Bad Idea: A Marshall Plan For the Middle East

It has recently been suggested that in order to stabilize the Middle East, a massive foreign aid package along the lines of the post-World War II Marshall Plan is needed.  While there can be no doubt that political and religious upheaval has caused economic hardship and turmoil, a Middle East Marshall Plan would be a debacle.

Economic stability breeds political stability, but that is not how it works in the Middle East.  Proponents of this plan start with the false presumption that what worked in Europe will work here.  However, that is like comparing apples to oranges in terms of culture, political history, religion and economics.

The Marshall Plan started with an advantage lacking in the Middle East- an industrial base upon which to build.  The Marshall Plan was designed to buttress, not create an industrial economic base which is what would first be required in the Middle East.  That plan cost the United States an estimated $13 billion which is equivalent to $103 billion in 2016 dollars.  Without a base on which to build in the Middle East, the costs today would exponentially increase at a time when the country can least afford such an endeavor.

A major goal of the Marshall Plan in Europe was to create an environment where the spread of Communism could be stopped.  The creation of open markets and greater interdependence between countries would, by design, lessen the risk of war that had ravaged the continent for the first half of the century.  To apply that same reasoning to the Middle East is futile.

While Germans fought the French who had fought the English who had fought the Spanish, etc. was going on for centuries, at the end of the day there was a European commonality.  Such is not the case in the Middle East.  Instead, we have to contend with Shiite versus Sunni, Arabs versus Persians and North Africans, and Islamists versus secularists.  The cultural dynamics are decidedly different in the Middle East than they were in Europe after World War II.

Besides these problems, there is the added problem of convincing the American public of the efficacy of such a program.  After World War II, the vast majority of Americans could trace their ancestry to Europe so it is only natural that they would have an affinity towards and acceptance of a Marshall Plan.  In 1946, it is estimated that 10% of the US population was of German descent.  Today, a mere 1% of the US population is Muslim and not all of them are from the Middle East.  There are fewer and weaker cultural ties between the United States and the Middle East than there were/are between the US and Europe.

While some may view this as chauvinism or prejudice, the label makes no difference, nor does it negate the reality.  The United States has more shared values with Europe than we do with the Arab world.  Many of the liberties we hold near and dear and are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights are nowhere to be found in Arab cultures.

That is not to say that the United States should stand by idly while the region spins into increasing chaos and a breeding ground of terrorism.  Years of massive aid to the region has done nothing to alleviate the economic realities.  We currently pump over $10 billion annually into the Middle East in the form of foreign aid with minimal return.  The majority of the people are still uneducated, live in poverty and unemployment is rampant.  For example, we are the largest foreign aid contributor to the Palestinians in Gaza, yet they are some of the most impoverished, destitute people in the region.

The moral of the story is that although $10 billion may be a drop in the budgetary bucket, it is still money wasted down a rabbit hole with nothing in return.  If foreign aid is to be disbursed, then it must be based on reality first and part of that reality must address American security concerns.  For the Arab world, they have no notion of Western style democracy, nor do they show any desire for it.  Their’s is a tribal form of politics more conducive to the Arab bazaar than a parliament.  Try as one might through foreign aid, fancy speeches at universities in Cairo, or support for Arab Springs, but democracy as we know it is not coming to the Arab world.  Nor do they care.

Instead of aid, we should encourage trade with these countries.  Admittedly, some countries like Jordan have very little to offer in return.  Others are overly dependent on oil which in light of the domestic energy boom, the United States needs less.  From a national security standpoint, that is a good thing.

However, before any western company will invest in this region, there must be political stability.  Sometimes that entails what we in the West refer to as a “repressive dictatorship.”  But that is another reality that the United States must confront and accept.  Say what one wants about Hosni Mubarek, the Saudi royal family or the Shah of Iran, but their iron hand leadership had it’s advantages.  Terrorism was kept in check and Egypt and Jordan have even recognized Israel’s right to exist and forged peace with them.  That would be a great prerequisite for any foreign aid- recognition of and peace with Israel.

Along the way, the human rights do-gooders on the Left need to shut up and get out of the way.  Any American foreign aid must first be predicated upon American security concerns foremost with the war on terror being the number one concern.  The human rights issues can be addressed in the future after some semblance of political and economic order takes hold.

A modern day Marshall Plan for the Middle East will not alleviate poverty and political turmoil that have occurred for centuries.  A massive infusion of foreign aid devoid of improvements in the lives of the inhabitants or the security situation of the United States is throwing good money at a bad situation.  Ideas like this that look back in time are simplistic and regressive.  The United States needs to develop a foreign policy that recognizes the cultural, religious and political chasm that exists between the Arab world and the West.  Simply, the Middle East is not post-World War II Europe.