Conflicting Interests

by George Packer


American foreign aid has always been an awkward exercise in high-minded self-interest—humanitarian goals balanced uneasily with strategic calculations. Whenever these two come into conflict, Presidents inevitably find a way out of their loftier commitments. In 1947, when Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a huge reconstruction package for postwar Europe, initiating the modern era of foreign assistance, he told his audience at Harvard’s commencement, “Our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” But, when the Marshall Plan was enacted, the Times headline was forthright about its anti-Soviet purpose: “AID BILL IS SIGNED BY TRUMAN AS REPLY TO FOES OF LIBERTY.” The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which President Kennedy signed at the height of the Cold War, created the Agency for International Development and placed restrictions on foreign military funding. In 1974, Congress amended the act, and required the United States to reduce or end military aid to regimes with poor human-rights records, “except in extraordinary circumstances.”

In the interests of national security, such provisions have been flouted by Presidents ever since their enactment. After a military coup overthrew an elected government in Chile in 1973, with the connivance of the C.I.A., President Nixon continued assistance to the Pinochet regime. Even Jimmy Carter, who tried to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy, granted himself “extraordinary circumstances” waivers so that aid could continue flowing to sordid but strategically important regimes in Iran, Zaire, and other countries. In 1986, Congress imposed a painful contortion on future Presidents with an appropriations bill that stated unequivocally that none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” But after 9/11 President Bush found a way to resume assistance to Pakistan, even though its President, Pervez Musharraf, had taken power by overthrowing an elected government. And, when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak cracked down on pro-democracy activists in 2006, the Bush “freedom agenda” was quietly revised to keep the pipeline of aid open to a key Middle Eastern ally. Read more…

As published in www.newyorker.com on July 22, 2013.


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