Last night's Republican debate was a farce from beginning to end.
The first laugh line of the evening was Fox Business personality Stuart Varney having a difficult time getting through the name of his co-host Ilia Calderón.
The debate's conclusion ended in a similarly awkward moment for the moderators, with candidates rebelling against an attempt to turn the debate into a political game of Survivor.
In between, the politicians on stage attempted to deliver carefully planned one-liners designed to demonstrate more personality than what comes naturally to them. In particular, while there is plenty to laugh at Mike Pence about, his attempted joke was not one of them.
The most comedic line of the night belonged to South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. Scott, whose ten-year career in the Senate has left him with no argument for his candidacy beyond latent Republican desires for diversity on the ticket, dutifully stood up to defend the increasingly unpopular bipartisan financial aid lawmakers have provided Ukraine. In response to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stating that he would reject further US financial support for the Ukrainian effort, Scott contended that 90% of the assistance is a loan that will be paid off.
It is difficult to know whether or not Senator Scott actually believes this; most of what is said on a political debate stage should not be taken at face value. Even if we put aside the question of his 90% figure, which is significantly inflated from the percentage of financial aid that is currently considered a loan, a sincere belief that Ukraine will be expected to actually pay back war-time loans shows a disconnect with the way the modern American empire operates.
It is worth noting that there was a time when the United States government took repayment of political loans seriously. As a 1993 report by the Congressional Research Service noted:
Historically, the U.S. Government has rarely forgiven debts owed to it by foreign governments and individuals. It has been willing to adjust the repayment schedule, when the borrowers found they were unable to meet the original repayment terms for U.S. loans. Generally, however, the rescheduling process has been effected on a businesslike basis. Any foreign assistance effect of U.S. loans was provided up front, through the activity financed by the loan and any concessions or discounts in the payment terms. The debt collection procedure was not treated as an additional avenue for providing aid
Interestingly, a footnote in the first sentence did recognize that $2 billion of the $3 billion of Marshall Plan loans made to West Germany was forgiven in 1953, while most other European nations received direct grants rather than loans from the program and therefore didn't have to worry about repayment.
As the report goes on to document, any pre-existing federal commitment to debt repayment began to quickly erode during the George H.W. Bush Administration.
The movement towards debt forgiveness began with an initiative by Congress in 1989, augmented by subsequent legislation in 1991, authorizing the Administration to forgive foreign aid debts owed by countries in Africa and other very poor countries. As a result, the Administration wrote off $2.7 billion in low-income country debt. In 1990, President Bush proposed, in the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, that debt be written off for Latin America in order to encourage democratization and economic policy reform. Following the adoption of legislation in 1990 and 1992, $605 million in foreign aid debt was forgiven through this program. President Bush also recommended in 1990 that debt owed by Egypt should be forgiven in order to assist and demonstrate U.S. support for that country. Congress concurred and added a similar debt write-off for Poland. As a result of legislation approved in 1990, $8.3 billion owed by these countries (most of it market-rate debt) was forgiven in fiscal year 1991.
This trend has continued since. President Bill Clinton worked with the IMF and the World Bank for major debt forgiveness for "heavily indebted poor countries." President George W. Bush added on to this legacy with the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. Further international debt relief was one campaign promise that Barack Obama fulfilled, even after Republicans took back the House after the 2010 midterms. These programs continue today, such as in 2021 when U.S. taxpayers generously financed $120 million in debt relief grants to the Sudan.
Additionally, any pretension that the United States expects repayment from Ukraine and Europe for loans offered during the Russian conflict flies in the face of how NATO currently operates. On the one hand, some political leaders have suggested a future where Ukraine may be admitted as a member of either NATO or the European Union. While, again, it is reasonable to be skeptical of the credibility of these proclamations, particularly given the history of the West cynically entertaining NATO expansion as a bargaining chip in geopolitical relations with Russia prior to the invasion, the financial standards these international bodies have for admission would be severely undermined by the expectation of Ukrainian debt forgiveness after the war.
Prior to Russia's invasion, Ukraine's economy would have been an extreme outlier relative to other E.U. nations. As Ryan McMaken notes, E.U. admission of Ukraine would create new economic hardships for a political union that has already been tested in recent years by financial crisis. Does Senator Scott honestly expect the U.S. government to add to these pressures with the expectation of debt forgiveness?
If the answer is yes, that would arguably be more disqualifying than telling a knowing lie.
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