Aid in a time of austerity: Adios, smart power

The Senate version of the foreign assistance bill is taking shape, and it is commendable for being both sound and a broadly bipartisan approach, even though it signals the death knell of the Obama administration's commitment to "smart power." The Subcommittee on Foreign Operations yesterday approved $52 billion in foreign assistance, only 2 percent less than this year's spending. That is an amazing commitment to help other countries and shape the international order, given that the United States will have to borrow $20.8 billion of that money.

Predictably, the Senate is reducing aid to Pakistan. While still providing $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, the bill would reduce that aid by 58 percent. Pakistan itself provoked the hardening opposition: Its extortionate demand for upwards of $3,000 customs charge on every truck carrying NATO supplies into Afghanistan was the driving factor in shaping Congressional attitudes. Previous to the suspension that has been in place the past six months, the cost to us was $200. The U.S. may very well end up paying in customs fees what it previously gave in foreign assistance, but perhaps not: Supply routes have been substantially diversified. We may simply end up paying Pakistan's neighbors.  

The Obama administration also bears not inconsiderable responsibility for the cuts to Pakistan. Soldiers joke that we haven't fought a ten year war in Afghanistan, but ten one year wars because the approach kept shifting. The same is true with Obama administration "strategy" toward Pakistan. President Obama came into office having campaigned on conducting unilateral military attacks inside Pakistan, setting a confrontational tone; then adopted a "strategic dialogue" approach of $5 billion in annual assistance to Pakistan in order to reassure them; suspended in 2011 military aid to Pakistan; then made the aid conditional on Pakistan's full support in our war effort. Now  the Obama administration cannot even get the Pakistani suspension of transit rights lifted by including Pakistani President Zardari in the NATO summit festivities. Relations with Pakistan have never been worse. Given that Pakistan is essential to achieving our war aims, this would seem to refute National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's claim that the Obama administration repaired America's relations with America's allies.

Iraq also came in for reductions in aid, a whopping 77 percent, the largest cut enacted in the bill. The Senate understandably eliminated funding for the ill-conceived and clownishly executed State Department police training program. So much for what Secretary Clinton termed "the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan." For those who wonder why enormous swathes of civilian activity have migrated into the Pentagon, State's incapacity to develop an executable program for capitalizing on the military's gains in Iraq should explain it.  

And for all the administration's grandstanding at the NATO summit about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the Senate would reduce assistance there by 28 percent, equating the administration's draw-down in military forces with a draw-down in civilian activity. Needless to say, civilian spending should increase to cushion the transition as military forces withdraw. But having bungled both the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan and the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, the Department of State and USAID are in no position to persuade the Congress. Not that they have tried, incidentally. It is incredibly disheartening to compare the silence of State/AID in defending their budget to the roar of DOD claxons the past six months in conditioning Congressional attitudes about cuts to defense spending.

In one final grace note, the Senate bill would reduce aid to Egypt by the $5 million required to buy the freedom of U.S. citizens that were to have been put on trial in Egypt for promoting democratic change. As Senator Graham put it, "we got our money back." 

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Shadow Government

Cuba visa issue is a matter of principle

The usually sober editorial board of the Washington Post misfired badly in a recent editorial, "The refuseniks of Cuba," in which it lambasted the Obama administration for denying visas to a few Cuban academic apparatchiks who wanted to attend an upcoming conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in San Francisco.

Now, there are good reasons to criticize the administration's decision on the matter -- but on the grounds of its apparent incoherence, rather than as a statement directed against the Castros' totalitarian regime. It turns out that only 11 visas were denied, some 60 were approved, and a few more are under review. Given the non-transparent visa issuance process, there is little to explain why any of the decisions were made, including granting a visa to Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, a noted "sexologist."

Predictably, the result of the administration's apparent split-the-difference approach wound up pleasing no one. Pro-freedom Cuban American members of Congress were irate that the State Department granted travel permission to Mariela Castro, who Senator Robert Menendez called a "vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy, who has defended the regime's brutal repression of democracy activists."

Yet, in attempting to make the case for the 11 Cubans who were denied visas, the Post went over-the-top, completely distorting the issue at hand. For example, calling the denied Cubans "refuseniks" eviscerates all known meanings of the term, which originated behind the Iron Curtain and referred to those who requested exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, an act of betrayal in the eyes of authorities from which they suffered greatly.

The fact is that not a single member of the Cuban LASA delegation has ever said or written anything that deviated so far from the party line that they had to pay any professional or personal price. They all live lives of relative comfort and ease under the benign care (and watchful eye) of the regime.

Contrast this to the thousands of Cuban men and women who have dared to think freely and independently and continue to do so. Not only are they harassed daily, jailed, or forced into exile, but many have paid the ultimate price for refusing to relinquish their fundamental human rights. To equate in any way their sacrifices to the experiences of pampered regime elites is simply obscene.

Unable to comprehend this point, the Post can only attribute opposition to the granting of visas to "fear," as if people are afraid the Cubans' sanctioned talking points couldn't be rebutted or would change anyone's opinion about their murderous regime. The assertion is risible on its face.

Rather, the point is that a regime that has denied a truly free and independent thinker such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez permission to leave Cuba some twenty times simply does not deserve to enjoy the same rights as a reward to its academic collaborators, whose all-expenses-paid visit to the United States is designed only to whip up public sentiment against the U.S. embargo anyway.

Then there is the matter of the jailed American Alan Gross, who has been incarcerated in Cuba for more than two years for trying to help Cubans link to the internet without going through regime censors, as is their human right. Once again, in granting any visas to the Cubans, the administration has sent the signal that the abduction of Mr. Gross continues to be cost-free. 

The principled decision would have been to deny all the visas in solidarity with the thousands of Cubans who cannot speak their minds in Cuba or travel freely or had to flee Cuba to enjoy those rights; moreover, to reaffirm that there will not be business-as-usual as long as Alan Gross remains unjustly imprisoned. But all this has been muddled by half-measures: Deny some, allow others. It may be that the administration doesn't mind drawing both the ire of the right and the left, but political expedience is never a good choice over principle.

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