Published March 24, 2011
While President Obama calls Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi a threat to his own people, just one month before attacking Libya the president asked Congress to increase U.S. aid for Qaddafi's military to $1.7 million.
According to State Department figures, the money was earmarked to train Libyan military officers, improve its air force, secure its borders and to counter terrorism.
If this seems contradictory, welcome to the world of U.S. foreign aid, where billions of tax dollars go to people we don't like and nations some say don't need the help. The latest unrest has drawn renewed scrutiny to these policies.
"It's certainly not wise or smart to give American aid to countries like Libya where the ruling class use it against their own people," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is sponsoring a bill that would rein in foreign aid.
Libya isn't the only repressive Arab regime benefiting from U.S. military aid. Obama wants $120 million for Yemen next year, including $20 million for a military accused of brutally putting down a popular revolt, and $11 million to promote democracy and human rights, something critics say doesn't exist in Yemen.
The U.S. also gives Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, substantial military aid. In the last four years, the United States provided security forces in Bahrain $51 million. On Feb. 14, Obama asked Congress for $26 million more, even though its royal family is not democratically elected and is accused of using military force to put down a popular revolt against the monarchy.
"I'm not saying you can justify each and every one of these expenditures, but you have to be able to look at it from a strategic perspective and they could well be justified," said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Military training for officers from various countries all around the world has historically been a very good investment for the U.S. We get to know officers as they go through their career path. We train them in notions like civilian control of the military. It hasn't been perfect, but for relatively small expenditures of money it can pay real benefits."
Bolton and Poe agree that the roughly $50 billion U.S. taxpayers spend overseas needs an overhaul. Of 192 countries in the world, the U.S. gives aid to 174 -- including repressive regimes in Africa and the Middle East like those of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan; U.S. adversaries like Kim Jong Il in North Korea and Evo Morales in Bolivia; and countries like Russia and China.
"We cannot buy friendship. If we're trying to do that, we're a total failure. Most of these countries that we give money to, they vote against us in the United Nations, they don't like us, many of them hate us and we don't need to pay them to hate us. They can do it on their own," Poe said.
Poe is sponsoring legislation that would require Congress to approve U.S. aid on a country-by-country basis. He believes that would force it to scrutinize the aid sent to countries that don't like the U.S., don't support or share its values, and in many cases don't need the cash.
The State Department said Wednesday it had suspended U.S. military aid to Libya "a few weeks ago."