At the UN Summit on Financing for Development in Monterey, Mexico, last March, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged to increase U.S. aid by $5 billion - still a much smaller total amount than that of the European Union. When the world's superpower faces problems that may be threatening, under what conditions will the U.S. intervene with economic aid and when with military force? Poll findings have long shown that the views of the U.S. public on these questions are at odds with those of U.S. elites and media.
U.S. leaders, ignoring or misunderstanding why the public is opposed to government spending on foreign aid, since Sept. 11th find increasing such expenditures appropriate. A large majority of the public have finally made clear as a result of years of many high quality polls, the circumstances under which they believe military intervention is appropriate.
U.S. presidents, congress and advisors are themselves confused by the public's reasoning on foreign aid and they don't fully understand all the conditions the public requires for military intervention. As a result expensive mistakes are made. Both U.S. foreign and military policy are in a shambles. At the core lies short-sightedness of mainstream news media, commercial pollsters, corporate advertisers, special interests, and political leaders.
What pollsters have found on the "help or fight issue" largely comes from questions on "foreign aid" and "military intervention". Examining poll-data on "foreign aid" found a question run by Cambridge Reports every year from 1983 through 1989: "Thinking ahead to next year, I'd like you to tell me in which area you would like to see government spending decreased most" to be chosen from 20 areas offered. The two areas getting the greatest support for cuts, and the percent wanting each to be the most cut are shown:
|When asked 7 times|
|Average||Minimum to Maximum|
|military spending/national defense||29%||26-32%|
|all other spending priorities||3%||0-16%|
The reason "foreign aid" ranks just a little under "military spending" is because to ordinary people U.S. foreign aid is anything the U.S. does that aids other countries and thus includes a large part of military spending, where the greatest desire for cuts happen to lie. The U.S. public's way of thinking about this evolved during the forty years of the cold war. The U.S., at high cost, took the lead in the military defense of the free world while Europe and Japan rebuilt their economies, spent much less than the U.S. on the military, and toward the end in the '80s enjoyed flourishing economies. Later, with no serious threats in sight, U.S. military budgets kept rising. People thought, "A lot of that money goes to helping foreigners. We, safe in this wonderful country, don't need that spending."
The media and elites know that foreign aid refers to certain budget line-items, loans and grants, fifteen times smaller than the military budget. Aid is larded with back-door kickbacks supporting U.S. exports and overseas military bases. The media, political leaders and pollsters ignored or paid homage to the public attitude. By not clarifying the situation, elites reinforced the confused public desire to cut foreign aid, and that desire has remained high over the years. For example, when asked by NORC (University of Chicago), the New York Times, or Gallup, whether we are spending too much or too little, from April 1998 to February 2001: "too much" swamps "too little" by large multiples varying from 5.9 to 1 to 8.6 to 1.
After the events of 9/11/01, elites saw that there was widespread understanding that the U.S. would need a lot of help from its friends and allies in the war on terror. George W. Bush even framed the issue as "If you are not with us, you are against us". Some politicians began to believe that the people had to be educated to get over their foreign aid aversion.
Sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America, polling by research firm, Greenberg, et al, sought to find out why there is such a strong desire to cut foreign aid and under the new circumstances whether foreign aid could be made more acceptable.
The Greenberg findings were similar to what my colleagues and I found in surveys 10-14 years ago. In the order of percent favorable, the reasons for wanting to cut foreign aid were: (1) money should be spent for needs in the U.S.; (2) aid does not end up with those who need it; (3) lack of monitoring of how aid is spent; (4) aid goes to corrupt governments; (5) too much bureaucracy and red tape; (6) our allies should give more before we do; (7) it is not the U.S.'s responsibility: (8) aid contributes to dependency and debt; (9) aid is not tied to specific programs. The public's attitude is sometimes justified.
The Greenberg poll found that support for aid rose when people were asked to consider the non-military aspects: humanitarian and disaster aid, strengthening democracy and human rights, peacekeeping, UN and its agencies, environmental protection, increasing trade, peace corps, education and training, health care, and nation building. Well crafted questions could produce a majority in favor of some reasonable versions of foreign aid. It will take time during which specific aid projects are repeatedly justified in the media to produce a majority for its support.
Regarding military intervention, much research has shown that a large majority of the U.S. public favors military intervention only if it meets all these criteria:
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