Our Best Intentions

When the Egyptian military seized power in June, American pundits instantly rushed to preach about democracy. This took some hubris, considering that two recent American elections—2000 and 2004—are still considered by many to be of questionable legality and that redistricting is rapidly ensuring the minority status of Democratic strongholds throughout the south. Is the United States even in a position to preach democracy—especially since, as with national elections, so too with foreign policy: democracy is subject to money and how it is spent.

This is the hard-headed reality behind the new book by David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer prize-winner and former Taliban captive, which focuses on how the U.S. government spends money abroad, specifically in the Middle East. It is an argument for small-scale economic aid rather than large-scale military aid and as such is immensely welcome in principle. The question is how to do it in practice. As Rohde writes, “Washington’s archaic foreign policy apparatus” and its weakened civilian agencies mean that “in the decades since the end of the Cold War, the ability of the White House, State Department, and Congress to devise and carry out sophisticated political and development efforts overseas has withered.”

Whether Rohde is aware of it or not, the problem might be encapsulated in the subtitle of his own book, which assumes not only the existence of American influence, but also its necessity. Many of his sources are well-informed and palpably frustrated employees of the United States Agency for International Development who are basically in conflict with both the State Department and Congress. Yet the stated goals of U.S.A.I.D. are clear: they include providing “economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the U.S.

For all the talk about the need for humanitarian aid and intervention (most recently in Syria), the reality is purely political. What is presented as humanitarian aid is always a matter of foreign policy. And American foreign policy is still intensely focused on George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.”

The principle is that U.S. aid should act as a stabilizing force against militant Islamic extremism. But the very idea of the United States as a stabilizing force has been thoroughly undermined by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the best-considered foreign aid has now been rendered suspect in many parts of the Middle East, especially when there is “a widespread perception of the American government as a finely tuned, nefarious machine, not an unwieldy cacophony of viewpoints,” and when authoritarian control fosters an intense rumor mill, with conspiracy theories rampant (most recently, for instance, Malala Yousafzai as a C.I.A. plant, or American-backed Zionists as the instigators of the new regime in Egypt). In Egypt in particular, Rohde notes, “Washington faces an extraordinary public-policy conundrum. Decades of support for Mubarak will not be forgotten overnight.”

Rohde details the conundrum country by country in a series of chapters, some intensively well reported (particularly on civilian contractors’ takeover of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and on the use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan), others (on Turkey, Libya and Tunisia) more perfunctory by comparison. But in the light of the military coup in June, the chapter on American dollars-for-peace financing and the Egyptian army’s vast business empire is particularly fascinating and uncomfortably prescient.

Oddly, though, there is no chapter on Israel, the largest recipient of American aid. This seems to me tantamount to ignoring the elephant in the room, since the intense investment in an Israel that seems willing only to prolong and intensify the conflict with Palestine undermines U.S. efforts elsewhere in the region. A pretty strong argument could be made, in fact, that U.S. support of Israel, driven by domestic electoral politics, runs directly counter to its own foreign policy interests. Inevitably, the United States is perceived elsewhere in the Middle East as at least tolerating if not encouraging Israel’s land grab in the Palestinian territories; if its funds do not literally finance the expansionist project, they certainly free up funds that do.

Even assuming the best American intentions, then, they are all too often interpreted as the worst. But what exactly are those best intentions?

At root, this book is about America’s perception of itself. Are we the world’s greatest do-gooders, distributing our largesse (and our arms) where most urgently needed? Or are we acting to secure a blinkered and out-dated conception of our own interests?

Either way, as Rohde wrote in a New York Times op-ed article in May, “We should stop thinking we can transform societies overnight.... Nations must transform themselves. We should scale back our ambitions and concentrate on long-term economics.” His economic recommendations are accordingly small scale (sometimes to the level of pathos, as in his enthusiasm for an Egyptian version of “The Apprentice”). Yet his emphasis on entrepreneurship may actually undercut his argument that trying to force Western models on other countries will backfire. And this is the argument that matters.

Like Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, says Rohde, American officials need to listen rather than try to muscle their way in, whether economically or militarily. “The U.S. needs to hold its nerve as Egypt finds its way,” he writes—not the American way, but its own way. A little respect, that is. Preach less, listen more. That may not be much of a “reimagining,” but it’s the really important message of this book.

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