Pennies for Haiti, Billions for Israel, Egypt

(CBS)
Rush Limbaugh is quite right to question why American taxpayers ought to be required to spend another red cent on Haiti. The problem is that El Rushbo -as well as his critics - are looking at the wrong data and so the debate has gone off in a fruitless direction.

"We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax,'" Limbaugh said earlier this week. Considering the enormity of the Haitian tragedy, which is unfolding in real-time across our television sets and computer screens, that was pure Ebenezer Scrooge. Limbaugh's suggestion invited reproach from many. Even Republicans like Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan expressed dismay. But making this into a referendum on whether Limbaugh has a heart of lead leads nowhere. He was doing what he gets paid to do as a radio provocateur. Besides, he relishes the attention.

Actually, Limbaugh deserves a thank you - even from his harshest detractors -because his rant inadvertently raises an important issue that demands a closer look. I'm talking about the outdated calculus of considerations Washington uses to decide how to spend its foreign aid budget. Foreign aid is a long-standing instrument of U. S. foreign policy. In fiscal 2008, the government offered financial assistance to 154 nations. Starting with the Marshall Plan (1948-1951) and the rebuilding of Europe, development assistance was viewed as a way to check Soviet growth. In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, however, Washington refocused its foreign aid on more regional issues, and since 2001 the new emphasis has included the battle against terrorism.

But consider this: in fiscal 1998 Haiti received $106 million from the U.S, the No. 9 nation among foreign aid recipients. Ten years later, it didn't even make the top 15 list.

Compare that to the more than $5 billion paid out to Israel and Egypt.

For much of the last 20-plus years, those two nations have ranked as the biggest recipients of our largesse. (Afghanistan is now No. 2 on the list reflecting the war and reconstruction costs from our involvement there post-9/11.) This began during the Carter administration to help solidify the Camp David Treaty. Israel withdrew from bases in the Sinai and Egypt left the Soviet sphere to become a U.S. client state. The treaty held. While a cold peace prevails between the two neighbors, they remain at peace, nonetheless.

Israel has since built one of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial economies in the world. At the same time, the country is now led by a free-market prime minister who ideologically understands the risks of economic dependence. Is there any overarching reason why the training wheels can't come off?

Same question applies to Egypt. The argument you hear time and again is that U.S. aid has helped avoid destabilization. So what have we received for our investment? Hosni Mubarak has been in charge since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981. This is a corrupt and authoritarian regime that physically strong-arms political opponents. Some argue that Egypt would fall to the Islamists and turn rabidly anti-American if we stopped bribing them.

That's probably the best argument why it's a good time to reassess.

In a very changed world, the argument for keeping Egypt and Israel on the dole does not hold up, especially when we're paying them do what's in their best interests anyway. With the U.S. fighting back from recession and Haiti laid waste by ill fortune, here's a chance to do a lot of good without reaching any deeper into taxpayer pockets for another penny. The money's already there. Now it's up to Washington how to spend it more wisely.


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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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