iraq, both Israel and Egypt are hoping for more.

The American funding decisions are reasonable. The United States has tangible national security and geopolitical interests in these countries and has a right, indeed a responsibility, to make sure its interests are served.

Certainly there are limits to what "political" aid can buy us. Despite strategic achievements with Egypt, aid has been wildly unsuccessful in promoting political, economic and social reform there.

On the Israeli-Palestinian track, aid kept the Oslo process alive when negotiations faltered, but it was useless when the process collapsed.

And even billions in aid have not been able to stop such troublesome Israeli practices as settlement-building in Palestinian territories.

Most spectacularly, Washington's attempt to use foreign aid to gain influence with North Korea failed. Starting in the mid-1990s, the United States funneled about $1 billion to Pyongyang, making it the largest recipient of U.S. aid in East Asia. This largess helped slow, but not stop, the North's development of weapons of mass destruction. We now know North Korea was interested only in cash, not cooperation.

The North Korean debacle, however, does not undermine the larger argument: Foreign aid serves national security purposes.

No foreign policy tool, whether carrot or stick, is without fault. Using our economic wealth to help our friends and encourage policies that advance our interests is important -- just as it is important to help build democracies and deter corruption.

Although defense spending has returned to Cold War levels, foreign aid has not.

Liberals who fault the United States for not spending as much of its gross domestic product on development aid as Europe or Japan fail to appreciate that the U.S. carries a much greater share of the global security burden.

That said, as eight former national security advisors recently argued in a letter to the White House, more foreign aid means more national security.

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