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Bush's Bono Act

By Nat Parry
March 20, 2002

With a different politician, they might be called flip-flops. But George W. Bush doesn’t get treated like other politicians, so almost no one criticizes his reversals on “nation-building” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, on the need for an active U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or on the value of increasing U.S. financial aid to poor countries.

These shifts by other politicians might be characterized in another way, as tacit admissions of failure or misjudgments. But Bush gets praised for a belated recognition of a problem, even though he used his opposition to the very positions he's now taking to beat up on fuzzy-headed thinking by political rivals Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

For example, Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times column on Bush’s grudging decision to promise a $5 billion increase in foreign aid over three years, starting in 2004, was entitled “Better Late Than…” – with an unwritten “never.” The article’s subhead read: “A welcome about-face from Bush.”

“The most obvious conclusion from Sept. 11 – that fighting terrorism around the globe will require a new, multidimensional strategy, not just a defense strategy – was the one Mr. Bush seemed least inclined to draw, and that’s why his speech (announcing the aid increase) should be welcomed,” Friedman wrote. [NYT, March 17, 2002]

Still, if Bush is sincere in his recognition that easing world poverty is an urgent priority, there is the lingering question of why the aid increase is not part of the current budget debate for fiscal 2003, which starts Oct. 1. And why is the $5 billion spread over three years, starting in 2004? Is that to make the total seem more impressive than a straightforward call for some number between $1 billion and $2 billion a year?

Some critics noted that Bush's proposal for an immediate $48 billion hike in military spending dwarfs the down-the-road foreign aid increase. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros called Bush’s proposal “totally inadequate as far as the amounts involved – a token gesture instead of something that could successfully impact most of the poor countries. This is unfortunately not receiving the kind of priority that other things are receiving in the government.” [NYT, March 15, 2002]

Bono's Blessings

A less charitable take on Bush’s modest foreign aid proposal is that it was the minimum price for a meeting with U2’s Bono, an advocate of Third World debt relief. Bono, whose popularity soared with his performance during half time of Super Bowl XXXVI, posed for pictures with Bush at the White House on March 14, the day Bush announced his promised $5 billion increase for the world's poor.

“As you can see, I’m traveling in some pretty good company today – Bono,” said Bush, as he gestured to the singer. [NYT, March 15, 2002] The Washington Post noted that “the White House clearly craved” Bono’s support. [March 15, 2002]

The modest new promise for a few billion dollars sometime beyond the current budget cycles also may soften international criticism of Bush’s emphasis on a military response to world terrorism and a previous disinterest in the root causes of violence.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn and other world leaders have argued that to combat terrorism, global poverty and other international problems must be addressed.  “We will not create a safer world with bombs or brigades alone,” Wolfensohn said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Poverty “can provide a breeding ground for the ideas and actions of those who promote conflict and terror.”

Therefore, the World Bank president said, “If we want to build long-term peace, if we want stability for our economies, if we want growth opportunities in the years ahead, if we want to build that better and safer world, fighting poverty must be part of national and international security.” []

For months, the Bush administration resisted the World Bank's calls to increase funding for aid to the world’s poorest nations. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill insists that foreign aid hasn’t been effective enough to justify a major increase, and so the U.S. has blocked efforts by Great Britain and other countries to raise the level of aid going from international development organizations to poor nations.

The U.S. is resisting the foreign aid hike despite the fact that the U.S. contributes the least amount as a percentage of gross domestic product of any nation in the industrialized world, giving only 0.1% of its GDP, far short of the 0.7% that the United Nations has set for the minimal target of industrialized countries, and far behind Denmark, which leads the industrialized world with its contributions of 1.1% of its GDP.

Front Burner

While leaving foreign aid on the back burner since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration has put military aid on the front burner.

Money, weapons and U.S. military advisers are to go to Indonesia, Nepal, Jordan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, a senior official at the Defense Department said. The administration has sought a 27% funding increase to bolster militaries in other countries. Bush has said U.S. military troops also are headed for the former Soviet state of Georgia and Yemen.

Opting for a predominantly military solution to terrorist threats, the United States is going against the advice of most developed nations, which would like to see a more comprehensive approach taken to the threat to international security posed by extremism. At the recent winter meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly – which brings together parliamentarians from 55 nations, including the U.S. – many representatives called for more international cooperation in fighting terrorism and ensuring that human rights are respected.

Yet, the Bush administration has shown little interest in the correlation between political repression and militant extremism. Many human rights advocates argue that the repression inflicted by some U.S. allies does more to fuel extremism, rather than contain it.

