Hoop-Jumping Foreign Aid

In a dramatic shift, President Bush now wants to use butter as well as guns in his war on terrorism.

Last week, he announced $5 billion in new US foreign aid for the poorest nations that would, he said, help reduce the poverty that breeds terrorism or at least creates a haven for it.

But the plan would come with heavy strings: Nations must first show they can fight corruption, uphold the rule of law, and welcome foreign investment.

Setting conditions should boost much-needed support for foreign aid among a skeptical American public. The US is the stingiest foreign-aid donor among developed nations, although it makes up for that in expensive military missions that keep the peace (or create it) in trouble spots.

Mr. Bush was probably pushed into proposing this by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and by the potential embarrassment of attending this week's UN conference on aid financing without something in hand.

Up to now, the Bush administration has been critical of foreign aid as either ineffective or even damaging. Without Sept. 11, it's unlikely the president would have proposed this aid. Still, as a "compassionate conservative," he's done a service for the international aid community by asking poor nations to shape up before receiving aid. Demands for more aid often don't succeed in the US. Americans have a "show me" attitude toward aid, and want bang for the buck.

The Bush plan builds on lessons learned from past mistakes. Too often aid is given for political reasons, such as propping up Israel or Egypt, or ends up enriching only a few. If Sept. 11 ends up redirecting and boosting US efforts to reduce world poverty, then it will have some blessing.

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