Is there an ‘acceptable’ kind of U.S. intervention?

A recent reader’s comment asked if there is a kind of U.S. intervention that is appropriate. I take this to mean: “Is there a kind of U.S. intervention abroad that will help the United States and the people we are seeking to help?” The writer suggested a facility like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to broadcast our “ideas” to oppressed peoples. I think RFE/RL and the Voice of America are useful tools for telling foreigners about America, how it works, and its problems and successes, but they should not be used to encourage others to rebel against oppressive governments.

The latter activity has been engaged in by some media organizations and it has always struck me as the height of cruelty. This practice amounts to nice, safe Westerners urging young, restive foreigners to take to the streets against tyrannies only to find themselves faced by machine guns and tanks with no chance of help from their Western exhorters. Many media organizations and the users of Facebook and Twitter engaged in this type of despicable behavior after Iran’s last presidential election, and, even today, the BBC World Service seems to be hoping for violence by Ivory Coast voters who think their candidate lost in a recent, rigged presidential election.

Let me address several other points on this issue. The United States, since its founding, has been exactly the right sort of interventionist vehicle so long as it did not go adventuring abroad. Indeed, the Founders created a nation meant to be an example for the world of the positive social, individual, and economic impact of a constitutional order featuring individual freedoms, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law. The Founders’ nation was far from perfect in terms of fully installing these features, and we certainly have not completed their work. But as a nearly 235-year-old work in progress we have done pretty well, and our very existence and success stands as a positive exemplar to the rest of the world, especially to the oppressed parts of it. (Needless to say, it is also a constant irritation, if not a provocation to oppressors.) Our example is the positive form of intervention the Founders intended for America. The idea of imposing our example on foreigners struck them — as it should us — as the road to overseas commitments and wars that will ultimately have a negative and perhaps disastrous impact on liberty here at home.

In terms of humanitarian intervention, I believe there is a role for America’s public and private sectors to play, but only if the effort is directed at the poorest of the poor and is not used to try to make the recipients into Westerners. Afghans, for example, need means for producing more potable water, not democracy; Bangladeshis need inoculations for an array of diseases, not women’s rights; and any number of Africans need flour and other foodstuffs, not lessons in secularism. And each of the above need tools for education — from blackboards and chalk to basic computers — not Westernized lesson plans meant to inculcate secularism.

Washington’s role should focus on foodstuffs, preventative medicines, basic agricultural machinery, and tools and technology pertinent to communications, farming, and education. This sort of basic foreign aid would be most useful to the world’s poor, and would create a positive impression of America’s interest and generosity as long as it is not delivered together with proselytizing sermons on the glories of democracy, secularism, and abortion. To achieve this goal, aid would have to delivered by U.S. citizens — or officials? — under the leadership and binding guidance of local leaders, be they tribal chiefs, mullahs, elected officials, or witch doctors. The thoroughly corrupt UN; NGOs panting to Westernize and secularize; and convert-seeking religious institutions should not have a role in delivering U.S. aid. Washington’s aim must be to improve the lot of the poor in agriculture, education, and medicine, and must not be conducted in the traditional, alienating interventionist style meant to remake poor foreigners in our image.

(I hasten to add I would oppose any U.S. taxpayer money being spent on foreign aid until needy Americans are helped. As more jobs are the key to resolving so many problems for poor Americans, I would say no taxes should be spent on foreign aid until the national unemployment rate is in the 4-to-5-percent range or below for 12 consecutive months.)

The U.S. private sector clearly has the ability to play a great role in aiding the foreign poor. Excess wealth in parts of the private sector is enormous and could be used to aid the poor — at home and abroad. Again, private-sector aid should benefit poor Americans first, but once that goal is met the money could be shifted abroad and delivered via the same mechanisms that deliver public-sector aid.

Currently, too much private-sector foreign aid is delivered by organizations dedicated to secularizing, women’s-rights-izing, and democratizing foreigners, and their hectoring approach to the foreign poor negates much of what otherwise would be the positive impact of American aid. For those who doubt this reality, note the negative impact on Afghan attitudes of the bar-brothel-and-libertine culture the UN and Western NGOs have brought to Kabul.

One other American “sector” may have a role to play in foreign aid and that is the religious sector. America’s churches, synagogues, and mosques are — so scripture has it — engines for helping the poor. But when traveling around America these days it seems that many religious leaders have forgotten the poor — domestic and foreign — and instead are working to: build mammoth facilities for worship; create propagandizing television networks, radio stations, and websites; and elect candidates who will pander to them. Even my own little parish in northern Virginia devoted unconscionable sums of money to buying fancy new pews, building a new altar with imported Italian marble, and cultivating gardens on church grounds, rather than sending the funds to the orphanage for children of AIDS victims the parish sponsors in East Africa.

Perhaps the focus of America’s religions will turn back to the poor here and overseas. I doubt it, but there is danger even if they do. All major religions proselytize, and all missionaries — unless working in a country dominated by their faith — are agents of alienation and violence. That each religion has the legal right and, in its eyes, a divinely assigned duty to seek converts is undeniable. But when America’s religions go abroad to proselytize in places where other major religions dominate, they should be entirely on their own, with no ties to the U.S. public sector, and no expectation that any U.S. entity is going to ride to their rescue when they get in a jam for seeking converts.

The foregoing outlines what I think the U.S. role in foreign aid ought to be. We should try to help the poor who need help without trying to change their culture or faith. If we cannot supply aid in a no-strings manner, we should not supply it all, because delivering aid with demands for cultural/religious change attached only earns hatred for America. And we must never intervene to impose democracy and women’s/human rights, or to secularize non-secular societies, draw new borders, stop civil wars, or remove leaders we find odious but who pose no threat to us. These actions — like foreign aid with tight strings attached — can only lead to unnecessary wars and so to unnecessary threats to liberty in America.