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July 19, 2006

Is Anyone Still Listening to the Flaming Bush?

The return of humility

by Leon Hadar

Please name the U.S. presidential candidate who made the following point during the 2000 race for the White House: "I think that one of the problems that we have faced in the world is that we are so much more powerful than any single nation has been in relationship to the rest of the world than at any time in history, that I know about anyway, that there is some resentment of U.S. power. So I think that the idea of humility is an important one."

Yep, that was Texas governor George W Bush commenting on the U.S. approach to global affairs during a televised debate on Oct. 11, 2000, with Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore, who was promoting a more activist role for the United States around the world, including sending American troops to engage in nation-building operations in Haiti.

"You mentioned Haiti," Bush responded. "I wouldn't have sent troops to Haiti. I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building mission. And it was not very successful. It cost us a couple billions of dollars, and I'm not sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before." (Admit it: Don't you now feel this urge to replace "Haiti" with "Iraq"?) And please read carefully the wise, Realpolitik-style advice that the same Bush made in the same televised debate, resisting the appeal by Gore for an energetic global U.S. interventionist policy of changing regimes and spreading democracy.

"I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be. We can help," Bush declared. "And maybe it's just our difference in government, the way we view government. I mean, I want to empower people. I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do. I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you."

To suggest that President George W. Bush has not been practicing what presidential candidate George W. Bush was preaching once upon a time would be the understatement of this century.

Indeed, President Bush's grandiose and expansive vision of America's mission in the world – "support[ing] the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" – promoted in his second inaugural address and again in his State of the Union address this year, would have made even president Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to make the world "safe for democracy," sound like a flaming isolationist.

But as more Americans are concluding that President Bush's crusade of nation-building and democracy-promotion has been failing, candidate Bush's plea for U.S. "humility" in world affairs is gaining more popularity among policy analysts in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

The latest indication that, as former CIA official Graham Fuller has suggested in The National Interest magazine, a sense of "superpower fatigue" has been spreading in the U.S. capital is the "buzz" ignited by a new book critiquing America's (and the West's) tragic hubris of trying to reshape the rest of the world in its image.

In The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), William Easterly places Bush's appeal for excessive U.S. (and Western) interventionism in the Rest (the term Easterly uses to describe the non-Western parts of the world) in a larger policy context.

Easterly, a former economist with the World Bank, where he spent 16 years, is a self-described "noninterventionist" who is very skeptical of the notion that The Planner – whether it's a World Bank official or the head of a U.S. foreign aid agency, a British imperialist (in, say, Iraq) or American nation-builder (in, say, Iraq) – can impose grand Western political and economic schemes and various forms of utopian social engineering on the Rest.

Much of Easterly's critique targets the U.S.-led foreign aid industry, which after 50 years and more than $2.3 trillion in aid spent in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the Rest, has shockingly little to show for it.

This huge amount of foreign aid "had not managed to get 12 cent-medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths," writes Easterly, who teaches economics at New York University. Utilizing his field experience with the World Bank, Easterly demonstrates with both statistics and anecdotes the failure of foreign aid organizations to fulfill their stated missions of eradicating poverty and building nations in the Rest.

As he sees it, the fault lies with The Planners who control these gigantic bureaucracies but lack accountability, incentives for improved performance, and methods for receiving feedback from the people they are supposed to help.

Easterly would like to see The Planners be replaced by what he calls The Searchers, that is, social entrepreneurs who are less concerned with inspiring mission statements and grand designs and who would apply a bottom-up approach in their dealing with the poor Rest and use innovative solutions as they adjust to the needs of the people they need to assist.

"All the hoopla about having the right plan is itself a symptom of the misdirected approach to foreign aid taken by so many in the past and so many still today," Easterly argues. "The right plan is to have no plan."

Indeed, from Easterly's perspective, the free market, not the centralized government, provides the most effective solutions to meeting the needs of people in the West – and in the Rest. But he cautions Americans and Westerners to recognize that the market requires certain norms and institutions that may not exist in many parts of the Rest.

Hence policymakers in the White House and the World Bank should recognize that many regions of the world are not yet ready to operate according to utopian free-market solutions (witness the disastrous attempt to force "shock therapy" on the former Soviet Union).

"Markets everywhere emerge in an unplanned, spontaneous way, adapting to local traditions and circumstances, and not through reforms designed by outsiders," Easterly writes.

"The free market depends on the bottom-up emergence of complex institutions and social norms that are difficult for outsiders to understand, much less change," he concludes. Hence the need for The Searchers to recognize the limits under which they are operating in the Rest, and in particular the reality in which ethnic, tribal, and clan loyalties impact on the way individuals make their political and economic decisions.

Notwithstanding all their good intentions and big ideas, outsiders cannot transplant Western institutions onto foreign soil and ensure that they take root there. Instead, the Searchers should learn to accept the reality in the Rest as it is and not as it should be according to some utopian vision, and try to advance small, piecemeal solutions that take place at the grassroots levels.

American and Western policymakers should certainly refrain from using their available resources to subsidize corrupt and bankrupt governments in the Rest and admit that in many cases, channeling more economic assistance to this or that regime will only help perpetuate a destructive political and economic status quo and produce even more misery for most of the people in the country targeted for aid.

After all, as Easterly points out in The White Man's Burden, some of the success in the Rest, like Singapore and Hong Kong, or for that matter China and India, had little to do with foreign aid and more with the ability of these economies to marshal their human resources in the most effective way through workable solutions that reflect their unique experiences.

Taking into consideration the spectacular failures that resulted from foreign intervention in the Rest, Easterly is astounded that US policymakers and their cheerleaders in the media and the think tanks are advancing a strategy based on the use of military power as part of an effort to impose the American solution in the Middle East and elsewhere.

"Military intervention and occupation show a classic Planner's mentality: applying a simplistic external answer from the West to a complex internal problem in the Rest," Easterly writes, as he surveys the history of imperialism, colonialism, and Cold War intervention in the Rest and warns that the West, and in particular, Washington, "should learn from its colonial history when it indulges neo-imperialist fantasies," concluding that "they didn't work before and they won't work now."

Interestingly enough, two books that were creating some "buzz" in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President's Bush role of the The Planner of nation-building in Iraq was being celebrated, were Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Price of America's Empire and Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.

That Easterly's The White Man's Burden, is creating a similar "buzz" now is a sign that presidential candidate Bush's suggestion that Americans should play the role of The Searcher, that "I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do" and that "I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you" are becoming more popular.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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