Is America Renting or Buying Its Friends?

Perhaps the most profligate recipient of foreign aid ever was Mobutu Sese-Seko, the dictator of what was then called Zaire, who took power in 1965 in a coup reportedly backed by the CIA.

The CIA considered Mobutu an essential ally in the fight against terrorism in Africa, and he received $2 billion from the United States over the three decades he was in power.

Some of it was intended as aid for his developing country, some of it was given to him to distribute to other anti-communist forces in Africa, but the bulk wound up in his pocket, for private planes, European chateaux, shopping sprees, and other hallmarks of the high life.

A New Era?

With the end of the Cold War and the communist threat, many in the aid community expected Washington's foreign aid policy priorities would be much less stark.

And that was the case — at least until Sept. 11, 2001, said Joel Barkan, a former adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development and consultant to the World Bank.

"Up through the Cold War there was little we could do to promote democratization," said Barkan, who specializes in sub-Saharan Africa. Afterward, there was a more neutral policy, but "what has happened now, under the war on terror, it's begun slipping back to resemble what it was under the Cold War," he said.

Barkan brought up Kenya, which is expected to hold its third round of multiparty elections soon, as an example. During the first two elections, in 1992 and 1997, the United States was very clear about its desire for free and fair elections, he said. "This time, we're probably not going to be as critical as we were in the past."

Kenya has been the site of three high-profile suspected al Qaeda attacks. Last month, an Israeli hotel was bombed and two surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli airliner. Kenya's capital, Nairobi, was also one of the sites of the twin embassy attacks in 1998.

When donor countries have an overpowering priority, they should know recipient countries will be quick to take advantage, warned Ian Vasquez, editor of the book Global Fortune: The Stumble and Rise of World Capitalism.

"There are always fads in foreign aid," he said. It used to be good governance, fighting corruption, but it has moved to fighting terrorism, and good rule of law, good security issues, he said.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Colombia denied it had a terrorism problem, Vasquez said, but after the attacks, the South American nation did everything to promote its problem.

Self-Interest at Heart

Doug Bandow, who writes the syndicated column The Capitol Eye, and served as a special assistant to the president in the Reagan administration, said there's a very simple calculus that determines whether or not Washington will get full cooperation from a recipient regime: Is it in the regime's self-interest?

"It's very hard to buy cooperation when it's not in their interest," Bandow said.

Experts pointed out a number of areas where the United States has contributed major amounts of aid, but isn't receiving all the results it may want.

Pakistan has profited grandly for its role in the war on terror: It has had decade-long sanctions lifted, been promised $200 million in economic aid and $50 million in military support, and had about $1 billion in loans forgiven.

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