Issandr El Amrani calls for an end to all the calls for a 'new Marshall Plan' In early 2008, I was contacted by a researcher affiliated with the US State Department's Policy Planning Staff, a kind of internal think tank that develops strategic policy options for American diplomats. He had recently written a book on the history of the Marshall Plan - the American programme to help fund the reconstruction and economic development of Europe after the Second World War - and now the State Department had asked him to examine the possibility of a "new Marshall Plan" for the Middle East.
The original plan, named for the then-US Secretary of State George Marshall, delivered $13 billion in aid to Western Europe between 1948 and 1952 and cemented the United States in its new role as a dominant player in world affairs. It is remembered today as an act of enlightened self-interest, which both encouraged European integration and helped contain the westward spread of communism. For reasons that go beyond mere nostalgia for a more noble age of American foreign policy, pundits and politicians alike have issued innumerable calls for "new Marshall Plans". Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the ills of the Middle East, real or imagined, have been the central target of what I call Marshallplanism - whose adherents are confident that the American policy that worked for Western Europe can be applied anywhere, and that American determination and dollars, properly applied, can bring economic and then political stability to any place on earth.
Calls for a Mideast Marshall Plan are legion. Richard Gephardt, then the Democratic leader in the US House of Representatives, advocated a Marshall Plan for the region in 2003; across the aisle, the Republican senator Lamar Alexander suggested a more modest Marshall Plan for Iraq. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never one to shun a facile idea, described the entire Iraq War as one big Marshall Plan; it was "the most important liberal, revolutionary US democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan," he wrote. "Unless we begin the long process of partnering with the Arab world to dig it out of the developmental hole it's in, this angry, frustrated region is going to spew out threats to world peace forever." Marshall Planning is not limited to politicians and diplomats; according to the trade publication Inside the Pentagon, military strategists were "in the beginning stages of drafting" their own Marshall Plan in January 2008.
Any troubled region that drifts from obscurity into the headlines - so long as American interests are at stake - is liable to be deemed ripe for Marshall Planning. Hence the suggestions that Pakistan and Afghanistan need their own Marshall Plan, or that Somalia does as well. One could hardly be shocked, for example, to open the Washington Post last week and find an editorial suggesting that the Marshall Plan presents a perfect model by which to rescue Yemen, today's poster-child for global terror, and save it from becoming a failed state.
The premise that underpins all these suggestions is that the United States is undercommitted to the region, and that a new Marshall Plan will demonstrate the country's resolve to really fix things once and for all. But the tenets of Marshallplanism are already at the heart of American policy. George W Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative combined the precepts of the Marshall Plan with his administration's love of supply-side economics. Other Bush-era programs, such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, were animated by the idea that dollars can buy democracy. The only tangible outcome of Barack Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo, soaring in style but plummeting in deliverables, has been a collection of minor initiatives for economic development, women's empowerment and scientific research. It is Marshallplanism Lite.
Some Middle Easterners have also hopped on to the Marshallplanism bandwagon. In 2007, the then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari added his voice to the chorus for a Marshall Plan for Iraq; President Hamid Karzai did the same for Afghanistan in 2008. Back in 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan suggested a Marshall Plan "for the recovery of the Middle East". An Israeli industrialist, Stef Wertheimer, has been advocating a Marshall Plan that would focus on Israel, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories since 2002, arguing that "from my perspective as an Israeli businessman, industrial development may well provide a solution to the strife that besets my region".
The enthusiasm of local governments and elites is hardly surprising: they would be any plan's first and biggest beneficiaries. Israel and many Arab states have already pocketed decades of American largesse - and to call for a "new Marshall Plan" is, above all, to call for a reinforcement of the region's ugly status quo under America's aegis. It is not only that Marshallplanism posits that every regional problem has an American solution; as a lens through which to view the Middle East, it has enormous blind spots. Marshallplanists regard economic issues - unemployment, poverty, etc - as the root of the region's problems and the key to their solution. They ignore any problems caused by American policy, particularly support for Israeli landgrabs and wars of collective punishment. Marshallplanism takes the outsized American presence in the region as a given, and argues that the solution to every problem is more, rather than less, American involvement; it ignores the fact that the Middle East of today is already, in many ways, an American Middle East, whose political landscape was shaped largely by US strategic planning over the course of the Cold War.
It would not be a stretch, in fact, to suggest that the Middle East has already had its own Marshall Plan, created, like the original in Europe, during the height of the Cold War and intended, above all, to check Soviet influence. This was the Eisenhower Doctrine, announced in January 1957, which committed the United States "to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence" of any nation requesting aid against the threat of "overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism".
In practice, it entailed American backing for any anti-communist regime, a policy enforced with particular zeal in the Middle East, owing to the region's strategic and economic importance. The policy failed in its immediate goal - the isolation of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had allied with the Soviet Union and backed progressive regimes elsewhere in the region - but its premises have continued to shape both American policy and the region itself. By the time of the Clinton administration, the Soviet Union was no more, but the same policy was easily recast, with a new emphasis on protecting Israeli as well as American strategic interests. For over half a century, it has encouraged the rise of client-states who are often left militarily dependent on US force projection, even when it is unpopular with domestic audiences. It has helped to maintain a striking absence of democracy in the region, with local potentates pivoting effortlessly from trumpeting their anti-Communist bona fides to touting their anti-Islamist credentials.
The Eisenhower Doctrine may also be why a Marshall Plan would be unworkable in the Middle East. Without political legitimacy, without institutions enforcing the rule of law and respect for private property, and without an end to the conflicts that have perdured in the region - most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a "new Marshall Plan" is likely to have as little impact as the 30 years of USAID funding that were supposed to create a prosperous and democratic Egypt in the wake of the Camp David Accords.
The persistence of Cold War thinking that Marshallplanism represents is another reminder that the United States lacks new policy ideas to orient its actions in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. The one thing that both sides of the American political spectrum agree on is that the United States - especially in the Middle East - has a duty and an interest in projecting power abroad. No credible American politician would dare suggesting the US reduce its footprint in the region, or encourage regional security arrangements designed to represent local needs rather than American interests.
As a result, most local actors wait to see what Washington will propose before tackling their own problems - and have pushed rent-seeking to such an extreme that large chunks of the region are, in a sense, in debt to a Marshall Plan that doesn't yet exist. It should now be self-evident that this mindset favors neither the American taxpayer nor the citizens of the Middle East. If our countries cannot fix their own problems, we should not expect that the United States can do it for us.
Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net