May 02, 2012

Guns vs. Scholarships

Tom Friedman, today:

[The United States] gave Egypt’s military $1.3 billion worth of tanks and fighter jets, and it gave Lebanese public-school students a $13.5 million merit-based college scholarship program that is currently putting 117 Lebanese kids through local American-style colleges that promote tolerance, gender and social equality, and critical thinking. I’ve recently been to Egypt, and I’ve just been to Lebanon, and I can safely report this: The $13.5 million in full scholarships has already bought America so much more friendship and stability than the $1.3 billion in tanks and fighter jets ever will.

I am more than sympathetic to arguments that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East must go beyond military partnerships, but this Tom Friedman op-ed is nonsense. First off, no where in this op-ed is there any discussion of U.S. interests in the region, which are, according to the president:

  1. Countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons;
  2. Securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; (read: access to hydrocarbon resources)
  3. Standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

That $1.3 billion in annual military aid? That is the price the United States pays to ensure peace between Israel and Egypt. For three decades, it has been a fantastic bargain. 

Second, I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.

Third, I'm glad Tom Friedman is traveling, but after a few weeks (days?) in Cairo and Beirut, he can "safely report" nothing about the relative effectiveness of U.S. activities in Egypt and Lebanon.

Fourth, the military aid we give to Egypt does not come out of the International Affairs budget, so it's not a simple matter of moving some cash around. Tom Friedman will want to speak to the U.S. Congress about this. I was wrong about this! See this Congressional Research Service report (.pdf) for more. Also, Gulliver wrote in to add that "ISA (which includes Foreign Military Finance – particularly the earmarked Israel and Egypt money – and International Military Education and training) is a separate budget line to the humanitarian aid and educational exchange stuff. Congress specifically appropriates that money and would have to be the ones to change it."

Fifth, in 1975, Lebanon was arguably the best educated and most cosmopolitan population in the Arabic-speaking world. I don't need to tell the guy who wrote this book
what happened next, but for the rest of you, I'll just say that only in a twisted way did it involve "transforming [Lebanon] into what it should be and can be."