Ron Radosh

No to Starting at Zero: The New Republican Foreign Policy Gaffe

Perhaps the biggest gaffe in last night’s Republican presidential candidate debate was the concept introduced by Rick Perry, and seconded by Mitt Romney, that when it comes to foreign aid, the United States has to start with zero. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute points out, the “proposal to start each year with zero dollars in foreign aid allocated for Israel and all other countries would have a very disruptive impact on Israeli military planning and Israeli security. Perry’s idea is bad news for Israel and shows how little he understands its needs.”

Conservatives have pointed out, when discussing the domestic economy, that business needs certainty to make long-term decisions, and the Obama economic policies do not provide that, and thus help prevent the kind of recovery and economic productivity that we need. The same concern, however, holds for foreign policy as well, especially when it comes to Israel’s defense needs.

Riedel writes that the IDF relies on $3 billion in U.S. aid annually, necessary for its ability to maintain a modern defense force that has an advantage over its many enemies. The IDF, he writes, “knows it can plan multiyear purchases of jet aircraft like F15s and other weapons because U.S. aid will be certain for years ahead. Planners love certainty about everything, but especially budgets.”

Hence Israel’s armed forces simply cannot afford the uncertainty that starting from zero would produce, especially since although Perry and others say that Israel will get the aid it needs, each year it would have to send time making the case for such aid, and the constant need to renew the aid would interfere with joint maneuvers as well as the ability to plan for future years. As Riedel puts it, “If you start at zero, you plan zero.” Israel, he points out, plans its budget on multiyear cycles, and “friends don’t rethink their friendships each fiscal year.” While Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan and other Republican isolationists would no doubt be happy with such a policy, the rest of us should have good cause for worry were it to become new U.S. policy.

Riedel ends by arguing that the zero policy could “also send the wrong message to Israel’s foes,” as some of them might assume that perhaps the future would not be such in which Israel would have the kind of military support it needs to fend off threats from the likes of the Mullahs in Iran.

Writing at Politico, Ben Smith quotes Josh Block, a centrist Democrat who formerly was AIPAC’s Director of Communications, and how runs his own shop with Lanny Davis. Block responded to Smith’s query about how pro-Israel forces feel about the starting with zero policy with these words:

When Rick Perry speaks all I can think is oops, and even appearing to question our commitment to Israel certainly falls in that category. Foreign aid is one of the best investments we can make, and it represents one percent of our budget. Israel is special, and our aid to them is a direct investment in our own economy, since it is all security aid and is spent right here at home. If Rick Perry cares about American jobs and America’s national security interests he won’t equivocate about our commitment to Israel on aid or any other subject.

Perry’s camp responded in the form of a statement from Jeff Ballabon, described as a “hawk” working in Perry’s campaign. Ballabon answers that since Perry regards Israel as America’s greatest ally, “anyone wanting to exclude Israel from ‘Start at Zero’ must not believe in Israel’s value as our ally.” Perhaps. But as it is now framed, Israel too would have to wait for Congress to debate for aid is passed, and the debate and policy would greatly work to put Israel at a major disadvantage, despite what might be Perry’s support for Israel. Undoubtedly Israel, as Ballabon claims, would “set the bar” for judging foreign aid for any country.

But think a moment. In the current budget cutting times, we would see many left-wing Democrats and neo-isolationist Republicans begin to argue that the U.S. gives too much foreign aid to countries, when we need funds at home for our own people. Such a self-destructive policy might actually develop broad support, and produce a Republican isolationist and Democratic left-wing coalition, that could cut off a lot of foreign aid, that would then work against Israel’s security needs, despite the concern of many who advocate the “start at zero” policy. Moreover, as Block and others note, foreign aid in reality is a small percentage of our national budget, and a policy that gives a return worth far more in making friends for our country than it does were it cut down or abandoned.

Let’s hope that as the campaign continues, Perry, Romney and others who favor the “start at zero” concept carefully rethink that option—less some of those Jewish votes that might go to the Republicans in key contested states like Florida quickly go back to the Democratic column.