SYNOPSIS: Americans actually give extremely little to the world at large

Mr. Clinton," declared the full-page ad in yesterday's New York Times, "the American people would rather spend $40 billion to rescue Social Security than to rescue your legacy." The ad denounced the possibility that an agreement at Camp David might include substantial promises of aid to the Palestinians. Then it referred interested readers to the Web site of Americans for Responsible Foreign Spending, which -- like the ad itself -- gives absolutely no hint about who these "Americans" might be. There are no names of officers, no endorsements of the group by named individuals. Nothing in the ad or on the Web site refutes the hypothesis that the group is actually a front for Islamic militants, out to sabotage the negotiations.

But I doubt it. After all, the supposed conflict between foreign aid and Social Security has been the subject of a steady stream of press releases from House Republican leaders. For example, last year the office of Tom DeLay, the majority whip, declared that "the president's requests for foreign aid would directly raid the Social Security trust fund." (Directly? Let's just say that Mr. DeLay's definition of "direct" is even further from common usage than Mr. Clinton's definition of "sex").

It's a pretty safe guess, then, that this is just hardball domestic politics -- though the peculiarly self-effacing behavior of Americans for Responsible Foreign Spending suggests that they fear that even today's hardened voters might look askance at politicians willing to undermine sensitive peace negotiations for the sake of partisan advantage.

But even aside from the shamelessness of this particular ploy, the House Republican campaign against foreign aid reveals a startling lack of scruples -- a willingness not only to mislead the American public, but to do so on an issue that for millions of people is literally a matter of life and death.

Some background facts: The foreign aid budget for next year, which Congress finally approved last week after much brinkmanship, provided a total of $13.3 billion. That is only a bit more than half of 1 percent of federal spending -- or to put it differently, we spend somewhat less on foreign aid in a year than we spend on Social Security and Medicare every week.

But even this gives an exaggerated impression of how much America "gives away" in foreign aid. Only about half of our foreign aid budget is for "humanitarian and development" purposes; the other half is justified by "national security" -- that is, it consists either of military aid or of financial assistance to governments that play some role in our defense strategy. In particular, out of that $13.3 billion aid budget, no less than $4.8 billion will go to Israel and Egypt. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, will get not much more than $1 billion. Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs puts it this way: Each year the average American is asked to pay a grand total of $4 in taxes toward helping the world's poorest 600 million people.

Because we give so little, these days debates about foreign aid are not about whether corrupt third-world governments should have more money to play with; they are about how many million people are going to die of malaria, or AIDS, or simple starvation -- millions who would not die if another few dollars per American were available to support public health programs and agricultural research.

Why are Americans so hard-hearted? The answer is that they probably aren't -- they are just misinformed. Opinion polls suggest that the average voter thinks that foreign aid is a budget item as big as or bigger than defense or Social Security, maybe 15 percent of the total -- and that he wants to cut it to something like 5 percent, unaware that that would be 10 times what we actually spend.

Maybe the Republicans aren't in fact suggesting that we should forgo the chance of peace in the Middle East because it might force George W. Bush to cut taxes by only $1.26 trillion instead of $1.3 trillion. But they are, quite deliberately, encouraging American voters in the delusion that we are being excessively generous to the world. And in so doing they are indeed making a trade-off -- not the pretended trade-off of foreign aid for Social Security, but a very real trade-off of foreign lives for American votes.

Originally published in The New York Times, 7.19.00