WASHINGTON (JTA) — “Starting from zero,” the foreign assistance plan touted by leading Republican candidates at a debate, is getting low marks, and not just from Democrats and the foreign policy community. Pro-Israel activists and fellow Republicans also have concerns.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry introduced the plan during the first foreign policy debate Saturday night, held by CBS and the National Journal at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. South Carolina is a key early primary state.
“The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars,” he said. “Zero dollars. And then we’ll have a conversation. Then we’ll have a conversation in this country about whether or not a penny of our taxpayer dollar needs to go into those countries.”
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, signed on immediately. Gingrich said the plan made “absolutely perfect sense.” Romney, who has made clear that he disagrees with Perry on much else, in this case said he welcomed the idea, saying “You start everything at zero.”
The proposal of such a radical change raised concerns in the pro-Israel community.
“Hacking away at the international affairs budget of the U.S. government is inefficient and counterproductive, and will not advance U.S. fiscal interests,” said Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs. “There’s too little money and it’s too vital to put on the chopping block.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not have comment, but its former spokesman, Josh Block, weighed in with an e-mail blast to reporters of comments he had provided to Politico.
“When Rick Perry speaks, all I can think is oops,” wrote Block, who is now a consultant for centrist Democrats, but who has been critical of President Obama. Block was referring to Perry’s “oops” in an earlier debate, when he had a memory lapse about the agencies that he had proposed to eliminate.
“Even appearing to question our commitment to Israel certainly falls in that category," Block said. "Foreign aid is one of the best investments we can make, and it represents 1 percent of our budget. Israel is special, and our aid to them is a direct investment in our own economy.”
At least three-quarters of the $3 billion in military assistance that Israel receives from the United States each year must be spent stateside. Overall, the U.S. spends about $50 billion annually in foreign assistance, less than 1 percent of the overall budget.
Pressed by a viewer, through Twitter, to specify whether “start from zero” included Israel, Perry replied, “Absolutely.”
“Every country would start at zero,” he said. “Obviously, Israel is a special ally. And my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level. But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case.”
That drew a withering response from the Republican Jewish Coalition, which tweeted, “Hoping @perrytruthteam will brief their man on 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that governs US- #Israel funding levels."
Israel and the United States signed the 10-year memorandum of understanding in 2007; its long-term assurances are aimed at providing Israel with both financial assurances and political support. The message, said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida speaking to Jewish reporters on a Democratic National Committee conference call, is that the United States has Israel’s back in the long run.
“Contrast that with the message that the Republican presidential candidates sent on Saturday night, which is that the security relationship between the United States and Israel, like all other relationships, is zeroed out every year,” Wexler said. “And let Israel make the argument why it’s justified, and maybe it will and maybe it won’t be honored. The 2007 memorandum of understanding for President Obama is sacrosanct. For the Republicans, they apparently don’t even reference it.”
In fact, immediately following the debate, Romney’s spokesmen said he would exempt Israel from the policy — but that didn’t do much to assuage pro-Israel concerns. Pro-Israel figures for years have emphasized that they prefer to see Israel wrapped into an overall foreign policy package and not tweaked apart, as some Republicans have proposed.
Gingrich raised pro-Israel eyebrows when he proposed starting Egypt at zero, in part because of rising Muslim-Christian tensions in that country in the wake of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Israel has made clear that it wants U.S. assistance to continue as long as the Egyptian government maintains the peace treaty with Israel.
Richard Parker, the spokesman for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a foreign aid advocacy group co-founded by AIPAC and top-heavy with former U.S. generals, said U.S. assistance leverages U.S. influence and tamps down unrest.
“When we go into a country and help them with education and health efforts, you can stabilize those countries,” said Parker, whose group on Monday released a letter from five former secretaries of state — including four Republicans — urging Congress not to cut the foreign aid budget.
That was also a key point for Isaacson, who spoke with JTA from Morocco, where he is on an AJC trip through the region to encourage democracy reforms.
“I’m meeting with government and civil society figures that see us as a beacon of democracy, but an uncertain partner,” Isaacson said, referring to the rancorous political debate in the United States over the proper U.S. role overseas. “Signals that the U.S. would retreat are troubling and not in the interests of the United States.”
A Romney adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said that influence comes only if the United States ensures accountability from recipients. The source referred to the issue that had sparked Perry’s response in the first place: Pakistan’s unreliable role as an ally.
“We have seen a ton of money in places, and zero comes out of it,” the source said, explaining that starting from zero would “force a culture of accountability. The Pakistanis think they have us over a barrel. It’s one thing to have influence, and it’s another to have someone think they’re so indispensable to you they can do what they want.”
That is not a unanimous view among Republicans. The top foreign operations appropriator in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), has repeatedly made the case for using assistance as a means of influence. Significantly, two of the candidates with deep congressional roots made the same case in the debate Saturday night, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
“We can’t be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend,” Santorum said. “They must be our friend. And we must engage them as friends, get over the difficulties we have, as we did with Saudi Arabia, with respect to the events of 9/11.”
The most recent debate was not the first time that Republican front-runners called for a change in American foreign aid policies. In a debate last month, Romney suggested that he favored eliminating American foreign aid that goes for humanitarian purposes.
“I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Romney said at the Oct. 18 debate. “We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money today.”