Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Kristof, Friend of the Bush Administration

The incomparable Bob Somerby points out the foolishness of today's New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, in which the "liberal" pundit spends nine paragraphs praising the Bush administration's Africa aid policy and denigrating the Clinton administration and liberals generally, before admitting that he has created a "caricature." Kristof concludes his column with a quick on-the-other-hand -- because some conservatives "go nuts" over anything with "a whiff of sex," Bush has cut funds for the U.N. Population Fund and has blindly opposed condoms as an AIDS prevention strategy, resulting in the needless deaths of Africans. Oh yes, and Bush is also "stingy" with aid funds, resisting the call of the G-8 for additional funds, because "he thinks the sums are better spent on cutting the taxes of the richest people on earth than on saving the lives of the poorest."

But needless deaths of the poorest are mere trifles apparently, because Kristof still sees fit to call this stingy man "A Friend of Africa" who has "done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did." Not only that, but "conservatives generally, have in many ways been great for the developing world." Why these surprising conclusions? It's worth taking a closer look.

Kristof provides two arguments for Bush/conservative superiority on aid to Africa. First, he has increased aid spending; second, he has spent aid money more wisely.

Regarding the level of aid spending, Kristof asserts that Bush has increased "the money actually spent for aid there by two-thirds so far, and setting in motion an eventual tripling of aid for Africa." Strange construction that-- "setting in motion an eventual tripling." This seems to refer to the Bush administration's pledge to double aid by 2010 (after it is out of office, incidentally); combined with the increase to date, this would represent a tripling. The Brookings Institution recently published a report that, among other criticisms, takes the Bush administration to task for deceptively claiming to have already tripled aid, when in fact it has increased aid by only 56 percent in real terms-- or 67 percent in nominal dollars. Kristof ignores inflation in giving Bush credit for 67 percent.

Kristof also accuses liberals of "putting too much faith in aid itself." Then he concludes by calling Bush stingy on African aid. Is that clear? Bush is great because he's increased aid for African countries. But liberals are bad because they focus too much on "aid itself." But Bush is bad too because he's too stingy with aid.

Obviously, this "argument" is a mess, but the point remains that Bush has increased aid above what it was during the Clinton administration. So if Bush is stingy, then Clinton must have been stingier, right? Not necessarily, because this line of thought ignores the role of Congress. In 2003, the Center for Global Development published a report showing that the amount of aid to Africa has been roughly similar during Republican and Democratic presidencies, but that aid is "unambiguously lower" when the president and both houses of Congress are from opposing parties. The reason seems to be that while presidents favor higher aid levels to further their foreign policy goals, Congress is more suspicious of aid, especially if the president is from the other party. The lowest aid levels of all occur when a Democratic president faces a Republican congress, as Clinton did for six of his eight years. The report offers speculation on why this combination produces lower aid levels-- perhaps it is because the public, and by extension Congress, have greater trust in Republican foreign policy; perhaps the diverse and fragmented Democratic constituency for aid makes it more difficult for Democratatic presidents to marshall support for aid in the face of a hostile congress; and perhaps "Republican Congresses are more partisan than Democratic ones with respect to African aid."

As for the argument that conservatives spend aid money more wisely; obviously this is a judgment call. But couldn't Kristof find an aid expert, or an African aid recipient, that he could cite in support of his judgment? Apparently not. Nor could he marshal evidence to make a coherent argument about the differences in aid policy between liberals and conservatives:
The liberal approach to helping the poor is sometimes to sponsor a U.N. conference and give ringing speeches calling for changed laws and more international assistance.
Boy, those liberals sure are idiots! Sometimes. All they do (sometimes) is sponsor U.N. conferences. But he sure likes the conservative approach:
In contrast, a standard conservative approach is to sponsor a missionary hospital or school. One magnificent example is the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where missionary doctors repair obstetric injuries that have left Ethiopian women incontinent.
Wow. That sounds great. And in all sincerity, I recommend Kristof's accompanying "op-ed special report" on this hospital, which seems to be doing wonderful work. But surely Kristof isn't claiming that the Clinton administration squandered the Africa development aid budget on U.N. conferences! What then, is the complaint? Did the Clinton administration fail to spend money on missionary hospitals? If so, what did they spend development on? Kristof doesn't say. He just provides a meaningless apples-to-oranges "contrast."

Kristof might have written a fine column on the work that Christian aid groups are doing in Africa, or on the negative impacts on Africans of Bush administration policies towards family planning and AIDS, or on the positive aspects of Bush's Africa policies. He might even have composed a measured assessment of the differing philosophies of conservatives and liberals towards development aid. But instead he choose to flatter the Bush administration and draw a ridiculous caricature of liberals. All in a day's work for a liberal pundit.