Give More U.S. Aid...

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with Paul Nitze, one of the last living "Wise Men," the generation of policymakers that gave America its successful cold-war containment strategy. Nitze, white-bearded and frail, recalled a moment a half century before when he had difficulty in convincing George C. Marshall of the wisdom of the Marshall Plan. It was the spring of 1947, and the revered secretary of State and former World War II Army chief of staff was soon to give a speech at Harvard announcing the $13 billion aid program ($88 billion in today's dollars) to save Europe. Marshall has gone down in history as the plan's indefatigable champion, perhaps American foreign policy's finest hour. But in his talk with Nitze, then a State Department aide, the general was having his doubts. "It's just not the sort of thing we do," said Marshall.

No, the Marshall Plan wasn't the sort of thing America did. Until then. It was a brand-new solution to a brand-new problem. And it took a powerful brew of American imagination, willpower and geopolitical necessity. Historians and economists have debated the true economic efficacy of the Marshall Plan, but no one doubts that its payoff in good will was priceless. It created an enduring sense of gratitude and community that, even in these rocky times for the Euro-American relationship, helps to sustain it.

A similar challenge confronts us now--and once again this is no time to be dickering over the economic wisdom of overseas development aid. That critique has run amok in Washington for a decade or so, and it has done untold damage. Rather than offer a nuanced diagnosis of the problems of foreign aid, Sen. Jesse Helms and his posse of isolationists simply killed the patient. They chopped the foreign-aid budget to less than a cent on the federal dollar, or .1 percent of GDP, compared with the 1949 high of 3.21 percent, putting America dead last among 22 major nations. They practically bankrupted the United Nations; the gap between rich and poor nations widened. The result: the most powerful nation in world history is now seen as Shrek the Ogre. "We Americans believe we're helping the world get better. But the message hasn't gotten through," says Thomas Bruce of CLS & Associates, which advises corporations abroad.

Yes, we all know that foreign-aid programs usually don't work very well. Loads of money, ill used, often just breeds resentment--witness Russia's cantankerous relationship with the IMF. But that doesn't mean that such programs can't work. And if we've learned anything from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when even many non-Muslims around the world voiced a furtive satisfaction at what they saw as America's comeuppance, we have a lot of image-building to do.

That's especially true on the Arab street. During the last decade, when we were throwing billions in development aid at the former Soviet bloc, preaching democracy and open systems and prodding China on human rights, Washington gave a giant pass to the Arab regimes. We awarded $2 billion annually to Egypt to prop up its repressive regime, along with $3.5 billion of mostly military aid to Israel. Very little of this was aimed at development spending, women's and family issues (except to forbid abortion rights) and microcredit-type programs. We let Afghanistan descend into chaos and poverty after we were done with the Soviets; not even a mini-Marshall Plan was considered there. We casually betrayed our nation's founding ideals by letting Saddam Hussein stand, shrugging while the Shiites and the Kurds were slaughtered in U.S.- fomented rebellions, reinstalling the corrupt Kuwaiti royals with no demand but for oil contracts and coddling the equally corrupt Saudis.

Accepting this self-criticism does not, of course, condone the in-sane and evil assault of Sept. 11. Nor should we compare the challenge that the lone superpower faces now with the one that brought on the Marshall Plan. That was a strategy to refuel First World economies that needed only capital to recover. The task we face now is much harder: a fundamental reorienting of impoverished societies toward modernity. Yet the analogy should not be entirely dismissed. Back then we worried about war-torn Europe tipping toward communism; now we could be at a critical juncture in the struggle between secularism and Islamism.

It's no counterargument to say that Americans buy more Third World goods than anyone else; being the world's buyer of last re-sort does nothing to generate good will. On the contrary, it only deepens America's image as selfish and self-interested. Free markets are not a foreign policy; they are a practice. And the American way of war, and diplomacy, is one of excess and extravagance, not efficiency. We fought and won both World War II and the cold war with many a boondoggle. Such is the strength of our economy compared with the rest of the world that we can afford more boondoggles now if they will buy America some good will.