The Marshall Plan was America's finest hour. After World War I, the victors did what victors usually do: they demanded reparations from the vanquished. But after World War II America did something unprecedented: it provided huge amounts of aid, helping both its allies and its defeated enemies rebuild.
It wasn't selfless altruism, of course; it was farsighted, enlightened self-interest. America's leaders understood that fostering prosperity, stability and democracy was as important as building military might in the struggle against Communism.
But one suspects that our current leaders would have jeered at this exercise in "nation-building." And they are certainly following a very different strategy today.
It's not that the Bush administration is always stingy. In fact, right now it is offering handouts right and left. Most notably, it has offered the Turkish government $26 billion in grants and loans if it ignores popular opposition and supports the war.
Some observers also point out that the administration has turned the regular foreign aid budget into a tool of war diplomacy. Small countries that currently have seats on the U.N. Security Council have suddenly received favorable treatment for aid requests, in an obvious attempt to influence their votes. Cynics say that the "coalition of the willing" President Bush spoke of turns out to be a "coalition of the bought off" instead.
But it's clear that the generosity will end as soon as Baghdad falls.
After all, look at our behavior in Afghanistan. In the beginning, money was no object; victory over the Taliban was as much a matter of bribes to warlords as it was of Special Forces and smart bombs. But President Bush promised that our interest wouldn't end once the war was won; this time we wouldn't forget about Afghanistan, we would stay to help rebuild the country and secure the peace. So how much money for Afghan reconstruction did the administration put in its 2004 budget?
None. The Bush team forgot about it. Embarrassed Congressional staff members had to write in $300 million to cover the lapse. You can see why the Turks, in addition to demanding even more money, want guarantees in writing. Administration officials are insulted when the Turks say that a personal assurance from Mr. Bush isn't enough. But the Turks know what happened in Afghanistan, and they also know that fine words about support for New York City, the firefighters and so on didn't translate into actual money once the cameras stopped rolling.
And Iraq will receive the same treatment. On Tuesday Ari Fleischer declared that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction — even though experts warn that it may be years before the country's oil fields are producing at potential. Off the record, some officials have even described Iraqi oil as the "spoils of war."
So there you have it. This administration does martial plans, not Marshall Plans: billions for offense, not one cent for reconstruction.
Of course, postwar reconstruction in Europe and Japan wasn't just a matter of money; America can also be proud of the way it built democratic institutions. Alas, the Bush administration's postwar political plans are even more alarming than its economic nonchalance.
Turkey has reportedly been offered the right to occupy much of Iraqi Kurdistan. Yes, that's right: as we move to liberate the Iraqis, our first step may be to deliver people who have been effectively independent since 1991 into the hands of a hated foreign overlord. Moral clarity!
Meanwhile, outraged Iraqi exiles report that there won't be any equivalent of postwar de-Nazification, in which accomplices of the defeated regime were purged from public life. Instead the Bush administration intends to preserve most of the current regime: Saddam Hussein and a few top officials will be replaced with Americans, but the rest will stay. You don't have to be an Iraq expert to realize that many very nasty people will therefore remain in power — more moral clarity! — and that the U.S. will in effect take responsibility for maintaining the rule of the Sunni minority over the Shiite majority.
If this all sounds incredibly callous and shortsighted, that's because it is. But then what did you expect? This administration doesn't worry about long-term consequences — just look at its fiscal policy. It wants its war; there's not the slightest indication that it's interested in the boring, expensive task of building a just and lasting peace.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.21.03