In the flurry of statements on the killing of Osama bin Laden, a remark from Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, spoke volumes about how US foreign aid tends to be perceived by its recipients. It's not enough.
"The United States spent much more money in Iraq than it did in Afghanistan," Haqqani said in a television interview. "And then it spent much more in Afghanistan than it did in Pakistan. So were there cracks through which things fell through? Absolutely."
That twisted logic suggests that if only Washington had given Pakistan a few billion more than the $20.7 billion it provided over the past decade, bin Laden, a man with a $27 million bounty on his head, would not have "fallen through the cracks." Those cracks were wide enough to swallow bin Laden's one-acre walled compound with a three-storey building in a garrison town near the Pakistani capital.
The mass murderer's six-year stay in Abbottabad has prompted some members of Congress to demand the immediate suspension of aid to Pakistan, others to look for reductions. Deep cuts, however, are unlikely. The 140,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan rely on supplies landed at the Pakistani port of Karachi and trucked through the Khyber Pass to bases in Afghanistan.
As Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's bin Laden unit, puts it: "They (the Pakistanis) know we need them more than they need us. They also know that the Saudis and the Chinese would step in with money and aid if we backed out."
Consequently, military and civilian aid is likely to continue flowing and the strained marriage of convenience between the US and Pakistan will survive this latest spat. But giving billions of dollars to a country where, according to President Barack Obama, "we think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden" will probably rekindle a long-running debate over the how and why of foreign aid as a whole.
The United States is the world's biggest donor of foreign aid, giving more than the runners-up, France and Germany, put together. Last year, Washington provided assistance in one form or another to 149 countries, according to the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress. That's almost four-fifths of all the countries on earth but the aid has not made the United States the world's most popular country.
On the contrary. Why? There are a variety of reasons, including one that is not often mentioned in policy debates on aid. It has to do with human nature, according to Ken Adelman, a former US ambassador to the United Nations. In a recent essay in Foreign Policy magazine, he wrote: "Giving someone a gift generates initial gratitude (often along with gripes about why it wasn't bigger). The second time the gift generates less gratitude (and more such griping). By the third iteration, it has become an entitlement. The slightest decline engenders resentment."
Perversely, in Pakistan and Egypt, two of the four countries that topped the list of US aid recipients in 2010, the publics hold overwhelmingly unfavorable views of the United States, according to the annual global attitudes survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
For decades, Washington has seen foreign assistance as an essential instrument of foreign policy, meant in part to positively influence attitudes abroad. This works in some of the large variety of activities that come under the label foreign assistance - for example reducing poverty, widening access to health care and education, or promoting human rights. But even US disaster relief, often prompt and efficient, does not always change attitudes, viz American emergency aid in the wake of last year's devastating floods in Pakistan.
If foreign assistance does not buy gratitude, loyalty and cooperation, does it help to influence the decision-making of friendly governments? Not necessarily. Take the example of Israel, the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since its creation in 1948. Despite the aid, the government has continued building Jewish settlements on the West Bank contrary to US wishes and contrary to international law.
So, is foreign assistance to 149 countries reflected in votes in support of US positions at the United Nations (which has 192 members)? It is not. According to a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation, about 95 percent of U.N. member states that receive US assistance voted against the United States in General Assembly votes between 2000 and 2008.
That helps explain why opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Americans are in favor of cutting foreign aid. The latest survey, in January by Gallup, showed 59 percent wanted reductions. Those results would probably look different if Americans had a clearer idea of how much of their tax money goes to helping foreign countries.
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.