During last weekend’s Republican Presidential candidates’ debate, Governor Rick Perry sparked controversy by saying, “the foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars.” His proposal was endorsed by some of the candidates and provoked reactions in the media in the days following that highlighted the critical role that foreign assistance plays in advancing U.S. national interests.

GOP Candidates

Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr.: “There are certain areas that I would argue are in America’s interests and if they’re in America’s interest we get some return on that invested dollar. And I think we have– you know, it’s fair enough to say we have got to start with a zero based budget approach but let’s also be smart enough to say that we do as people get a certain return through foreign aid. We have to carefully identify what that return is, explain it to the American people. But to say we’re just going to wish it all away I think is a political sound bite.” — From an interview on CBS Face the Nation

Senator Rick Santorum: “They’re pandering to this anti-foreign aid element out there. And I ask this question all the time when I’m in meetings. I ask people what percentage of the federal government is in foreign aid, and usually you get ‘20, 30, 40, or 50 percent’. When I tell them it’s less than half a percent, people are shocked! When I tell them how important it is to prevent military action, to prevent the expenditure of funds, to prevent America from getting involved in things that it shouldn’t be, foreign aid is valuable in that regard… So I think this was a low light in that debate.” — From an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe

Congress

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): “I think we need to examine all of our foreign aid and make sure it makes sense — there’s never been a good time to waste money, but … on the other hand the foreign aid we put out is a very small part of our overall budget, and an important part of it.” — From an interview on FOX News

Former Administration

Five Former Secretaries of State: “As former Secretaries of State from both Democratic and Republican administrations, we urge you to support a strong and effective International Affairs Budget. We believe these programs are critical to America’s global leadership and represent strategic investments in our nation’s security and prosperity.” — Letter to Members of Congress

Admiral James Loy, former acting Secretary of Homeland Security: “The issue isn’t starting at zero, but where you end. When used strategically, foreign assistance advances our national security. And retreat in today’s world is not an option.” — Statement following Debate

Michael Magan, former Special Assistant to the President on the National Security Council: “Candidates missed an opportunity last week to explain to the general public the leadership role the United States must continue to play in the world we live in today. They were too afraid someone would ask, “Why are you spending money overseas and not at home?” None of them were prepared to discuss in simple terms the benefits we derive as a result of U.S. foreign assistance. I think the American public would continue to support foreign assistance programs if they knew the positive impact is has not just abroad, but in relation to our long-term national interests.” — Blog for Foreignpolicy.com

Expert Commentary

Jamie Fly, Foreign Policy Initiative: “Governor Perry said that his foreign-aid budget for each country would start at zero, a notion that may be a good talking point, but in reality makes little sense. Foreign aid accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget and is an essential part of American efforts to advance our interests in the world.” — Article for National Review Online

Max Fisher, Atlantic Magazine: “The idea that the U.S. should zero out its foreign aid has gotten by far the most attention of any comment from this debate, mostly as it would include resetting aid to Israel, which most GOP candidates have been falling over one another to most hawkishly advocate for protecting. Pro-Israel groups are already registering their unhappiness. But the backlash against this idea goes far beyond Israel, as it seems to misunderstand the entire idea of how foreign aid works. Don’t take my word for it — read The Economist’s exasperated walk-through on why foreign aid is a transaction, not a gift, and how “resetting” our financial arrangements in dozens of countries would be somewhat like Bank of America “zeroing out” all of its loans and investments every single year. In other words, it would be a disaster from which it would take years or decades to recover.” — Article in the Atlantic

The Economist: “Nobody would be willing to sign a contract with these agencies if they knew the agencies were going to zero out their budgets and potentially eliminate the relevant programme next year. But for some reason, the leading Republican presidential candidates think it would be a good idea to do this with foreign aid. It is not clear to me why they think anyone would be willing to work with an American foreign-aid establishment that was unable even in principle to make any plans lasting longer than one year. Would you put your organisation’s time and energy into working with an American aid initiative on higher education, agricultural extension, medical system capacity-building, epidemiology and disease intervention, climate-change mitigation, transportation enhancement, or anything else that could only promise a one-year budget? You’d have to be a fool.” — Article on Economist.com

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