WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who's taken on tough tasks from immigration reform to climate change, faces another one as he calls for spending billions of dollars overseas on unpopular foreign aid programs that he insists are vital to U.S. national security.
With Congress facing mandatory spending cuts and previously sacrosanct military programs on the chopping block, Graham is trying to protect funding for foreign aid even as most Americans oppose it — 71 percent in a recent poll — and other Republican leaders call for focusing U.S. resources at home.
"It is a tough sell, but you can be penny-wise and pound-foolish," Graham, a Republican in his second term, told McClatchy.
"This movement to kind of withdraw from the world is not a viable option," Graham said. "I advocate military engagement when I think it's necessary, but really you can get more bang for your buck from civilian programs than you can from military engagement most of the time. You've got to have more options than just dropping bombs on people."
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Graham, a military lawyer as an Air Force Reserve colonel, is the only member of Congress to have served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's built a reputation as a hawkish senator warrior who backed tough military action in both nations.
Now, as senior Republican on a key Senate appropriations panel for foreign operations, Graham is trying to stave off funding cuts for a softer kind of power exercised by diplomats, civilian training corps and U.S. contractors who help other governments battle AIDS, modernize schools, instruct police, clean water wells and enhance their armed forces.
In an effort to make it more politically palatable, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom Graham is close, has rebranded the term "soft power," coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990. Clinton now insists that her colleagues and aides call the concept "smart power."
But re-branding alone won't protect foreign aid in an era of fiscal austerity with a federal debt reduction panel, dubbed the "supercommittee," searching for major funding cuts to meet a Thanksgiving deadline set by Congress.
Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy group in Washington, said the country's economic distress has exacerbated Americans' historical reluctance to spend money abroad.
"Of course it's not a priority," she said. "We've got almost 10 percent unemployment. We've got a country with a massive debt crisis. Peoples' houses are worth two-thirds of what they were worth five years ago."
Graham's difficulties go beyond the country's economic woes and the government's budget pressures. He's facing an insurrection within his own party, starting with some of its White House contenders.
Even though the $53.3 billion appropriations bill Graham helps to oversee — mainly for State Department operations and assistance to other governments — is a tiny fraction of the $3.6 trillion in federal spending, GOP candidates at the presidential debate in Las Vegas last week took turns bashing foreign aid.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said to applause. "We're spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that "it's time for this country to have a real debate about foreign aid."
And Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, saying foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut," even urged an end to the roughly $3 billion a year that goes to Israel, saying it makes the staunch ally dependent on the United States.
"It's not authorized in the Constitution that we can take money from you and give it to particular countries around the world," Paul said, again to applause.
These claims came a month after a failed Republican-led effort in Congress to eliminate $1.9 billion in foreign aid in order to fund disaster relief, and 10 weeks after most GOP lawmakers accepted a debt-ceiling deal that could impose $600 billion in military cuts. Those trying to cut foreign aid included Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina's other senator.
Robert Gallucci, a former assistant secretary of state who's held top diplomatic posts under Democratic and Republican presidents, said President George W. Bush's invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans wary of helping fledgling governments in Libya, Egypt and other Arab Spring hubs where Graham wants to direct U.S. aid.
"In both places, we ended up in the business of nation-building, which is trying to shape a country to make it democratic and safe with an open economy," Gallucci said. "You can't really say that we've been spectacularly successful as yet. So it's going to be a difficult case to make."
Graham recently returned from Libya, where he met with leaders of the new government that replaced dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Graham said this month that modest amounts of aid for pro-democracy forces in the Arab Spring revolts could yield huge dividends for the United States.
"This is a good example of where getting in on the ground floor and forming personal relationships can pay off," Graham told McClatchy. "Oil coming from an ally rather than an enemy who sponsors terrorism is a dramatic improvement in our economic and national security."
Graham has been influenced by CIA Director David Petraeus, the former general who led the wars in Iraq and then Afghanistan but expanded their focus beyond military operations.
After Graham assumed his appropriations post, Petraeus wrote him a letter stressing the importance of protecting money for civilian and diplomatic outreach.
"This is a national security issue," Petraeus testified to Congress in March. "It's not just a foreign aid issue."
In the Senate, Graham's trying to help protect the $53.3 billion that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved last month for foreign operations in 2012, the same amount as current funding.
That total is a pittance — one-half of 1 percent — of the Pentagon's almost $1 trillion budget, but without widespread support on Capitol Hill, Graham knows foreign aid will be an easy target for spending cuts.
He also understands, he said, that his work won't help him politically in South Carolina, among the most conservative states.
"In South Carolina, being subcommittee (senior Republican) of the foreign ops account is about as popular as a toothache," Graham said. "That's not the road for electoral popularity, but it is something I'm interested in."
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