Food For Thought
How could the United States improve its image in the Middle East in the wake of the global food crisis?
May 2, 2008
One of the most powerful images in American history is the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from July 1948 to May 1949. The airlift had come in response to the Soviet blockade of all roads leading to Berlin.
It was an impressive undertaking not only because it helped the people of Berlin to live normally in a time of crisis, but it made the United States government look as if it were an altruist-prophet compared to the Soviets.
One story in particular from the Berlin Airlift is very heartwarming, the story of Gail Halverson. In July 1948, Halverson caught a ride during his off time on a C-54 to Berlin.
As legend has it, after Halverson landed, he was approached by a group of children who had been watching the planes land, curious about his experiences as a pilot.
While talking to the children, Halverson broke up his last pieces of gum among the children — and promised them that he would return with more candy, telling them that they would know it was him because he would “wiggle his wings.”
Halverson began dropping candy over Berlin the next day and shook the airplane to signal to the children who it was. Day after day, more and more children began to show up to the drop zone, in hopes of getting their hands on some candy.
Halverson even began receiving letters of appreciation at base camp, addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings” and “The Chocolate Uncle.”
Unfortunately, there are not any heartwarming stories of this kind coming from today’s global food crisis. Recently, food riots have erupted in Peru, Cameroon, Indonesia, Egypt and Haiti.
And the World Bank estimates that 33 countries could face social unrest because of higher food and energy prices. Indeed, countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mozambique and Senegal have experienced social unrest recently due to high food and fuel prices.
With all of this in mind, one must begin to wonder whether the best strategy for the engagement of the United States in the Middle East would have not been one similar to the one used in the case of the Berlin Airlifts, rather than relying so much on U.S. military forces in the region.
By providing millions of people in the Middle East with food aid at a time of need, the odds are that the U.S. government would have had a real shot at winning the hearts and minds of the region’s people.
The option chosen instead, focusing on military force and effectively has many drawbacks. An indisputable one is that the U.S. government — unlike in Europe during the times of the Cold War — is not really in a position to sway opinions in the region in the favor of the United States.
Of course, as an explanation, many people would simply point to the lack of financial resources available to the U.S. government today.
But it’s worth taking a closer look. According to the World Food Program, the U.S. annual contribution to the food aid budget is $2.9 billion in 2008.
While the United States accounts for more than 40% of the World Food Program’s annual resources, the $2.9 billion 2008 budget is just one-quarter of the $12 billion spent every month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In other words, the cost of military engagement in the region for any week of the year equals an entire year’s worth of food aid.
Think about how differently the United States would be viewed in the Middle East today, as well as the rest of the world, if the U.S. government under President Bush had chosen a different strategy in 2003 — and would thus be in a position to invest even a small part of the war cost on food aid.
The Arab world at present has a total population of over 300 million. The World Bank estimates that about 100 million people in low-income countries could be pushed further into poverty by the food crisis.
When one does the math, even for a modest investment of a few dollars per person, the U.S. government could have made a big difference on the global stage.
The choice made instead, trying to force-feed the Middle East with democracy, has not worked. Unfortunately, it has left Arab countries, governments and most of the population alike, despising the United States — rather than adoring it.
To be clear: The argument presented above does not mean that other industrialized nations should not do much more on the issue of food aid than they have announced.
For the French President and the British Prime Minister to announce a “doubling” of food aid — say, from 30 million euros to 60 million — is tantamount to cynical political grandstanding.
Whatever their problems and shortcomings, though, it does not take away that, in decades past — and in sharp contrast to the “old” European powers — it had been part of the brilliance of U.S. public diplomacy to use tools such as food aid to great effect.
As the Berlin airlift example demonstrates, that was effective not just in diplomatic terms, but also in terms of global folklore — and establishing a great global reputation.
The Berlin airlift helped the people of Berlin to live normally in a time of crisis and it made the United States government look as if it were an altruist-prophet compared to the Soviets.
Think about how differently the United States would be viewed in the Middle East today, as well as the rest of the world, if the U.S. government had chosen a different strategy in 2003.
For the French President and the British Prime Minister to announce a "doubling" of food aid is tantamount to cynical political grandstanding.
The United States' $2.9 billion 2008 budget for food aid is just one-quarter of the $12 billion spent every month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The World Bank estimates that 33 countries could face social unrest because of higher food and energy prices.