Saturday, February 19, 2011

Trickle Down Morality

As I am wont to do, I left a conversation this week with an aspiring U.S. Foreign Service enthusiast puzzling over why, after millennia of seeing the futility of military ideological indoctrination, madness seemed more the rule than considered reason. In a country where, absent wartime procurement, we’d have a shrinking GDP for the 12th year running, I reflected on the roots of our incapacity to imagine an economy in which we genuinely built value on an aspiration for the reflected choice of liberty rather than the dogmatic zealotry of “freedom” at the end of a gun. Drenched in nostalgia for the heady days of the Reagan years – so banally celebrated on the centenary of his birth – and the glorious sponsorship of “Freedom Fighters” who in their modern incarnation, armed with our defense industry, have turned their weapons on us so as to be now referred to as “terrorists”, I mused at the intractable predictability of our impulse to support mayhem.

On a gloriously balmy day – more April than February – I probably would have let this topic pass but for a gnawing sense that a systemic, fatal error is lurking just under the surface of the Middle East and North Africa paroxysms. What struck me as alarming is the fact that I recognized the sequence of failures in governments corresponding with a very old, very forgotten, much abused law from the 1960s. To be precise, the collapsing countries of the past few weeks all seem to be the beneficiaries of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (Public Law 87-195). In fact, there is an ominous correlation between the nature of certain funding programs and the sequence of uprisings. This Act, which has been the proximate cover for overt and covert acts by the U.S. government for the past 50 years is worth the read if you want to see why we abandoned any hope of moral leadership on a global stage – unless you consider gunpoint to be a moral persuasion.

One only needs to read Section 620E of the Act to see precisely how far from a moral compass we’ve chosen to stray. Our assistance to Pakistan – including our arming of Afghans now killing coalition forces – was not only authorized under the animation of the Soviet occupation but, included providing Presidential authority to waive Arms Export Control Acts. My favorite section of the “Aid to Pakistan” program is the condition that, “lethal military equipment provided under this subparagraph shall be provided on a lease or loan basis only and shall be returned upon completion of the operation for which it was provided.” And who can forget the moral clarity of Section 620G which stipulates that the U.S. should withhold assistance to countries that participate or sponsor terror however, this can be waived, “if the President determines that furnishing such assistance is important to the national interests of the United States…”?

In the creation of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the United States made a fatal error in judgment – neither the first nor the last. And the events of the past 6 weeks are showing the seismic risk of this error; the failure to apply Integral Accounting appraisal to a value exchange. You see, our thinking in the late 1950’s until well into recent history, was that we could exchange “aid” for politico-economic allegiance. If we fed, trained, armed, or defended a country, we reasoned, we would gain lasting stability and loyalty. While this type of bribery may work in postwar reconstruction in Japan, Europe, or at home (with our public works programs), it fails to adequately calculate the, “Commodity”, “Custom & Culture” and “Money” dimensions in Integral Accounting.

Since the first Mongol-Sino traders crossed Afghanistan to the ports in North Africa in the first century BCE, trading involved the exchange of tangible artifacts. What started in the East as silk or spices, could wind up in Alexandria or Tunisia as grain or gold. This transformation involved several principles that are present to this day in the cultural memes in the region and are immune from the hegemony of the Bretton Woods dollar. The trade routes of Asia, Persia, the Middle East and North Africa relied on a transitive commodity mandate as much then as now. Willingness to transport or trade was based on local needs or abundance as much as it was based on some remote “market demand”. If you needed food and had a bunch of gold, in the moment of the arrival of food, it had greater value than gold so you exchanged what was unusable yet reserved for what was usable and demanded. As a result, exchanges were seen in light of pragmatic expediency, not in terms of absolute supply and demand in invisible, distant markets.

In this ecosystem, value was a combination of the traded artifact with the reward of a “good deal”. Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that when the Occidental moralists came calling with “aid” for which there’s no artifact exchange, mistrust is implicit. Clearly no one ever offers something for nothing. And in a world where the notion of artifact for ideology is the prima facie exchange, there is a certainty on the part of the recipient that a trap is being set. The Occidental policy failure was to mistake the counterparty who would accept our deal – the puppet autocrat who we’d promote into political supremacy – as an evidentiary party to the acquiescence of a country to our values and our proposed terms of engagement. We didn’t build alliances, we bribed malleable characters. And now, we’re watching as the fa├žades fall.

While the covert abuses – from Reagan’s Nicaraguan Iran-Contra illegal activity to Bush-Cheney’s Bulf Oil and Greek Olympic “Security” financing of the weapons which are killing coalition forces – accelerate the failure of our misguided ideology, the overt, reported financing of moral exceptions to our stated values shows a level of hypocrisy which undermines any honor or credibility we might otherwise have. In the minds of an Asian or African observer, our willingness to place expediency as a paramount value when it comes to ideology amplifies the instability in countries around the world and erodes our ability to have any significant impact on transitions which are breaking out across the globe. In contrast, Chinese success in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and even “liberated” Iraq, comes complete with good old-fashioned trading – not on ideology but on assets – the way it’s always been done. The Chinese are no more amenable to theocracies than their democratic, capitalist competitors. However, in commodity value exchanges, ideology is subservient to transactive interest.

Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Haiti, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Bahrain, Burma, Cambodia, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya. If you made it on this list, you’re already in a fraternity where you may not want to be. You’ve been the recipient of a Cold War inspired doctrine which values frail ideological adherence over food, shelter and security. And if we, as conscious global citizens want to act before all the world is alight in unemployed, hungry anarchy, we would do well to figure out how to be part of a new narrative in these and related places around the world.

It is time for the U.S. to end the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Not because we shouldn’t actively assist those in grave need around the world. No, we should repeal the Act because it’s built on ideology long destroyed by termites and dry rot of our own fears and our collective neglect. In a world where the world’s fastest growing economy is communist (turned oddly market-capitalist), the end of the Act will be a wholesale loss of any last vestige of credibility. We’re not at war with communism – we’re in denial. We need to align our Foreign Assistance with those who are in need of genuine help so that they, and the world, can see a cascade of moral leadership in which those who genuinely care for humanity, the environment and the ecosystem of Earth champion wholeness rather than animus. Will this be an American enterprise or will it, at long last, be a global enterprise in which “isms” are placed into the realm of philosophical debates while we get about doing the work of being human? Let justice roll down.

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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave