“Unprecedented.” “Largest ever.” So news media described the $38 billion, 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the United States and Israel in September.
The Washington Post was representative: “The United States signed an unprecedented pact with Israel that will provide the Jewish state with the largest amount of military aid ever awarded, $38 billion over 10 years, with promises of the latest in fighter jets, missile defense systems and cutting-edge technology” (“Israel, U.S. sign unprecedented military aid package; Deal for $38 billion over 10 years comes after months of negotiations,” Sept. 15, 2016).
The newspaper attempted to put the latest U.S.-Israel MOU into perspective with a web-only article, “The U.S. foreign-aid budget, visualized” (September 26). This highlighted some of the trees, but still missed the forest.
Graphs included showed that for the $4.15 trillion fiscal 2017 federal budget, total foreign aid including economic/humanitarian and military, equals $50.1 billion. In other words, though The Post did not say so, that figure—the overall State Department/U.S. Agency for International Development allocation—amounts to just 1.2 percent of federal spending. Aid to Israel ($3.5 billion in 2017) totals just 6.9 percent of the entire foreign aid budget, and 0.0008 percent of overall federal spending.
Post reporters Max Bearak and Lazaro Gamio added more detail and context in another online-only article on October 18. They noted that foreign military assistance from the State Department budget “is essentially a way of subsidizing [America’s] domestic defense industry while strengthening the military capabilities of its strategic allies” including Israel. More security assistance comes from the Defense Department and other agencies. And other countries, including NATO members, Saudi Arabia and Japan for example, buy U.S. weapons directly.
The Post’s additional background begins to make clear that “unprecedented” U.S. foreign aid to Israel, “the largest amount of military aid ever awarded” is still a small amount of total American aid. Even more, it is a sliver of the federal budget.
Not that the public understands this. According to “The U.S. foreign-aid budget, visualized,” “most Americans think that a substantial chunk of the national budget goes toward deals like the one with Israel.” A Kaiser Family Foundation study last year found “the average respondent thought that 26 percent of the federal budget went to foreign aid. More than half of the respondents thought the United States was spending too much on foreign aid.”
What’s the purpose?
Why does the United States provide foreign aid at all? The Post says “generally … to ensure American strategic interest abroad and bolster international institutions that respond to humanitarian crises…”
“To ensure American strategic interests abroad” and defend the U.S. homeland also is why we fund the Defense Department. Focusing only on foreign aid in this regard while ignoring the defense budget distorts the overall picture.
Defense Department spending for fiscal 2017 (not mentioned in The Post’s text or graphed) was projected at $583 billion, or 14 percent of federal outlays.
Virtually no coverage—Israeli media included—put the MOU and its $3.8 billion annually for the decade 2018-2028 into historical context in terms of overall U.S. defense spending. Had the press done so, the “largest ever” and “unprecedented” labels would have required another asterisk beside the one noting aid to Israel as a portion of all foreign assistance, let alone of the federal budget.
In 1990, University of Michigan Prof. A.F.K. Organski published The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel (Columbia University Press). Organski argued that Washington’s support of the Jewish state (1990’s $36 billion would be roughly $68 billion in 2016 dollars) stemmed more from U.S. strategic considerations than from successful activism by pro-Israel Americans.
In any case, total American defense spending, in contrast to State Department foreign aid outlays, since the founding of NATO in 1949 has been estimated at $30 trillion. This is almost two-thirds of all military spending by member countries, according to Canadian economist and blogger Sierra Rayne (“The U.S. paid for NATO: $30 trillion and counting,” American Thinker, April 17, 2016)
The big picture
For years during the depths of the Cold War, such U.S. costs included supporting more than 300,000 GIs stationed in Western Europe. Billions of U.S. dollars never counted as foreign aid stimulated national economies that would not or could not spend what United States had determined was in its strategic interest to lay out to deter aggression by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and thereby prevent World War III.
Likewise South Korea. In the early 1950s, more than 300,000 GI were fighting each year of the Korean War. Through most of the following decades U.S. troops levels in South Korea varied between roughly 70,000 and 40,000 annually. Deployment there now is approximately 28,000. It’s 38,000 for Germany, 49,000 for Japan. Israel, on the other hand, never has had American forces permanently stationed there.
South Korea, like some of the other nations hosting the more than 600 U.S. military installations abroad, helps defray expenses by American taxpayers through cost-sharing agreements. Army Gen. Vincent Brooks told the Senate Armed Services Committee that basing troops in South Korea was cheaper than keeping the same number at home (“U.S. Military: Top general: Cheaper to keep troops in South Korea than U.S.,” CNN, April 21, 2016)
Either way, America’s “forward strategy” has necessitated, since the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s, a large overseas presence. With it has come a cost, measured in hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars. Benefits, including prevention of a Soviet invasion or take-over of Western Europe, keeping the Cold War from going hot, providing a security umbrella to reassure allies that might otherwise have sought nuclear weapons and discouraged adversaries from doing so, have been incalculable. And that, in total, is what’s been truly unprecedented.
(Update 1: The October 19 Washington Post online only article referred to in paragraph five above did appear in print on October 23.)
(Update 2: The reference in paragraph four to U.S. aid to Israel as a percentage of the total foreign assistance budget has been corrected from the original “.069 percent” to the correct figure of 6.9 percent.)