Finally, A Not-So-Bad Bush Doctrine: Poverty Breeds Terrorism

Finally, A Not-So-Bad Bush Doctrine: Poverty Breeds Terrorism

Finally, A Not-So-Bad Bush Doctrine: Poverty Breeds Terrorism

President George W. Bush has joined the root-causes-of-terrorism crowd.

It seems this stunning development has escaped the attention of the conserv…


President George W. Bush has joined the root-causes-of-terrorism crowd.

It seems this stunning development has escaped the attention of the conservatives and non-cons who have decried the commentators and analysts who dare assert terrorists are assisted by unwise U.S. foreign and economic policies. If one raises the possibility terrorists find support in other lands partly due to antipathy toward American actions (and not only so-called American values), conservatives are lightning-fast to label such talk the muddled-headed thinking of a self-hating, blame-America-firster. If one speaks of the dire economic and political conditions in which many people overseas are forced to live, such sentiment is blasted as evidence one is soft on terrorism and a coddler of evildoers. Yet when Bush spoke at a recent U.N. conference on international development, he explicitly recognized a direct link between poverty and terrorism and he implicitly suggested that the U.S. policies have not sufficiently addressed this matter.

At the confab in Monterrey, Mexico, Bush said the United States would gradually increase its assistance to poor nations by 50 percent–which would mean in several years a $5 billion boost over current levels. “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror,” he declared.

With that sentence, Bush seemingly recognized that terrorism is not irrational behavior unattached from the surroundings in which it arises. And he was acknowledging that “draining the swamp” for terrorists–as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls the military action in Afghanistan–requires more than armed force. Bush was saying the United States and the other wealthy nations must counter conditions that can cause people to turn to terrorism or to cheer on terrorists.

Such a statement carries serious implications. It does not excuse or justify terrorism. But it does expand the obligations of those who bear the responsibility for protecting the United States from acts of terrorism. If “hope” is indeed one “answer to terror,” then the leaders of the United States must work to expand hope in faraway lands–not an easy or cheap mission. Bush has just assumed a greater burden, one that extends beyond trouncing al Qaeda.

Bush’s Monterrey speech received less media attention than his troublesome encounter with a pretzel. But it deserves notice as a marker, an IOU (or we-owe-you). There are, no surprise, signs that he may not make good on this. The United States will place conditions on the money, meaning that recipient nations must pass certain tests to qualify for help. The new standards might be legitimate. For example, the United States could require assurances that the money will not be skimmed by corrupt bureaucrats. But these standards could also follow in the tradition of coercive Western demands that impoverished nations privatize and engage in structural adjustments that cause economic dislocation. Secretary Paul O’Neill has been ordered by Bush to help draw up the rules, and he has long been skeptical of international aid.

The manner in which Bush announced the increase in international assistance also offers reason to question the administration’s commitment. A week before heading to Monterrey, following a meeting with rock-star/advocate-for-the-global-poor Bono (of U2), Bush announced he was adding a total of $5 billion to the U.S. international assistance budget over three years, starting in 2004. This news came as other nations were preparing to whack the United States at the U.N. conference for being stingy. After all, the United States has been devoting about .11 percent of its gross domestic product to international aid, while the average of most donor nations is .31 percent.

Bush’s announcement undercut the criticism heading his way and earned him a cool photo-op with Bono. (The musician had to think long and hard about sharing his glow with Bush at this delicate time. Apparently, he decided that $5 billion in potential funds was enough help to the poor to warrant awarding Bush the Bono-seal-of-approval.) Then, days before Bush was to leave for Monterrey, the White House said there had been a slight mistake in the original announcement. Bush had not upped international aid by $5 billion. Actually, he had ordered a $10 billion hike. That no one in the Bush White House had previously caught this error seemed to indicate the program was not much of a concern within the senior ranks of the White House or a true priority for top officials there. Yet $10 billion in promises is better than $5 billion in promises. After the new numbers came out, the global development community had even less reason to lambaste the United States at the U.N. gathering.

Ten billion dollars–which Congress must approve–is hardly chump change. And it is hard to begrudge Bono for posing with Bush in return for that–assuming the attached strings don’t end up strangling prospective recipients. But as the Center for Global Development and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities note in a report, while “President Bush’s proposed increase for foreign economic aid would result in the sharpest increase in aid spending in decades,…the resulting level of spending on foreign economic aid would rise to only 0.13 percent of the economy or Gross Domestic Product in 2006, still below — and compared with most years, well below — the share of GDP the United States contributed in any year from 1946 to 1995. The United States would continue to contribute a far smaller portion of its economy to aid than nearly every other donor country.” As the study reports, “Even though European countries already contribute a much larger share of their economies to aid than the United States does, the European Union also recently pledged to increase aid levels significantly in its countries over the next few years.”

In the early 1960s, the United States donated over .5 percent of its GDP to poor nations. Since then, the figure has been on a steady decline. Bush has reversed this ugly trend. Yet it would take tens of billions more for the United States to match the current European level. And U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that in order for the U.N. to realize its goal of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty–1.1 billion individuals now–by 2015, the wealthy nations of the world will have to donate the equivalent of about .7 percent of their economies to international assistance. Bush’s foreign aid budget–better than President Clinton’s–will be less than one-fourth that level.

The new money will help, if the U.S. program is not suffocated by the to-be-drafted conditions. But the fellow who pushed through a tax cut that showers the wealthiest taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits should reach deeper into America’s pocket. (By the way, Bush is asking Congress to spend $27.1 billion next year on military and domestic security needs, in addition to the $40 billion in emergency spending approved late last year in response to 9/11.) Bush has endorsed the view that global poverty is a source of instability and a breeding ground for terrorism. He has indicated he believes the West has a responsibility to redress the deprivations of poorer nations. If attacking global poverty is an essential piece of the war on terrorism–as Bush now says–then in the months and years ahead he ought to be held accountable for how he commands on this crucial front.

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