Bush shifts stance on overseas development

He once scoffed at reach-out-and-touch someone policy, but it's a new focus of war on terrorism.

Teacher-training for Pakistan. Textbooks for Afghanistan. More Americans overseas helping the poor improve their lives. And more foreign students and scholars coming to discover the American way of life.

These are the tools that the US is increasingly turning to to fight the longer-term challenges of international terrorism.

It's the flash, muscle, and immediacy of the military campaign that garner most of the attention in the war on terrorism. But as America settles into what President Bush says will be a long war, efforts to get at the roots of terrorism and stop it from arising in the first place are beginning to take shape. Among these are a redoubled emphasis on old programs like the Peace Corps and new money for education, communication, human development, and international exchange.

The effort suggests an America that seeks to be better understood particularly in the Islamic world, and - if not universally loved - at least not hated so virulently that it incites attacks like those of Sept. 11.

Highlighted in last week's State of the Union address, the new foreign policy emphasis marks a shift for Bush, who scoffed at proposals for an active American role in development efforts around the world during the 2000 presidential campaign.

It also raises serious questions: How to carry out such programs without whipping up the fury of foreign opponents who see cultural imperialism behind every American teacher or book? How far will the US be willing to push friendly but undemocratic regimes, particularly in Muslim countries, whose authoritarian ways the US views as part of the problem? And, in the case of Afghanistan: Is the US putting the cart before the horse - declaring military victory and sending in the well-intentioned development brigades before ensuring the country's stability?

Though the answers are far from clear, the new tack is unmistakable. From the White House to the State Department, senior officials are underlining an effort to build "even more intense engagement" with the Islamic world.

"The real danger would be doing nothing" in response to terrorism, says Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs. "We acted quickly [after Sept. 11] to redirect our budget to Muslim countries and increase our exchanges and education programs with them, and that is going to continue."

Noting a list of actions focusing on education reform and extending schooling to women, another senior administration official says the focus on the Muslim world is the new emphasis in Bush foreign policy.

Afghanistan is a case in point. A group of 10 Afghan women will begin the first in a series of three-week courses in the US to improve their teaching skills - and to learn how to share what they learn with other women back home.

"We'll also be working with Pakistan," notes Ms. Harrison. "[President Pervez] Musharraf wants to encourage more secular education [and] we want to develop ways to support that."

At the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, educators working with a $6.5 million grant from USAID are rushing completion of 1 million textbooks for Afghanistan's new school year, which begins March 22.

Such US initiatives are now receiving widespread support - if not high levels of new funding. After a decade during which international education, exchange, and communication programs were cut by 40 percent, the next budget includes "a small bump-up" in reach-out-and-touch-someone spending, says Harrison.

"Sending in the Peace Corps and educational programs is all well and good," says Jack Goldstone, an expert in nation-building at the University of California at Davis. "But if we don't first help the central government become effective and provide the security the country needs, then we aren't doing the Islamic people of Afghanistan any good and we haven't learned the lessons of failed states."

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai, otherwise lavishly received in Washington last week, was offered a cold shoulder when he pleaded for US involvement in a peace-keeping force several times larger than the 5,000 United Nations troops now committed.

Goldstone sees a cold-war strategy emerging in the war on terrorism - military preparedness, with implementation of programs for winning support for American values and system of governance. But he says something closer to the strategy the US employed in post-World-War II Germany and Japan is needed.

"We remained long enough for new governments to get established.... We didn't pull out and figure a teacher corps was enough to stop the Nazis from regrouping," he says.

Beyond Afghanistan, increasing cultural exchanges and image-building campaigns could be wasteful at least or even counterproductive if they smack of cultural imposition or aren't accompanied by a broader US effort to address complex problems and encourage reform of authoritarian regimes, some critics say.

"These efforts come out of this administration's view that if you show people America, you can change a world view," says Martha Brill Olcott, an expert in nation-building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She notes that many of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived and received higher education in the West. "But really changing values takes a lot more, including complex things like opening economic opportunities and removing the ceilings the young people we're trying to reach face at home. And I don't see much evidence we're prepared to go that way," she says.

But the US, while starting off with the idea that education is part of the answer, is not stopping there, says the State Department's Harrison. "We [through American embassies] see the disconnect" between hopes and opportunities, "but the answer is not less education," says Harrison. "It's learning more about the world and change and opportunities, so they don't feel their only hope is a suicide mission."

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