Rebuilding on What Foundation?

Guest: Bill Bishop, Reporter, Austin American-Statesman This country’s dead-set certainty that it can “rebuild” a nation tells all about why we so often fail at doing just that.

The formula was simple, the President told us last night. We take out the bad leadership in Iraq and then we rebuild the country, using some version of the Marshall Plan. Easy as pie.

President Bush explained the formula late in his speech. Yeah, people crab about what’s happening in the Middle East, Bush said. Well, they crabbed about the desolation of Germany after World War II. “Fortunately, we had a resolute president named Truman, who with the American people persevered, knowing that a new democracy at the center of Europe would lead to stability and peace,” he continued. We “held firm” and because we did “we live in a better and safer world today.”

And maybe the Germans had something to do with it, too. I don’t know. Bush never mentioned ‘em. Democracy and economic development, in the President’s world, are items that can be given to a place, like a road or a bell for a cathedral.

Historically this is wrong. Germany was one of the most advanced economies in the world before the war. It was a mini-America and just needed aid to get the internal engines of growth and innovation up and running. The Marshall Plan aid helped, but it didn’t create economy so much as restart one. In places where there was no existing economy – Southern Italy, for example – the Marshall Plan didn’t do squat.

The fact is, we don’t know how to build either economies or democracies. Hey, if Bush and his boys know how to build an economy, how about building one in Appalachia, or down here on the Mexican-Texas border. President Bush had six years as governor of Texas to tidy things up, but the border remains the most persistently poor place in America.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of here. Nobody knows how to impose either democracy or an economy on a people or a place. The West Germans have tried for 14 years in the East and have mostly succeeded in plunging both halves of the country into debt.

Now, with a lick and a prayer – most of all, a prayer – the country is committed to rebuilding the economy of the Middle East. If only we had a done a bit better job in Eastern Kentucky or the Mississippi Delta I would have more confidence in our prospects.