Obama’s foreign faith

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

(From President Barack Obama’s inaugural address.)

President Obama’s implication that the Bush Administration stinted on foreign aid was the most disingenuous part of his inaugural speech. It may also have been the most depressing. It signals that he is likely to replace one kind of faith-based policy with another, equally blind variety.

President Bush more than quadrupled aid to sub-Saharan Africa. Driven largely by Michael Gerson, Bush’s self-promoting evangelical speech-writer, the Bush Administration undertook the largest government public health effort targeting a single disease in history, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The scale of the commitment is especially surprising, since PEPFAR exclusively targets AIDS abroad, almost all in Africa. The program has already doled out nearly $19 billion in taxpayer dollars since 2003; it will spend $48 billion over the next five years (a sum that includes some side efforts on TB and malaria as well).

PEPFAR was a classic example of Michael Gerson’s religious politics. Gerson specialized in appropriating other people’s money to pursue his own vision of Christian social justice. Anyone who dared to question the propriety of spending scarce taxpayers dollars abroad on a disease that is 100% preventable by behavioral change would be accused of lack of compassion. Only a “collection of shriveled souls,” Gerson wrote of PEPFAR’s few but doughty Congressional opponents, “would be excited by an attack on AIDS treatment.” PEPFAR critics failed to grasp the “nearly universal Christian conviction that government has obligations to help the weak and pursue social justice.”

Americans have bankrolled antiviral drug treatment for some one million infected Africans, and it is a good thing that their suffering has been diminished. Yet despite the billions spent by Western governments each year on preventing AIDS in Africa, the rate of infection has not gone down. It doesn’t necessarily require foreign dollars to lessen AIDS in Africa, it requires above all  that men keep their flies zipped up. That applies in the Tenderloin and on Christopher Street as well. But such low-tech change would not allow Gerson to trumpet his role in “a grand, aggressive international compassion that dwarfs the Peace Corps and is unequaled since the Marshall Plan.”

Gerson’s effect on foreign policy was as unmoored from reality as his effect on foreign aid. He encouraged, if not created, Bush’s belief that America has a divinely-inspired duty to spread freedom abroad, including in tribal societies with absolutely no tradition of limited, constitutional government.

President Obama may or may not decrease the influence of religious claims on government. Jim Wallis and, yes, Rick Warren will continue Gerson-esque arguments for foreign aid and domestic war on poverty programs. But even if all religious dimensions are stripped from the foreign aid machine, it will remain just as irrational.

Foreign aid has had zero effect on improving economic growth in Third World countries, as William Easterly has shown in The White Man’s Burden. From 1970 to 1994, 22 African countries received $187 billion in foreign donations, without experiencing any increase in productivity. The countries that have pulled themselves out of poverty have done so by self-generated capitalist activity. Yet despite the total lack of evidence for the efficacy of large-scale foreign assistance, in 2002, Bush and other foreign leaders committed to a preposterous set of foreign aid goals, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in the Third World and engineering universal primary school enrollment by 2015. Can the foreign-aid sinkhole get worse under Obama? Yes, it can. The advocates of top-down government assistance, such as Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs, were hardly rebuffed by the Bush Administration, but they are nevertheless undoubtedly salivating at their prospects under the Obama Administration.

Secular Right opposes faith-based thinking, whether religious or secular. The left-wing dogma that the United States is the source of the world’s problems, and the preening Gersonian dogma that the United States has not just an obligation but the capacity to solve those problems, violate reason and evidence, no matter their source.

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