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neoconservative imperialismDear Sir or Madam,

Some very few of your Neo-Conservative colleagues may be deeper in love with Israel than with America. No doubt a much greater number including Christians and Jews, however naive, believe that the best interests of America and Israel are ever identical and that somehow the needs of these two states will never conflict. Whether or not that describes you, I’ll make the likely guess that you are a patriot ultimately prepared to put American interests first.

Since you identify yourself as a Neo-Conservative, I take another risk in presuming that you believe in traditional Judeo-Christian values and fear the unintended consequences of the welfare state, but think that some of the legitimate reasons for expanding the size, cost and power of American Government are to keep Americans safe, to vanquish her enemies wherever possible, and to spread American-inspired or even American-directed political systems across the world. If I missed the mark, you may stop reading now.

Plenty has already been written of the unintended consequences of government action, from socio-economics – such as New York City removing curb-stones to facilitate wheel-chair users that left the blind unable to find the curbs and be mowed down in traffic – to complaints of a counterproductive foreign policy that, say, props up dictators and drives suppressed moderates into the arms of extremists. So I won’t repeat the arguments.

What I will do is describe something that I see first-hand.

Governments pay private contractors to run development programs in poor countries, including Afghanistan where I have lived for some years. European and other non-US governments tend to hire small or medium-sized specialist firms, with an annual turnover of perhaps US$ 15 to 50 million, which take profits of around 20-25% on technical advisors excluding housing, security and airfares all billed at cost. Globally, an estimated 40% of civilian foreign-aid returns to the country of origin in terms of salaries for donor-nation nationals, company profits, etc. – which is nothing to be proud of.

For similar US developmental firms and their workers, on contracts with the US Government, the average return is closer to 80%. One US Government contract of which I am familiar starts with 25% corporate profit off the top of the total sum, then repatriates 60+ percent of the remainder in staff, home-office costs, etc. So, about 75-80% is gone before the first Afghan is hired, the first shovel is bought or the first ditch dug. This is intentional.

Item: in 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and one of his cabinet ministers asked the US Ambassador when America would help to build roads, which was one of Karzai’s first pledges because it showed visible progress: unlike reforming the internal workings of the bureaucracy it hires poor rural people otherwise tempted by paying jobs with the Taliban, and spurs economic growth. The US Ambassador said that US assistance would only hire American advisors and repatriate all of the funds to America: if they wanted roads, borrow the money. “So after fighting the Soviets for freedom, you want us to become debt-slaves to the US and the World Bank?” asked one of the Afghans. “That’s how it works,” sneered the ambassador and the two Afghan officials ended the meeting.

US foreign-aid is often an in-joke, allowing Government to make false promises and broadcast their pseudo-generosity while recycling the funds into corrupt practices.

The many civilian US Government foreign-aid agencies tend overwhelmingly to hire mammoth ‘Beltway Bandit’ specialist contracting firms with turnovers in the hundreds of millions or more, with overheads far higher than those of smaller firms. Government erects costly, complicated and time-consuming barriers to ensure that only the insider ‘Big Boys’ can bid for foreign-aid contracts and that lower-priced smaller firms and foreign firms are excluded. The ‘Big Boys’ hire ex- officials who retire early to work privately on lucrative contracts from their former employers.

I see no evidence that a single contracting firm promises a retirement job to a given official in return for him awarding them a contract, but in general the aging ex-aid-official hired by a Beltway Bandit contractor spends his last working years soliciting contracts from his former deputies still in government service. This is win-win for bureaucrats and greedy contractors but not for American taxpayers and aid recipients.

This is The System, and it means that American tax-payers get less for their foreign-aid dollar than a Swiss, an Australian, a Swede, a Frenchman, German or Briton. At least 40% less.

America has spent nearly $19 billion on ten years of non-military development in Afghanistan, and if all were contracted out in the manner that foreign countries do, perhaps 40% or $7.6 billion would have been saved. I cannot pretend to estimate US foreign assistance contracted out worldwide, nor identify corrupt practices and waste among the US defence, intelligence and security agencies, although news during the Iraq War reported contactors instructed to burn vehicles with flat tires so that their firms could make a commission by purchasing whole new vehicles for the Pentagon.

Of course fewer US soldiers died from enemy bullets in the Spanish-American War of 1898 than succumbed to the rotten food provided by crooked US Government contractors. But one need not be a Neo-Conservative to wonder for what kind of system today’s brave, uniformed, American youth serving in Afghanistan are risking their lives. Getting home alive with their limbs intact is profit enough for them.

Whether I am wrong by a little or a lot, we can draw three conclusions. First, American citizens are neither getting what they pay for, nor what their Government tells them that they are getting. The sums allegedly spent on feeding Bangladeshi widows, or helping entrepreneurs make jobs in Rwanda, or building a democratic movement in Egypt are illusory because so much of it is eaten by a self-serving US bureaucracy feather-bedding their future private-sector jobs or in political payola to domestic vested interests.

