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I watched a documentary the other day about former President George W Bush, and his reflections on September 11, 2001.
His most telling quote? “My first reaction was anger,” he said. “Who the hell would do that to America?”
That sentiment, more than anything else, summed up how many US citizens felt that day. Despite a massive military, trillions of dollars worth of weapons, and a powerful intelligence agency, the US seemed powerless to stop the attacks on US soil.
“You are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush said in the aftermath of the attacks.
For the White House, the US military became the cornerstone of a foreign policy that emphasised pre-emptive military action. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most costly example of that shift. Other policies and practices happened in the shadows before they were exposed – extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretapping, and torture practices such as waterboarding to name a few. But US foreign aid, and who it went to, has received far less coverage.
Bush’s stated goal was to defeat al-Qaeda and to depose governments who harbored “terrorists.” His strategy also changed the way foreign aid would be spent overseas. Being with “us” meant more funds for governments, willing to become new partners in the “War on Terror”. Exact dollar figures are hard to track. There are at least a dozen US programmes that disseminate the funds, through a myriad of different US government agencies. Most of the funds went to help foreign governments buy military hardware.
Much of it also went to the governments to use as they wished. The list of “front-line” states who received money includes many authoritarian governments that had been criticised for their human rights records.
A few examples?
The US had all but banned Pakistan from receiving US aid after the country’s nuclear tests, and the military coup that put Pervez Musharraf in power. According to the Center for Defense Information, in the three years before 9/11, Pakistan received about $9m dollars in aid. In the three years after, it received $4.7bn in military assistance alone.
The Bush administration also lifted sanctions on Indonesia, a country it had harshly critised because of its human rights record.
When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pledged to help the US, Washington normalised relations with Tripoli. Gaddafi received promises of military equipment, and a visit from the US secretary of state.
“Most regimes in the world are run by bad guys. Some of those bad guys are more open to American assistance and American influence than others,” said Clifford May, president of the group Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“Part of the goal and skill of foreign policy and diplomacy is to figure out who you can worK with and where you can make changes that are productive,” he said.
Principles of democracy
The Bush administration often justified sending money to these authoritarian countries, by highlighting the (much smaller) amount that went to democracy programmes.
But some Washington analysts say Bush sacrificed principles of democracy, in the name of protecting it.
“There a central contradiction in the War on Terror – you can call it a crusade for freedom or its really about democracy but the reality was it pushed the United States into closer co-operation with security forces, intelligence agencies and governments in a number of autocratic places, in central Asia, in Arab world, in Asia, South East Asia, Africa,” said Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“That’s just an unpleasant aspect of the war on terror that we’re still living with today.”
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, there have been few changes in how US aid is spent.
The vast majority of foreign funds are still being sent to governments the US considers helpful to its strategic interests, regardless of how they treat their own people. It may no longer be called the global “War on Terror” under this administration, but they are still spending American money to find friends in the fight.