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For Want of a Nail: Foreign Aid Cuts Will Harm U.S. Influence

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As Patton's tanks battled their way through Europe at the height of World War II, a humble sign stood guard in the U.S.-British supply headquarters in London. Its words filled the room with the ancient fable:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost

For want of a shoe the horse was lost

For want of a horse the rider was lost

For want of a rider the battle was lost

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

The warning was not lost on the logisticians and planners responsible for ensuring that the troops had the essentials for the fight -- that tanks had spares, that soldiers had food and that guns had ammo. The weight of knowing that a missed shipment or shortage could cost lives and compromise the war effort inspired the utmost diligence and care. As the generals understood, the Allied victory turned as much on consistently doing the small things right as it did on grand maneuvers.

These words resonate today in the divide over the U.S. foreign aid budget. We know well that as the era borne by the war gives way to a more multipolar and interconnected world, military dominance is but one aspect of American preeminence. In this new century, our influence and strength depend far more on convincing and enabling the peoples of the world to look to us as a partner for prosperity and security. This is done less by weapons than by outstretched arms -- investments in the "small things" like governance, infrastructure, health and education. These in turn create the conditions necessary for security cooperation and economic opportunities, making our own nation safer and wealthier as well.

The Obama administration, for its part, has taken this lesson to heart. Keeping growth of the State Department/USAID budget at only 1% over 2010 levels in its 2012 budget proposal, the President has maintained funding for a host of vital programs, from securing nuclear materials to microfinancing to judicial reform. These initiatives advance U.S. national security, strengthen U.S. leadership and, for what it's worth, support American values.

The GOP, to save the cost of a few nails, has taken a different tack. The folly of their proposals, as offered for the recent stopgap budget measure, speaks for itself, and indicates their misplaced priorities as a full 2012 budget is negotiated in the next few weeks. Their proposals would:

  • Cut funding for securing loose nuclear materials by almost100 million.
  • Slash103 million in funds for training civilians to reconstruct and stabilize war torn, disaster ridden, and unstable countries.
  • Cut687 million from Food For Peace, which delivers bags of food stamped "USA" to the people of weak and failing states.
  • Reduce315 million in funds for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides money to countries that attain high standards in improving governance.
  • Deny almost750 million in development assistance funds that support a wide variety of programs overseas, including disease treatment/prevention, agricultural cultivation, small business loans, reconstruction, disarmament and governance support.
  • Cut USAID by121 million, undermining the civilian programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan critical for U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to succeed.

The security benefit of some of these items, such as locking down loose nuclear materials, is blindingly obvious. Programs with a more subtle and long-term benefit to the U.S. are typically advanced on moral grounds instead. But a party willing to deprive full funding for even American veterans' long term care is unlikely to be moved by noting that for a few sticks of gum per American we can provide life-saving medicine to foreigners. Wisely, Secretary Clinton has suggested dispensing with such arguments. That is easy enough to do -- the equities on "straight realpolitik" grounds more than suffice.

One need not take Clinton's word for it. General Petraeus and Secretary Gates, to name but a few military luminaries, agree. As Gates recognized, development funding "contributes to stability... contributes to better governance and can ultimately make it unnecessary for us to send soldiers." Republicans regularly insist on heeding the "commanders on the ground." They have spoken--why isn't the GOP listening now?

Were America to cut and run from its international engagements it would signal to the world that America has conceded its decline. And just as bin Laden surely cackles at the thought of weakening the world's grip on its least secure and most dangerous materials, so does China relish the prospect of a diminished American presence and reputation overseas. All the easier for it to compete for natural resources, bolster autocrats, support foreign militaries and dilute American influence.

Conservatives try to justify such retreat by invoking the mantra of spending money we don't have. The fact is that we more than have the minimal sums necessary to retain our global posture, which amount to less than 1% of the budget. Rather than ask oil companies or the top .0001% of Americans to pay a bit more for maintaining the nation that has allowed them to prosper, however, Speaker Boehner cries poor.

As our enemies seek to put American influence in a coffin, they won't want for nails -- with Iraq, New START, gays in the military and now proposed foreign assistance cuts, the GOP is blithely handing them out. If only General Patton were around to slap them to their senses.