Secondly, this is corruption on a massive scale: not personal corruption as such, but institutionalised corruption perhaps no better than some 3rd World cannibal-emperor filling his Swiss bank account and gold-plating his bathroom fittings.

Thirdly, it makes America hated abroad. US foreign-aid is hampered by short-term, politically-inspired, headline-driven projects that do little to solve the problems of poor countries, but do much to politically advance the careers of officials on short foreign postings from six-months to one-year. US politicians and voters falsely assume that their money is spent effectively and rich contractors won’t talk and derail the gravy-train.

Furthermore, aid often fails because the selfsame officials scorn cooperation with 3rd World Governments who often know better what their countries need, chiefly because it would jeopardize the complex systems of American bureaucratic and contractor payola that affect their internal decisions.

Third-world leaders and their voters hear the triumphalism broadcast by American officials and see how little is delivered. Both educated and ordinary Afghans think that American foreign assistance is a lie and a trick, and they are partly correct. Foreign officials sell their silence for overseas junkets or as their only way to get toner-cartridges for the photocopier.

I disagree with any Neo-Conservative who thinks it worth suppressing democracy for 30 years by giving the majority of $2 billion per annum to Hosni Mubarak’s army and police, risking greater popular radicalism but ensuring that, only for a while, Egypt’s government remained obedient to American support for Israel. But so what? Even were that a prudent or desirable aim, can and should America afford such waste and institutional corruption? Moreover, what kind of anti-Americanism, cynicism and disrespect does it evince even among the temporarily-bribed 3rd World officials at the receiving-end, much less their impoverished people? American politico-bureaucratic blandishments fool Americans, but not the betrayed recipients.

Item: a US agency recently sent to an Afghan ministry an American ‘technical advisor’ with a completely unsuitable technical background, either because he was their only bureaucrat willing to work in Kabul or for reasons of political favouritism plus the higher salary and quicker promotion that such a post provides. Afghans complained, but typically their objection was ignored. When the advisor arrived, was interviewed and was asked had he worked before in a ‘developing country,’ he proudly declared that he had spent three years…in Switzerland! Even the US Embassy officials sniggered and he was sent home at US taxpayer expense.

This sort of waste is driven by America’s persistent refusal to cooperate with host governments and thereby learn what they need, and a US bureaucratic desire to ignore quality, spend it all and spend it fast. Malfeasance, misspending and costly, often-intentional, foot-dragging delays all jack up budgets and help to finance The System, but what was America’s message to Afghan allies at that meeting?

Yuri Andropov addressed the USSR’s institutionalised corruption in a manner surprisingly naive for a Soviet Premier who formerly headed the KGB. Everyone would become a better Soviet, he declared, and use every paperclip at least twice. Think that might work? Is the Neo-Conservative answer to keep blindly funding the corrupt aid (and probably worse defence) systems while hoping, like Andropov, to reform from within? Or might it be in America’s best interest to withdraw, even temporarily, until taxpayers can get a better approximation of value, until America stops alienating the recipients of its largesse, and until American money is not spent so counter-productively?

This is not to imply that all US foreign-aid is wasted: some USAID-funded projects, for example, are costly but quite effective despite the institutional constraints. But a system so prodigal; so rich in malign financial and administrative incentives; hamstrings even the most dedicated American public servants and renders many others utterly counterproductive.

From Nepal to Afghanistan, India and Africa, I have listened to indigenous development experts and honest host-government officials wonder if they would be better off tackling their problems with their own scarce funds and those of small, efficient and cooperative donors, while kicking out the Americans and equally uncooperative mega-institutions such as the World Bank, plus several big UN agencies that compete for foreign-aid money while siphoning it away from the poor to fund their posh headquarters abroad. Those voices are growing louder, but still perhaps not as loud as the big money that gives poor countries their tiny cut but gobbles up the lion’s share.

If a self-defined Neo-Conservative believes in American Empire (as some prominent Neo-Conservatives state quite boldly), there are still four big questions to be asked: 1) Is this aid system effective, and if not, how harmful is it to America’s own interests abroad? 2) Can it be afforded by American citizens nowadays, and how high does it rank as a priority compared to solving expensive crises at home? 3) Can and should this costly and often-counterproductive system be partly or wholly stalled until something better; something less manipulated by special interests; can replace it?

Lastly and most importantly, (4) if these corrupt practices are left unattended, perhaps because you think that the need for American Empire over-rides them, what negative influences and malign behaviour do they encourage in America as a whole? Do they contribute to the corruption of a great nation?

The British philosopher Sir Karl Popper, a fierce defender of democracy, pluralism and freedom, opposed the Vietnam War not because he hated America or liked communism. He opposed it for the damage it was doing to Americans and to America herself. I concur with Popper, but of course I am not a Neo-Conservative.

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