Friday, May 20, 2011

The Arab Spring and American Pessimism

David Sanger had an interesting analysis of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, one that hadn't occurred to me previously but seems obvious in retrospect. We want democracy to emerge in the region and, I assume, with that a concomitant economic growth that is not based fundamentally in oil exports. However, we are bringing very little cash to bear to achieve this outcome. Little in this sense means small relative to the scale needed to do the job. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars together have cost on the order of $1 trillion dollars. Envision that much spending, but rather than using it for military purposes think of it as allocated to help build democratic institutions in the region.

Of course, that idea isn't on the table now. If there is to be a building of such democratic institutions it will have to occur mainly with funds that are already in those countries. Those funds are held, by and large, by the present cohort of despots who rule against the will of the people. Is it reasonable to expect that somehow those funds will be voluntarily relinquished by these rulers and then be invested in new institutions that will unseat them?

Rather than play the role of bystander and follower the U.S., as the supposed only remaining superpower, could both expedite the transition and make it far less bloody, but it would have to spend significant resources to do that. Who in government is advocating for that approach?

I don't know how strong the parallel is (it seems strong to me, but if I heard an alternative argument I might be convinced otherwise) but look back at the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The existential threat perceived at the time was the potential spread of communism. The general level of poverty in Europe, as a consequence of the huge destruction caused by World War II, presumably made the region susceptible to going communist. Our policy abandoned the country's historic isolationism in favor of containment.

Is there an existential threat implicit to the U.S. in the Arab Spring? The answer to that seems obvious. I wonder if Leon Panetta or David Petraeus or Hillary Clinton are capable of becoming the next George Marshall. And even if that were possible, in the current political climate where Congress seems incapable of advocating for any new forms of spending even if that is to build a better tomorrow, could one get the spending bill through?

I should note that the Debt to GDP ratio was similar then to now, but then we had been the victor in the War and emerged from it with our economy unscathed and primed to grow rapidly. Now we seem primed to shrink or so it seems to this observer.

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