The Bush administration has found its next target for pre-emptive war, but it's not Iran, Syria or North Korea -- not yet, anyway.
Before launching any new foreign adventures, the Bush gang has some homeland housekeeping to take care of: It is going to sweep up those pesky non-governmental organizations that are helping to turn world opinion against U.S. bombs and brands.
The war on NGOs is being fought on two clear fronts. One buys the silence and complicity of mainstream humanitarian and religious groups by offering lucrative reconstruction contracts. The other marginalizes and criminalizes more independent-minded NGOs by claiming that their work is a threat to democracy. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is in charge of handing out the carrots, while the American Enterprise Institute, the most powerful think tank in Washington, D.C., is wielding the sticks.
On May 21 in Washington, Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, gave a speech blasting U.S. NGOs for failing to play a role many of them didn't realize they had been assigned: doing public relations for the U.S. government.
According to InterAction, the network of 160 relief and development NGOs that hosted the conference, Mr. Natsios was "irritated" that starving and sick Iraqi and Afghan children didn't realize that their food and vaccines were coming to them courtesy of George W. Bush. From now on, NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to U.S. foreign policy and making it clear that they are "an arm of the U.S. government." If they didn't, InterAction reported, "Natsios threatened to personally tear up their contracts and find new partners."
For aid workers, there are even more strings attached to U.S. dollars. USAID told several NGOs that have been awarded humanitarian contracts that they cannot speak to the media -- all requests from reporters must go through Washington. Mary McClymont, CEO of InterAction, calls the demands "unprecedented," and says, "It looks like the NGOs aren't independent and can't speak for themselves about what they see and think."
Many humanitarian leaders are shocked to hear their work described as "an arm" of government; most see themselves as independent (that would be the "non-governmental" part of the name).
The best NGOs are loyal to their causes, not to countries, and they aren't afraid to blow the whistle on their own governments. Think of Médecins sans frontières standing up to the White House and the European Union over AIDS drug patents, or Human Rights Watch's campaign against the death penalty in the United States. Mr. Natsios himself embraced this independence in his previous job as vice-president of World Vision. During the North Korean famine, he didn't hesitate to blast his own government for withholding food aid, calling the Clinton administration's response "too slow" and its claim that politics was not a factor "total nonsense."
Don't expect candour ... from the aid groups Mr. Natsios now oversees in Iraq. These days, NGOs are supposed to do nothing more than quietly pass out care packages with a big "brought to you by the U.S.A." logo attached -- in public-private partnerships with Bechtel and Halliburton, of course.