I was jogging to the gate to catch a plane when I spotted the cover of last week’s Time magazine. The face of a young man in camouflage caught my eye because I was on my way to a ceremony in which a class of Marines was earning its wings as fully designated pilots. Within the year they’ll all be in Iraq like the soldier in the photo.
In the issue, Time’s editor inexplicably decided to print the letter of Laura Geisel of Redondo Beach, Calif. I had the misfortune of reading it.
“The U.S. has, with its wealth and abundant resources, the ability to lead the world in reaching out to those far less fortunate,” Geisel wrote. “Instead, over the years we have chosen to put our resources into military spending and most recently into a war that has become an enormous money pit. Perhaps if we had used our resources more wisely over the years, we could have helped reduce the death and destruction caused by the tsunami.”
My first reaction was sympathy for Time’s editorial staff, whose mailboxes must be so empty that they were reduced to running a letter long on self-righteousness and short on logic.
Perhaps Geisel is incensed because of the new budget’s $80 million request for military funding. The budget is certainly a legitimate concern, considering the record levels of debt we’ve recently accrued. But actually, she’s not worried about a deficit. She just wants the over-spending done on her terms.
In a parallel universe where the tsunami in South Asia and the war in Iraq are the only issues of national importance, it might make some sense to suggest that we simply take a pencil to the budget columns and switch the numbers around. In reality, however, her words are a gross oversimplification of fiscal responsibility.
Maybe what annoys me most about Geisel is that she sounds like so many other Americans. We look for confirmation of what we already believe, even when that leads us to illogical conclusions.
“I don’t think this lady really cares about the tsunami victims,” one Marine Lieutenant told me. “I think she just hates the war ’cause it’s costing the taxpayers money. You don’t hear her complaining about money spent on home security.”
The fact is, while the United States spends one of the smallest GNP percentages in aid of all other rich countries, in dollar amounts it is the biggest donor of funds worldwide. Before we criticize too harshly, it’s important to observe that almost none of the rich countries have actually given anywhere near the target amounts set at the United Nations in 1992.
There’s nothing particularly admirable about that, but the fact remains that the United States gives away billions of dollars every year. Since 2001, America authorized $15 billion for AIDS/HIV treatment and prevention alone.
Afghanistan gets $1.2 billion, where the war received little criticism or scrutiny, adding to my conviction that the Geisel theory of fund allocation is really just a popularity contest for causes.
Jan Egeland, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator “sparked international debate last week when he called wealthy nations ‘stingy’ with foreign aid in general,” according to CNN.com, but he called the United States’ response to the tsunami “ideal.” That’s high praise from a tough critic. Geisel writes that the United States has the resources to lead the world in aiding the downtrodden. A note to Ms. Geisel: Ma’am, we already DO.
Lastly, for the record, it’s not our resources that enable us to provide relief and support to poorer countries.
A lot of countries have resources; not a lot have power. The United States has spending flexibility and worldwide influence in large part due to the protection and support of its military.
Even a critic of the war cannot legitimately criticize all military spending over the years and hope to make a good point. It’s a sad day when we send men and women like the newly-winged Marine pilots to risk their lives for people who don’t appreciate the sacrifice. In the end, the United States is not a non-profit humanitarian group. We’re a country with a lot of money, a lot of power and a lot of responsibility.
Budgeting for a nation of our size and influence will never yield a universally applauded result, but I don’t think our spending reflects such terribly misplaced priorities. I’ll give Geisel and her ilk the benefit of the doubt and assume that they actually do care about tsunami victims. I won’t give them too much credence.
Elizabeth Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.