For Bush, Humility and the 'Global Gag Order' Don't Mix

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Humility. That was the somewhat improbable catchword President Bush attached to his foreign policy while on the campaign trail. "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us," Bush said of the international community. "If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us. We've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom."

But in his first working day in the Oval Office, Bush is projected something rather different than humility. Indeed, for most of the world his decision to prevent any family planning organizations receiving U.S. funding abroad from discussing abortion will appear as anything but humble. It smacks a lot more of old-fashioned arrogance.

Let's make sure, for a minute, that the meaning of the President's executive order — known by opponents as the "global gag order" — on Tuesday is properly understood. Third World family planning facilities have never been able to use U.S. funds to either conduct or promote abortion. What Bush's order does is deny all U.S. funding to such institutions that may have been using other monies for programs discussing or promoting abortion. In other words, it tells Third World family planning organizations that getting help from the U.S. requires conforming to the morality of the Christian Right.

U.S. lags in aid donation

And that's hardly going to be perceived as a humble projection of strength in a way that promotes freedom. President Bush appears to have been sufficiently aware of the danger of the U.S. being perceived as arrogant to warn about it on the campaign trail. But is he heeding his own warning?

First off, it may be worth reminding President Bush how the nation he leads is currently perceived in the wider world. Its wealth and power may be envied, but they are not necessarily admired. On issues ranging from global warming to paying U.N. dues, Washington is widely viewed as something of a delinquent — instinctively selfish and disinclined to consistently accept the responsibilities attached to the claims of global leadership. The U.S. has by far the world's largest economy, and its average citizen consumes five times as much as his Mexican counterpart, 10 times as much as his Chinese counterpart and 30 times as much as his Indian counterpart. And yet when it comes to using its wealth to help others, Washington has become notoriously tightfisted.

The U.S. spends a measly 0.1 percent of its GNP on foreign aid. Half of that goes on military and security aid, with Israel by far the largest recipient. By contrast, the share of GNP spent by Japan (the world's single largest donor nation) and European countries on foreign aid is two and a half times what the U.S. spends. Scandinavian nations actually spend seven times the proportion of GNP that Washington does. By the measure of share of GNP, the U.S. is put to shame by 20 nations of more limited means.

Pro-life and also pro-death penalty

In plain terms, the U.S. is not seen as a generous nation.

It ought to be further noted, of course, that family planning is something of a national crisis in a number of developing countries. Resources are already overstretched in many Third World cities whose populations threaten to double in the next two decades, creating a series of explosive tragedies simply waiting to happen. In situations such as China where the stakes are high, the U.S. is usually prepared to nod and wink when foreign governments act in contradiction to U.S. political values. And the anti-abortion agenda isn't even a point of consensus in U.S. domestic politics, let alone a bipartisan American principle. So to impose it on developing countries as a condition for receiving U.S. aid seems not only arrogant, but also somewhat reckless.

It may also be worth pointing out to President Bush that he's not exactly up there with the pope as a moral authority in international eyes. A country that still executes convicted criminals in the year 2001 is not regarded as any kind of moral beacon in the world community — after all, the U.S. stands pretty much alone among Western countries in maintaining the death penalty, and that certainly doesn't reinforce the credibility of President Bush's claim to be defending the sanctity of human life.

A price to be paid

Of course, President Bush's domestic cheering section on the Christian Right may applaud the move, even if it turns out to be simply a bone tossed their way to compensate for their disappointment when he shuns an all-out assault on Roe v. Wade — as any president hoping to be reelected surely will do. (Even the First Lady last week revealed a her opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade.) But the price of the President's executive order will be paid in the cramped ghettoes of poverty and despair in the developing world. And, of course, in U.S. prestige. The nations of the world certainly won't read President Bush's order as projecting humility. Nor will they find in it an exemplar of global leadership worth following.