The Foreign Threat to Our Budget

DANIEL BERGER

August 14, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

The great budget agreement to restrain the deficit depends on implementation, on the absence of unforeseen catastrophes. Ol' Man River must behave.

Realistically, the greatest threat to deficit reduction intentions comes in foreign policy. That's where costly needs suddenly arise, and where problems are best dealt with by throwing money at them.

Foreign policy expense comes in two forms: war and aid. War costs more. The last time this nation went to war, in Kuwait and Iraq, it did so only if other nations footed the bill. Without that, the exercise would have been unthinkably expensive.

There is slight American public opposition to wars providing they are short, sharp and proclaimed victorious. The bitter aftertaste stirs opposition. President Bush rose in popularity for launching the gulf war, and plummeted after.

Americans are tentatively willing to destroy parts of other countries, but have exaggerated expectations of the political gains to be had from the exercise. When these do not materialize, Americans feel cheated.

So if President Clinton wanted to launch a military expedition that would knock his budget out of whack, the American people might not much object. He is hamstrung more by his difficulties ** with the military leadership.

The other area of foreign policy that costs money -- though less, and usually more effectively spent -- is aid. This no longer amounts to much. It is less than 1 percent of the budget, less than it used to be, less than Japan spends. And that begs the issue of how much leaves the country, much going rather to buy American products including expertise for donation abroad.

That's how the United States for 48 years wielded influence. Yes, we had The Bomb, but we were never going to nuke most of the countries we influenced. What the United States had was money and the willingness to throw it around.

Most of this has been in the form of aid, half of which is military hardware. And despite the structure of the Agency for International Development as an agency concerned with humanitarian and developmental assistance where needed, most American aid results from political bargaining for specific goals.

Debate never ends whether foreign aid should be used for the benefit of the neediest or as a foreign policy tool. But most of it, in fact, becomes an instrument for the U.S. president to get his way.

The Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, chaired by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, has authorized $12 billion in foreign aid for Fiscal 1994. It also tried to prod the administration to streamline AID by putting forward its own plan.

The sum includes $904 million for republics of the former Soviet Union, $409 million for economic reform in Eastern Europe, and $3 billion for Israel and $2.1 billion for Egypt as in recent years.

The real point is how small this is, how minuscule a part of the budget, how irrelevant to the deficit.

But what if a new world crisis broke, something requiring a U.S. invasion, or massive infusion of aid?

What if economic calamity in Russia completely outran the aid contemplated? No one thinks $904 million goes far there.

What about dealing with the problems we already know about, of which nuclear proliferation is paramount. The way to keep Russia, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan and their citizens from selling nuclear weapons is to pay the governments and employ the individuals.

What if peace breaks out in the Middle East and Syria, Jordan and proto-Palestine expect to be rewarded commensurate with what Egypt and Israel receive?

What about funding crop substitution in the Andean coca fields and Asian poppy meadows? What about making it worth nations' whiles to send soldiers for massive U.N. peace-keeping operations not now on the boards?

Such things would, indeed, upset the fine balance in the budget agreement. They could send the deficits to new depths.

And crises will arise. Even if the identity of the next one cannot be predicted, its appearance can.

To keep the budget agreement and restrain the deficit, the United States government must not think itself the world's only superpower, not expect to get its way, not correct every problem including nuclear proliferation and the failure of post-Communist economies.

As to whether the administration, Congress and American people can sustain such self-discipline over a decade, skepticism is in order.

K? Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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