Robinson: Reexamining Foreign Aid Policy in the Middle East and Beyond

Sen. John McCain (AP)

The anti-American hooliganism unfolding violently all over the world right now compels U.S. lawmakers to reevaluate our administering of foreign aid, and, if necessary, to restrict or modify the cash flow when current aid practices are not serving our foreign policy interests and objectives. The Islamist-spawned imbroglios of late are sufficient to warrant such a discussion. As policymakers look to retool foreign aid, the debate should begin with a frank conversation of what precisely foreign aid is supposed to achieve.

American foreign assistance is not a vehicle for global wealth redistribution. The oft-invoked pretense to ameliorating third-world poverty may boost the Obama Democrats’ self-esteem, but it is hopelessly naïve at best–hazardously hubristic at worst–to believe that a nation incapable of eradicating poverty at home might do so elsewhere. The hard truth is that American foreign aid, much like American fighter jets and American aircraft carriers, is designed to advance the foreign policy of the United States through the fostering of strategic interests; not a welfare entitlement for foreign kleptocrats and religious despots.

That being said, how much cash should Uncle Sam send to governments where U.S. diplomats are assaulted, embassies assailed and political and economic freedom non-existent? The status quo is roughly $24 billion annually – that’s how much aid the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sends annually to the twenty-nine nations rioting against the West. Most would answer, understandably, zero, zilch, nada: not another penny as long as Al-Qaeda’s flag flies over our diplomatic missions.

Congressional Republicans have offered separate proposals to curtail aid to the more misbehaving nations, yet each leaves something to be desired.  Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) amendment would have blocked aid to Egypt, Libya and Pakistan, while Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) legislation would only stall Egypt and Libya’s aid and only until the safety of our diplomats is assured. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in ineloquent contrast, has called his colleagues’ efforts “idiocy.” And although some Democrats are starting see wisdom in retooling foreign aid, President Obama’s unilateral decision to send $450,000,000 in emergency cash to Egypt proves he’s more in line with his former presidential opponent.

But the question shoots deeper, past dollar amounts and appropriations to the crux of the matter; has the U.S.’s apotheosized capacity for exerting soft power served American interests or turned America itself into a soft power. Rather than simply tinkering with dollar amounts, lawmakers must consider reforming the very manner in which we allocate foreign aid. Somewhere between Inhofe and Paul’s instinctive drive to avoid paying those who hate us on one hand, and McCain-Obama’s dogmatic protection of the existing labyrinthine aid bureaucracy on the other, there is a prudent course to reform the administration of U.S. foreign assistance. No panacea exists that will perfectly align our foreign aid practice with our foreign policy objectives, but it is our duty to ensure, at the very least, that U.S. tax dollars are not aiding and abetting the enemy.

But before we get to a better foreign aid model, we need to address the peculiarities of the three so to speak problem children – Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan.

In pre-Arab Spring Egypt, $1.6 billion a year kept Hosni Mubarak from rolling across the Sinai to attack Israel. How much money will it take to pacify the incipient Egyptian theocracy? Will $450 million in emergency cash be enough? Will $4.8 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund do the trick? Or perhaps if Mr. Obama forgives $1 billion in Egypt’s debt, something he has suggested he would do (but after his potential reelection, of course,) then perhaps the Egyptians will discover newfound adoration for liberal democracy, peace, and freedom.

But beyond the hope-and-change utopia, here in the real world, it is increasingly unclear whether Egypt is an ally; even the president has acknowledged this. Consider: It took Morsi more than 48 hours to condemn the breach of the Cairo embassy; further, by bringing armored vehicles perilously close to Israel’s demesne, Morsi has already near-breached the terms of Egypt’s U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. So what promise do we have that shoveling cash on the new regime, forgiving debts and extending loans will keep the Egyptians sympathetic to U.S. (and Israeli) concerns? Early indicators suggest the new Muslim Brotherhood regime will not offer diplomacy for diplomacy. Yet the White House is poised to continue, if not increase, Egypt’s multibillion dollar aid package in exchange, presumably, for more comfortable corruption and theocratic hostility.

Libya, in contrast, receives far less from Uncle Sam. The nation received a little more than $40 million in Qadaffi’s last three years and has received about $200 million since the start of the uprisings that ultimately ousted him in 2011. The terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate, while not necessarily an indictment of the nascent Libyan regime, is nonetheless good cause to reevaluate our foreign policy objectives and our use of soft power in the region. A major internal conflict is still raging in that country between the good guys and the bad—and we’re still not sure which is which. Any decision to modify U.S. aid to Libya must be judged on the basis of whom such a move will likely help bring to power: Radical Islamist bent on the West’s destruction or a regime not immediately harmful to our interests? From the information we have now – which is an ever revisable thing with Mr. Obama – it appears uncertain whether yanking Libya’s aid would not undermine a potentially non-belligerent regime’s quest for some semblance of self-government in the face of Al-Qaeda’s imperial Islamism.

