I’ve blogged before about my skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid, especially to conflict-ridden countries: sending money often breeds conflict over who gets it, and parties to the conflict can use the money to fight harder. And in my last post, I questioned whether post-conflict reconstruction is a good strategy for building friendships, because the local politics of infrastructure investment are complex, fraught with over-promising and under-performance, and impossible for foreigners to understand and manipulate.
So one might infer that I would be pleased to hear that Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) has placed a hold on the bill that would give $236 million in aid to Lebanon (for the story from Beirut, see the Daily Star; for the counterpart story from Jerusalem, see the Jerusalem Post). But there are big problems with what Lantos has done. M. J. Rosenberg at the TPM Cafe says he’s “speechless” in response, but I have a few comments to offer.
First, at the same time Lantos blocked the aid to Lebanon, he also promised to introduce a bill to bump up U.S. aid to Israel. His comments suggested that other countries were giving aid to Lebanon and that the U.S. should make sure that Israel gets reconstruction help, too. While Israel indeed suffered during the war, and someone is going to have to pay for rebuilding there, too, Lantos’ statement comparing destruction was surely inflammatory. It won’t take many people long to compare the scale of damage and the indigenous resources available to repair the damage from the war, and Israel comes off looking as if it doesn’t need aid nearly as badly as Lebanon. And besides, the U.S. sends vast sums to Israel every year; we should not be in the business of comparing aid, dollar-for-dollar, to Israel and Lebanon. All Lantos’ aid promise does is once again signal to the whole world how deeply Israel has the U.S. in its pocket (or would a better line be that Israel is reaching into our pocket to get our money?).
Israel is our ally, Hezbollah escalated their conflict with Israel first, and the U.S. rightly treats Hezbollah, a terrorist group, differently from how we treat recognized nation-states like Israel. But now is not a good time to remind the world how far from “fair and balanced” American policy really is.
Second, the short-term effect of Lantos’ hold is to give another political victory to Hezbollah: Hezbollah immediately issued a statement — a quite believable one — that they wouldn’t have accepted American aid anyway. We’re playing into their agenda again. If we’re in the aid game, we should be making sure that the Lebanese government has some resources independent of the Hezbollah-Iran nexus.
Third, Lantos’ argument that his hold on the aid will give the U.S. leverage in Lebanon is wrong. He claims that he will release the aid when the Lebanese agree to let international peacekeepers patrol the Lebanese-Syrian border, thereby denying Hezbollah a resupply route for their weaponry. So Lantos thinks that he’s giving Lebanon an incentive to do what we want them to. And his goal is even a good one: preventing Hezbollah from rearming is a legitimate goal of American policy towards Lebanon. However, aid conditionality is a remarkably ineffective means to achieve such “high politics” ends — much as economic sanctions tend to be ineffective.
Especially when only $236 million is at stake. Lebanon has billions of dollars in damage to repair, and they are receiving large sums of money from other sources. Our $236 million is not “make-or-break” for their reconstruction plan. Denying the money will certainly hurt the U.S. symbolically, but Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora is not going to take on a major domestic political battle for $236 million of money from a “tainted” source.
The most important point, though, is not about Lebanon at all. It is about the American political process. We need an open debate about the appropriate role for the United States in the Middle East broadly and specifically in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. Representative Lantos’ unilateral action violates all sorts of normal principles of American government: the executive branch has a certain leadership role in foreign policy, although of course the Congress (and especially the House) have an important role, too, when it comes to spending money. But the House operates through debates and voting.
If Lantos wants to stop aid to Lebanon, he should convince a majority of the House by the weight of his arguments. The American Congress has a strong enough pro-Israel leaning that his arguments might even carry the day. But I would like my Congressional representative to have a say in the process — along with the executive branch’s public statements in support of their position. I didn’t vote for Representative Lantos — I never even had the chance to, since I don’t live in his district — and I don’t trust him (or anyone else) to make unilateral decisions about American foreign policy.
The United States has an open policy process, because that process most of the time leads to the best decisions. That process can get nasty and partisan, but even when it does, at least we’re using the process. I hope that Representative Lantos will let the Lebanon aid bill come up for discussion and a vote.
In the end, I probably hope that both the aid for Lebanon and the aid for Israel will be defeated. But I’m not holding my breath for that outcome.
One last thing — an additional reference on my post last week about how hard post-conflict reconstruction can be. The New Yorker has run a great series of articles about post-Katrina rebuilding over the past year. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the hurricane, and many people are lamenting the lack of progress fixing New Orleans. Dan Baum’s article in the current New Yorker, though, is exceptionally good, and it makes clear a lot of the problems with buck-passing, distrust, and finger-pointing that make infrastructure projects next-to-impossible.
I don’t really have a sense for how the damage in Lebanon compares to the damage in New Orleans. Katrina affected a wider area, and it was less selective than the Israeli bombs in what it hit. But Lebanon, like New Orleans, is an ethnically (religiously) mixed area with long-seething resentments about bad public investment decisions, a long history of ineffectual government, and an atmosphere ripe for political grandstanding rather than real public policy decision-making. Reconstruction advocates should learn from the difficulties that we face in the U.S., and American policy-makers should, with humility about their likely effectiveness, focus their attention on fixing the big problems that we face here at home.