The Importance of Dirt for American Foreign Policy

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in Iraq.  The level of violence is down from what it was a few months ago, which is good.  Down maybe, but far from over.  I can’t tell whether or not things are really getting better, in spite of our being there or because of it, or if the bad guys are laying low for a while, maybe until after we elect a new President, hoping we’ll declare victory and pull out.  All I know is that Iraq is not the first time, and won’t be the last that our country chooses to engage in long-term military action for reasons of national security, and to help oppressed people in other countries.  (Shame on us were we to undertake such drastic measures for any other purposes.)

Without commenting on whether or not we should be in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter, I’d like to make an observation that may help our foreign policy be more effective, and much less costly, both financially and in terms of the life on all sides that may be lost in the process.  For the record, it’s not just about lives disrupted, or military and civilian casualties.  It’s also about the rippling effects upon families, friends and communities to which the people most directly affected would have contributed in their own unique and special ways.  Life is more than a statistic on the 6 o’clock news.

The genesis of this particular idea goes way back to when I was a kid.  It was the moment when I first began thinking seriously about the importance of dirt.  I remember staying up past my bedtime one night, flashlight in hand, reading the original Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  The story, as I remember, was told in the form of letters written to his fiancé by Jonathan Harker, a young attorney who traveled on business to meet with the Count in Transylvania.  At some point in their relationship, there came a time when Dracula moved to London – presumably because there were more, better tasting people there.  I remember that it wasn’t a question of riding coach (literally) or first class.  No, he was shipped there in a coffin filled with soil from his native land.  Somehow I got the point, although it most certainly wasn’t the one Mr. Stoker had intended to make.  “Wow,” I whispered to myself, “This guy’s dirt is so important to him, he not only takes it with him, he sleeps in it.”  It was a concept that was weird and enlightening, both at the same time.

Decades later when my father died, I wondered if my mother, who was born in Annapolis where they had lived together for most of the 42 years they were married, would ever move to Florida, wherever, or even to nearby Virginia where I lived at the time, to be closer to my family.  The answer was, “No.”  My mother would never leave the soil where she was raised.  Other people, sure, but not my mother, and I understood that, too.  I am, after all, my mother’s son.  As for me, I like Maryland.  I like the way it has seasons, but that none of them is too severe.  I like the look of the place, and the sound of people who live here.  My dirt is nice, quality dirt that makes me feel comfortable – and I have everything to lose, and nothing much to gain from making a mess of it.

I’ve often wondered if that was the problem when the Watts riots occurred, and asked myself at the time, “Do people with quality dirt ever trash and burn their own homes and businesses?”

Have you ever noticed, when they show footage from Iraq, how the buildings in the background are rubble, and how desolate the place looks?  Ever wonder how these people get by given the way their economy has been decimated by years of civil strife and warfare?  Could it be that people living in these circumstances are more likely to foment anger and even violence against each other and foreigners?  I think so.  I think the higher quality your dirt, literally and figuratively speaking, the more you have to lose and the less likely you are to put it at risk whatever your personal politics.

The implications of this simple observation are that maybe we should be spending our time and money, and far fewer of our lives, helping these people to build their economies.  I’m not talking just lip service here.  Far from it.  What I’m suggesting is a major change in the way in which we relate to some of the countries that represent a long-term threat to our country and its allies.

Start with the basic utilities we’ve promised but largely failed to deliver in Iraq, give them the agricultural technology and skills to feed their families, and the plants and equipment necessary to produce, for themselves, the everyday stuff of life.  Let’s help them develop the employment and income these people so desperately need.  Better to build than to destroy, and let the seeds of capitalism grow, on their own, into the democracy and civility which are our best hope for national security.

How would we do all this?  Certainly not by giving the governments of Iraq and other countries money we can’t control and which would likely be misdirected.  No.  I recommend that we do it through our private sector, under the protection of our military if necessary, and it will be – but let protecting our business projects, largely manned and managed by the people we are helping, be our military’s primary objective.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about using large government contractors, or even about private sector projects funded by our government.  Nor is this about oil.  Enough about oil already.  I don’t want to use our economy to develop and take control of the wealth of another country.  The other country isn’t ours for the taking, period.  What it is, this other country, is a market.  This is about American businesses – large, medium and small, from all sectors of our economy – spending their own money to help people in another country for all the usual self-serving reasons for which our businesses do anything.

All I want our government to do is offer American businesses:  Support through inter-governmental channels to enable private company investments in the foreign country.  Tax and other financial incentives, such as subsidized interest rates and loan guarantees, to make those investments – to give them the higher gross yields they’ll need to make from operations under admittedly difficult circumstances.  And highly focused military support, if necessary, to protect our business personnel when they are in-country, and the industrial and commercial projects they develop.  And then I want our government to leave well enough alone, and let business happen, private, non-government business — as long as our technologies are limited to those that won’t come back and bite us in the tush.  Otherwise, let the free market do what it does best.  Without a doubt, we need our military for self-defense, but it is by no means our only, or even most potent weapon in every situation, particularly when there is a long-term problem which brute force is not likely to resolve, and where aggressive military action may be counterproductive.

Give our companies tax and other financial incentives to build someone else’s economy, and to grow ours in the process – not government contractors, but the same large and smaller companies which provide the services, farm the land, and produce the products we consume every day here in the United States.  Use the power of our economy to generate jobs, income and profits here, by going into the business of helping people over there.  Let’s see if we can help these people improve their own dirt, and leave it to them to make the political and social changes necessary to preserve and continue to improve the quality of their lives.

Isn’t it better to train people to do productive, income producing work in their own economies, instead of having someone else train them to be terrorists?  Isn’t it smarter to give them a reason to work with us, rather than an excuse and the spare time to listen to those who would blame us for all the problems they’re having?

Do we do all this because we’re nice people?  Sure, but there are selfish reasons, too, in the benefits that would accrue to our own economy, the money and lives we would save, the potential for reduced threats to our national security, and for the enhanced standing in the community of nations we would deserve.  It’s one thing to ask other countries to join with us in combat, quite another to ask that they help themselves by joint venturing our investments in the people of a struggling nation.

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