The situation in Pakistan, owing mostly to our so-called “overseas contingency operation” in neighboring Afghanistan, is a matter altogether distinct from that in North Africa. Pakistan received approximately $20.7 billion in U.S. aid from 2002 to 2010, and all the while the Pakistani government appears questionable regarding how Osama bin Laden went undiscovered in their country for so long. That Pakistani police arrested the whistle-blower who led U.S. agents to bin Laden’s hideout is another troubling sign of the regime’s sympathies. Nonetheless, our aid to Pakistan – $2.2 billion scheduled for FY2013 – preserves vital supply routes to the kingdom notorious for ending empires; while U.S. armed forces remain deployed in Afghanistan paying the Pakistanis is in our interest.

It’s a tough pill to swallow not only because Pakistan is so audaciously Janus-faced, but also because the nation plays host to a perennial exhibition of the rank corruption—both on our end and theirs—that characterizes the Aid-Industry Aid-Bureaucracy Complex. Millions, if not billions, of our aid dollars are embezzled every year by corrupt USAID bureaucrats and a contracting community that enjoys an incestuous relationship with the federal government—not to mention power-hungry warlords who redirect aid to private Swiss bank accounts. And even when aid reaches its intended destination, it often ends up financing Islamized versions of Sesame Street or other futile cultural outreach programs, which, in the natives’ eyes, are simply gharbzadegi.

Robinson: Reexamining Foreign Aid Policy in the Middle East and Beyond

Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a U.S. flag and an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama in the Pakistani border town of Chaman along the Afghanistan border on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Still, the time to revisit Pakistani aid is after the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. And when that time comes, the carpet cannot be pulled out from beneath our mendacious “allies” fast enough. (To be humane, though, we should continue a small program to alleviate the suffering of Pakistani women and children who have lost arms and legs to Mr. Obama’s murderous and extrajudicial Drone War.)

As for lesser recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, the same simply test applies: Does our aid accomplish our foreign policy objectives? In 2008 alone, the U.S. spent $2.2 billion on aid to Kenya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Has this massive redistribution of wealth halted Sudanese genocide, assuaged malaria in Kenya, prevented Al-Qaeda from rising in Yemen or stopped Bashar Assad from brutalizing civilians? The short answer is no. Sudan remains a treacherously corrupt miasma of ethnic violence, albeit with a newly paved road from Juba to Nimule. Bags of rice and unmarked anti-malarial drugs are regularly pilfered from aid trucks and sold for the profit of Kenyan warlords. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is stronger than ever. The steady rain of artillery in Syria speaks for itself. Given the pattern, it is apparent that U.S. aid is flowing to corrupt nations that are hostile to the west, to their own people even.

Clearly our aid is not sufficiently bolstering American interests—or human interests for that matter; for even when you include the wishy-squishy ideals of humanitarianism – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting the lowly – it is apparent that U.S. foreign aid fertilizes hostility to the West and bolsters morally bankrupt tyranny, rather than fostering efflorescent liberal democracies where the people are happy, healthy, and free to improve their lot. A better model of administering foreign assistance would be guided by a two-fold cynosure: recipient nations’ conduct in the international community and the extent to which those nations’ protect political and economic freedom at home.

First, the coincidence rate of a recipient nation’s votes in the U.N. General Assembly – in other words, how often a nation supports U.S.-held positions – should determine, to some extent, the level of aid that nation receives. This is common sense. To visualize how tying aid to General Assembly vote coincidence rates would impact U.S. foreign policy, consider that, during eight years of the Bush Administration, roughly 95 percent of aid recipients voted against the U.S. in a majority of non-consensus votes, and over 72 percent voted against the U.S. on votes the State Department deemed “important.” In the fall 2011 session of the U.N. General Assembly, only Turkey, of all the nations where our embassies and diplomats are presently imperiled, voted with the U.S. more often than not.

By and large, the Arab Fall nations, many of which are among the top foreign recipients of U.S. tax dollars, oppose and undermine American diplomatic initiatives in the U.N. General Assembly. Taxpayers should demand that the nearly $60 billion we send abroad annually earn us at least a few U.N. votes. Our aim should be to foster a voting bloc of pacific liberal states that can ensure the U.N. remains committed to saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war and reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights.

Yet we Americans, whose exceptional creed it is to aspire for greatness, should wish for more than mere support in a farcically ineffective and anti-American assemblage that, with each passing session, is looking more and more like a Caliphal Comedy Club whose performers’ primary aim is roasting Uncle Sam for his undue respect for religious liberty, free expression, and human dignity.

Our aid ought to bring about measurable improvements in the political and economic freedom of recipient nations with the hope of fostering better living conditions for those living in – not just those controlling – the impoverished nations of the world. Although the U.S. government does not currently take economic and political freedom into consideration when disbursing aid via USAID or the State Department (i.e. the bulk of U.S. aid), this is being accomplished through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Under the MCC’s guidelines, for example, nation’s that take concrete steps toward greater economic freedom, such as by streamlining new business registration processes, will be rewarded with continued or increased aid, whereas nation’s that punish political dissidents or experience hostile takeovers will see aid stripped quicker than you can say coup d’état.

Rather than naively continue or blindly withdraw foreign assistance for the woebegone corners of the world, the U.S. should look to strategically withdraw aid where it does not serve our interests, and to distribute future aid according to the seriousness of each nation’s self-structured quest for political and economic freedom. By sharing with needy nations not only our treasure and fruit, but the richness of our ideas, of the political and economic traditions that make us great, we can lend these nations an inimitable opportunity to build a society that flourishes.