In 2016, the United States spent about $600 billion on defense and $15 billion on foreign aid. This likely isn’t the best way to divide that $615 billion if the goal is to keep the world safe for ourselves and our allies. It’s definitely not the best balance for keeping people alive, in Afghanistan or North Korea or Syria or Iraq, and perhaps not in the United States.
There are other options in how we try to lead the world and sway our enemies and make new friends. To be wedded to war, to missiles and manpower and battles and planes as the best and only option is to enter an expensively exclusive, foolish and deadly marriage. These tools have a place. Few people are naive enough to say they don’t. But can’t we also talk about how cheap, easy and convincing it could be to try kindness before resorting to killing?
The estimates of how much the United States will have spent in Iraq by the time it’s done fighting there and treating all the hurt soldiers vary wildly, but $2.5 trillion is a conservative guess. Taken by itself, $2.5 trillion to most of us means “so, so much.” It’s one decent new car for every family in the United States, as long as we don’t demand they be too pimped out.
It’s also $100,000 a head for every one of the 25 million men, women and children living in Iraq when the United States began bombing on March 20, 2003.
So, was there not something else we could do with that kind of money, besides causing the death of at least 200,000 of their citizens and 4,497 of our own, to convince the Iraqis to be peaceful pals, and maybe, over time, even freedom-loving democracy groupies? Maybe. Maybe not. But definitely worth a try.
Reporting from Iraq in 2004, I began to wonder what would have happened if before the United States started dropping explosives, it carpet-bombed that desert nation with kindness. What if we dropped food and clothing and materials for building shelters and medical supplies and books and a little cash and our old Gameboys (come on, you weren’t even using it anymore!) and comic books and silky lotions and generators and watermelon Jolly Ranchers?” What if we also had released pamphlets that read “All right, we’re going to drop this stuff every day for two weeks. Then, if you’re good, we’re going to keep supplying you with first-world awesomeness while we teach you how to create your own version of a free, just, stable and skin lotion-wealthy state. If you’re not good, we’re going to kill all of you. Seriously. All of you. In like, an afternoon.”
Such inducements might have worked. But even if they didn’t, it only would have cost us two weeks and a couple billion bucks worth of stuff to fail.
The reason it could work is that the U.S. way is the right way. Creating a free, equal, law-abiding, moral, kind and mostly capitalist nation is the way to go. The proof of that is in our nations’s tremendous wealth, and capacity for kindness, and concern for other nations. But the best way to prove this is by saying “Here’s $100 billion worth of goodies, our way works so well we can spare it.” Not by killing them.
Proving the American way via largesse is worth more of a try in Afghanistan than it’s gotten. If it gets to the point that the United States might bomb North Korea, wouldn’t it be worth trying to bury them in food and blankets and antibiotics and pamphlets about what the rest of the world is really like first?
There will always be plenty of time to kill if kindness doesn’t work. But trying the kindness first could save an awful lot of money.
And an awful lot of lives.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.