This is particularly true in some of the Central Asian states, where religious Muslims are fully disenfranchised, imprisoned for wearing long beards and tortured. In countries like Uzbekistan, where legitimate political activity is not tolerated by the state, political groups are forced to go underground. They see violence as the only way to challenge the government.

The United States officially recognizes that serious human rights problems exist in Uzbekistan and other U.S. allies in the “war on terrorism.” In the State Department's new annual report on human rights, the U.S. detailed major human rights abuses in many of the countries that are now slated for increased military aid. The State Department also recognized that the repression in these countries sometimes leads to further extremism.

Regarding Uzbekistan, the U.S. criticized it as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” where “citizens cannot exercise the right to change their government peacefully” and “the government does not permit the existence of opposition parties.” The State Department also conceded “security forces committed a number of killings of prisoners in custody.”

Human Rights Letter

In a recent letter to Bush, Human Rights Watch said, “In terms of human rights, Uzbekistan is barely distinguishable from its Soviet past, and [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov has shown himself to be an unreconstructed Soviet leader. You have to wonder whether this kind of record makes for a trusted ally or a foreign policy burden.”

Human rights groups praised the State Department's candor in its annual report, but argued that the document is not a substitute for a comprehensive foreign policy. Amnesty International said it “does not believe that the U.S. acts on a fraction of the serious violations of fundamental rights that this report documents in detail.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell responded that the U.S. “will not relax our commitment to advancing the cause of democracy, for a world in which men and women of every continent, culture and creed, of every race, religion and region, can exercise their fundamental freedoms in a world in which terrorism cannot thrive.”

But Amnesty International pointed to recent history in arguing that dialogue with human rights abusers does not necessarily lead to improvements in the human rights situation. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, there is still a lack of democracy amid arbitrary arrests and detentions, with allegations of torture committed by security forces.

Indonesia is another example of the U.S. failing to produce any improvement in the human rights record of a government. While Indonesia has received substantial military aid from the U.S. for decades, the State Department concedes that extra-judicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention continue, while the military has nearly total impunity in its actions. Human Rights Watch argues that increasing aid to Indonesia, as the U.S. is proposing, would “effectively reward the security forces for bad behavior.”

Israel is further evidence that U.S. military aid does not go hand in hand with respect for human rights. Although Israel has long been the No. 1 recipient of American military assistance in the world, the State Department admits that “Israel’s overall human-rights record in the occupied territories was poor.” Israel continues to receive massive military aid, despite the fact that, “Israeli security forces committed numerous, serious human-rights abuses during the year.”

More Repression?

In Bush's war on terrorism, human rights groups worry that more U.S. aid will lead to more government repression, which may, in turn, lead to more extremism on the part of the persecuted.

The authoritative NGO International Crisis Group pointed to this more complex reality in a recent briefing paper on the Central Asian Islamic extremist groups Hizb-ut Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which are considered key threats to security in Central Asia.

The IMU suffered heavy losses during the American war in Afghanistan, including – most likely – its leader being killed. But the two groups still have considerable sympathy among the disenfranchised Muslims of the region. Hizb-ut Tahrir, in particular, is expected to draw more recruits, though the group is operating with more secrecy in the post-Sept. 11 climate. The International Crisis Group expects support for the fundamentalist group to grow if dissatisfaction with the present political and economic order increases.

The crisis group maintains that much of the support for Hizb-ut Tahrir has more to do with the widely held disappointments of the post-Soviet era, regarding economic and political development, than with deeply held beliefs in radical Islamic ideology. “Given the lack of avenues for legitimate civic expression or securing political change through democratic means,” the group writes, “it is no surprise that many people turn to a political/religious movement that argues the current system is badly broken.”

In this light, Washington might better serve its anti-terrorist goals by adopting a more sophisticated strategy that works to build democratic institutions in Central Asia and elsewhere, rather than relying on military force.  Giving the world's poor a bigger piece of the economic pie also could undermine extremists who find young militants easier to recruit when they are surrounded by poverty, injustice and hopelessness.

In his March 14 speech to the Inter-American Development Bank, Bush acted as if this was his new discovery. "Poverty doesn't cause terrorism," Bush said, as Bono listened on stage. "Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terrorism."

For Bush, this recognition of the link between terrorism and political desperation might have seemed like a burst of enlightenment compared to his previous rhetoric about mounting a "crusade" to root out "evil-doers." But it is still not clear whether Bush's actions will match his words – or whether his new-found commitment to fighting world poverty was mostly a political show for Bono.

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