Power Failure: Adelman's Attack on Foreign Assistance

05/10/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2011

Perhaps emboldened by his prescience in predicting Iraq as a "cakewalk" or rejecting calls for more troops post-invasion, Ken Adelman -- an original member of the war's "brain trust" -- recently set his sights on a new target: American "smart power."

Objecting to the emerging recognition -- most prominently advanced by Joseph Nye -- that U.S. influence depends on its ability to inspire and lead, which in turn relies heavily on civilian foreign assistance, Adelman claims that non-military aid provides us no real benefit. They can thus be safely slashed. Reading his logic on the proper use of American power at work today, it is easy to see how he and his coterie got Iraq so wrong. His reasoning has only deteriorated since.

Adelman's first exhibit is a study he commissioned as Reagan's UN ambassador in 1981 showing that recipients of U.S. foreign aid such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan voted "in tune with American values" no more frequently than non-recipients. Adelman sees proof in this, that non-military aid money does not purchase the U.S. the ability to "positively influence events abroad." For good measure, he adds, even the foremost recipient of U.S. aid, Israel, demurs at U.S. demands, and even disapproves of Barack Obama. (No matter that Israel votes more often with the U.S. than any other country).

Because these countries together receive the bulk of U.S. defense aid, the examples actually undermine Adelman's main point in the article -- that military aid is more effective than soft power. But the argument fails on its own. As a good conservative should be the first to see, votes in the UN General Assembly bear but a distant relationship to "influencing events" abroad.

Lacking any real authority, the GA is all too often a venue for countries whose leaders reject liberal values to satisfy demands of domestic constituencies at home on symbolic issues such as Israel, gays, health, women's rights, etc. There they can safely engage in "cheap talk." At the end of the day, though, the U.S. cares little if Egypt votes contrary to the U.S. in New York if it keeps its troops out of the Sinai, lets Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and cooperates in Gaza. It is unfortunate, but no real loss if such countries blow off a little steam to maintain stability at home. U.S. aid is an investment in long-term trends, not roll call votes.

Adelman next comes around to acknowledging that aid may be about more than "winning friends." Instead he allows that economic development may be the goal. Here too, civilian assistance is ineffective, he claims, since foreign aid bolsters governments when it is the private sector that promotes prosperity.

What Adelman fails to see is that a robust private sector depends on public sector inputs. (Actually, Adelman recognizes this, but fails to acknowledge it. How else could he cite China, of all countries, as an example of the private sector's leading role?). For businesses to succeed they need healthy, well-fed, educated workers; infrastructure; the rule of law; and financial savvy. In FY10, State/USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent nearly $10 billion, about a quarter of the foreign aid budget, on these types of economic development and governance accounts -- with $670 million dedicated to private sector competitiveness alone. When the U.S. support microfinance programs run by local entrepreneurs or helps train judges in fairly adjudicating commercial disputes, it contributes to more prosperous and viable societies that promotes stability and creates markets for the U.S. businesses themselves. Adelman misses all of this.

Adelman even comes away skeptical of student exchange programs, citing anomalous examples such as the fundamentalist Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb, who once studied in Colorado. But the likes of Qutb would have flowered into a reactionary crank no matter where they went -- the Muslim Brotherhood's inspirational theorist once even said that jazz was created by "savage bushmen" to "satisfy their primitive desires" and saw American haircuts as evidence of the nation's moral decline.

As long as we're citing oddball examples, what about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who studied in North Carolina, but who the 9/11 Commission said did not develop his anti-U.S animus from his experience there? But this bad apples argument is an illogical distraction. Adelman would do just as well to say that the Colombine massacre casts doubt on the value of public schools, or that Alrich Ames casts doubt on the value of the CIA. With this sort of reasoning, one almost wonders how long it will be until Adelman himself starts denouncing Louie Armstrong.

One might think he had scraped the bottom of his barrel by this point, but Adelman soldiers on. He next claims that the Egyptian army's restraint toward the protests resulted from the close military to military ties developed over the course of decades of U.S. assistance. Hard power in the form of military aid, Adelman thus insists, is where the action is at. While such ties probably did play an important role, proponents of U.S. smart power -- who take a holistic approach -- would be the first to recognize the value of such relationships. The point, however, does nothing to discredit the value of parallel civilian partnerships. But Adelman insists that it does, claiming that he "didn't hear of similar activities from soft-power agencies." He might have, had he simply read the news. In the month prior to his piece, two major articles in the New York Times and Washington Post reported in detail on the critical role that U.S.-financed democracy organizations played in the Arab uprisings.

Yet the most damning indictment of Adelman's vision are the nation's foremost practitioners of hard power themselves. Defense Secretary Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus each have strongly supported bolstering the civilian side of U.S. assistance efforts, recognizing that doing so is vital to U.S. national security.

Although Adelman is correct to say that the military has performed with distinction in responding to international humanitarian disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and the Japanese nuclear crisis, he is sorely wrong to believe that only the military can do this -- it is a job they do not need nor want. While there are merits to a broadly capable military, humanitarian response is ultimately a costly distraction from their fundamental warfighting mission.

Asked how best to prevent conflict, Secretary Gates recently observed that "the way you do that ... is through development. Development contributes to stability. It contributes to better governance ... [they are] inextricably linked." U.S. foreign assistance buttresses just the type of development that Secretary Gates sees as critical to U.S. national security. But Adelman, in effect, denounces Gates' view as "squishy" and somehow less than "smart."

Given the prominence such views receive in the conservative movement, challenging them will be no cakewalk. But there should be a call to arms.