WASHINGTON – In the foreign operations budget bill signed by President Bush last week, the federal government will spend $20.9 billion to help develop democracy, fight famine, drugs and AIDS and offer humanitarian assistance abroad. Included in the bill is $365 million for disaster relief.
That disaster relief is a visible and notable form of aid; it follows major natural calamities that draw the world's attention. The earthquake in Pakistan and the Indian Ocean tsunami were two major catastrophes in the past year where U.S. disaster relief was substantial.
But disaster relief also works in less obvious ways. Combined with private donations, government aid demonstrates not only a willingness of the United States to be a global partner, it also shows that Americans have compassion for victims of disasters in foreign countries, U.S. officials say.
"This is not a matter of seeking to curry political advantage or a diplomatic gain, but rather a reflection of Americans being caught in the act of being themselves," said Larry Schwartz, South Asia bureau spokesman for the State Department.
Still, one group of academicians reports that international aid is inextricably linked to foreign policy, and the two undoubtedly play off one other.
"There is no way to de-politicize it. It is a political action. You are allocating resources to someone, and if you don't allocate, people are dying," said University of Missouri-Columbia assistant professor of political science Cooper Drury. "That's a very political act."
The U.S. Agency for International Development, overseen by the State Department and funded by the annual foreign relations bill, is the federal agency responsible for the management of government money used for international aid.
USAID reports that more than $300 million in assistance has been committed by the government to Pakistan and India for earthquake relief. About $575 million has been allocated to tsunami relief for India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. USAID reports that another $237.9 million from other government sources had also been diverted toward tsunami relief.
Besides the South Asian earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami, relief has also been offered to countries affected by Hurricane Wilma. Likewise, the agency is involved in plans to avert a bird flu pandemic.
Last week, Rear Admiral Michael LeFever, commander of the U.S. Disaster Assistance Center, provided a glimpse into how much effort is going into relief for Pakistan.
Reporting from Pakistan, LeFever said the Pentagon has made available 24 helicopters, which have flown 1,300 sorties, moving 5.6 million pounds of supplies and transporting 3,400 injured. He said he expected U.S. military forces to top out at about 1,200, meaning about 200 more soldiers will be deployed to the relief effort before it's complete.
Schwartz said the decision to help should come as no surprise.
"First, it's important to remember, the American people are very generous, and they've come to expect that their government will take action to help people who are in crisis everywhere in the world," Schwartz said, adding that the current relationship with Pakistan, which has been an ally in the War on Terror, made assistance a no-brainer.
"The measurement of friendship in foreign affairs is in the partnerships in which we engage together. ... Countries can't go out for a beer with their pals," Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that estimates of the money spent on disaster relief probably don't reflect actual overall cost because assistance like military helicopters for search and rescue and supply drops often isn't calculated.
But Professor Drury said what is calculated is the decision about how much assistance to give.
Drury led a group that studied foreign disaster relief spending from 1964 through 1995. The results, published this past May, found that foreign political allegiances and domestic politics — such as federal budget concerns, local disasters and national media coverage — drive disaster relief decisions.
"One of the things that we found so striking was that of all the foreign policies out there, (one might think) the least politicized would be humanitarian. What we found was: Nope, it's very political," Drury said.
The group also found that U.S. political allies generally get more money than those who are not, and that media coverage translates into more U.S. aid, regardless of the scope of the disaster.
"If there is coverage in the U.S. media, they will get significantly more money. I mean a lot more money," Drury said.
For instance, the report says the United States spent about $31 per affected individual in the 1985 Ethiopian drought, but only $3 per individual during the 1986 Botswanan drought. Ethiopia's crisis was a national media frenzy, while Botswana's problems were hardly noticed.
Robert Hunter, a RAND Corporation analyst and former U.S. ambassador to NATO under the Clinton administration, said he suspects that rough spots in international relations can be smoothed over by disaster spending.
"People look to the United States to solve this problem, that problem and the other thing, and that carries us through a lot of bad patches. ... It's a net plus and it also means there's a quicker bounce back" when a country has been carrying a grudge, he said.
Hunter said the goodwill that results is hard to measure, but nothing can be lost in helping people abroad. He pointed to the case of Indonesia, another country on the forefront of the War on Terror. Hunter said someone who might be a possible terrorist recruiting target against the United States may have been dissuaded after the humanitarian response to Indonesia following the tsunami.
"It's going to lead them to think twice [to take action against Americans]," Hunter said.
USAID spokesman Kevin Sheridan admits that cash assistance and other aid often carries a side effect of good political relations, but he says that is not its purpose.
"That is an unintended consequence, but it is a consequence," Sheridan said. The driving force is "the feeling of goodwill and charity and ... giving something to your fellow man in a time of severe crisis."
With the bird flu threat becoming more public, Sheridan said concerns have been expressed that the inability of the United States to avert a disaster could result in feelings of resentment, but the hope is that circumstances won't come to that.
Hunter was more blunt in his assessment.
"I'd say to hell with them. ... There's always people who bite the hands that feed them," Hunter said.
But with the United States facing tough times internationally, fighting a War on Terror while re-aligning many of its long-term alliances, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 42 percent of people polled think the United States should "mind its own business internationally," up from 30 percent who felt that way shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
Hunter said foreign disaster spending can only help the United States as it tries to win over suspicious nations and quell hostility toward the world's biggest superpower.
"Over time, it's money well-spent. It also reinforces the view that the nation of last resort is the United States. In the final analysis, in terms of leadership, in terms of doing things, it's the United States you look to. And that's not a bad thing," Hunter said.
Drury said he thinks foreign disaster aid would be more useful if U.S. officials adopted the thinking that it is politically driven.
"If everybody were a little bit more honest that it is political ... you might have a little more cooperation on the part of affected countries,” Drury said.