In spring 2002, with the Second Intifada entering its second year, I was in Damascus drinking tea with a friend in his shop near the Umayyad Mosque. We were watching a televised broadcast of Israel’s assault on the West Bank, which it was reoccupying. When I asked my friend how the violence in Palestine would effect business in Syria, he shrugged.
“Not much,” he told me. “We are insulated from this economically.” He thought for a moment and laughed. “After all, we have no aid programs to lose; it’s not like Egypt and Jordan, which are burdened with your American aid.”
These days, of course, besieged Syrians are desperate enough to welcome help of any kind, even from Washington. But the characterization of US assistance as a burden, however tongue-in-cheek, resonates as a peculiarly American failure in the Middle East. Officials of recipient nations complain they are routinely big-footed by US diplomats and their ambitious programs to rebuild and enfranchise local communities, which too often become ends in themselves rather than means to an end. Think of the US-funded rug-weaver Bani Hamida, for example, which was subsidized for years after market forces rendered it obsolete, or Egypt’s senseless agrarian projects, which have done far more to support US grain producers than for the small-scale farmers they are ostensibly designed to help.
American military aid, which dwarfs civilian assistance, is assailed as a means for Washington to reward those who would capitulate to Israel and punish those who would not. The tanks and firearms that have been used against peaceful Egyptian protesters for the last two years were built and paid for with US tax dollars, and those on the receiving end of such dubious largess know it. They also know that each year Washington doles out a fortune to Israel—a country with a per capita income of USD 32,000—in humanitarian assistance, as well as billions of dollars annually in military aid.
Despite repeated threats to withhold aid to Egypt’s freely elected but increasingly authoritarian government, the US Congress refuses to unplug the money-go-round for Cairo. Although he has been in office less than a year, President Mohammed Morsi has managed to prompt grass-roots comparisons between himself and his predecessor, the dictator Hosni Mubarak. As far as Washington is concerned, however, the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader may violate basic civil rights with impunity so long as he does not repudiate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, a red line Morsi has so far proven himself smart enough to avoid.
Most Americans are opposed to the foreign assistance programs deployed in their name. They should be, but not—as so many wrongly believe—because they are costly: as a percentage of public spending, Washington’s overseas aid budget ranks near the bottom among industrialized nations. Rather, they should demand that US aid be structured to accommodate worthy recipients and not as subsidies for the likes of Lockheed Martin and Cargill, Inc. They should make clear that providing humanitarian aid to rich countries like Israel is both morally repugnant and contrary to American interests because of the ill will it creates in the Middle East. And they should insist that spending levels for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington’s front-line aid and development entity, be restored to their pre-1990s levels, when it was gutted in a cruel and parochial crusade waged by the race-baiting, gay-bashing and misogynist Senator Jesse Helms.
The US is not the only donor country that politicizes its development programs. Few, however, provoke such animosity by indexing promises of aid to political litmus tests that are as irrelevant to the goals of better health care, education and infrastructure as they are distasteful to recipient communities. Unless Washington designs its aid packages around the needs of beneficiaries, it will continue to do more harm than good and it should get out of the aid business altogether.