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Bush's surprising liberal legacy

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United States foreign aid this year should jump to $23 billion from $13 billion in fiscal 2003.

"What? What?" you ask.

One of the great surprises of the Bush presidency has been the push for more aid. After all, many conservative Republicans call it a waste - pouring money down the drain.

But the new fear of terror and the spread of AIDS has changed all that. The administration now calculates that by making the foreign-aid system more effective, it can reduce world poverty and thereby boost US security. The effort breathes new life into a program that's lost credibility - and has become Bush's boldest foray into liberal territory.

"Foreign assistance has assumed an importance within US national security that it has not enjoyed since the Marshall Plan more than half a century ago," says Patrick Cronin, an expert on aid at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In one sense, that $23 billion in the latest Bush budget exaggerates the aid increase. That's because it includes $7 billion for Iraq's reconstruction. Even ignoring Iraq, however, aid has risen under Bush, after declining since the 1980s.

"Foreign assistance funding has gone through the roof under this president," says a Republican congressional staffer.

US official development assistance amounted to $11.4 billion in 2001 and $13.2 billion in 2002, as measured by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based club of mostly rich nations. And if Congress provides all the money sought by Bush for his Millennium Challenge Accounts (MCA), his HIV/AIDs initiative, and other smaller programs, the total could about double by 2008.

Washington experts doubt that the legislators, facing huge budget deficits this decade, will be quite that generous.

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