Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): A New, Privately Funded, Marshall Plan for the Middle East

Posted on March 4, 2011

In Jerusalem recently, during a private meeting with United States Senators, the Prime Minister of Israel suggested creating a new Marshall Plan to help people of Middle Eastern countries who are struggling to gain more freedom.

In one important way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal   is different from the plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II:  its funding would not come from the United States government but from private gifts and foundations worldwide. And instead of the money going for rebuilding bombed out industrial plants and roads it more likely would be spent on schools, health clinics and clean water.

Fundamentally, though, the plans are similar. Both Gen. George C. Marshall in 1947 and Prime Minister Netanyahu today proposed helping adversaries as well as allies.

Both aim to relieve hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Both proposals are based squarely on self-interest, as antidotes to the spread of philosophies unfriendly to democracy:  communism in the case of post-war Europe; militant Islam in the Middle East today. 

In both cases, applicants for the money would write their own plans.   In 1948, sixteen nations met in Paris to develop the Marshall Plan. President Truman then submitted it for approval to the United States Congress.  Most of the money was distributed by grants that did not have to be repaid.

The first Marshall plan was short-term (1948-1952) and so should be this one.  The goal is not to create dependencies but to help people stand on their own. 

There are other important differences.

The new Middle East Marshall Plan would cost much less.  The Marshall plan spent between $115 billion and $130 billion, in today’s dollars, over four years.  If a Middle Eastern plan carefully distributed a few billion dollars over five years it could have an enormous impact.

The Marshall Plan started out buying food and fuel and ended up rebuilding bombed out industrial plants, roads and other infrastructure. 

In addition to helping fund schools and clinics, a Middle Eastern plan is more likely to spend money on a corps of young people who are paid a subsistence wage to strengthen their own country.  

Marshall Plan money went to sixteen European governments.  Money for the Middle Eastern plan should probably be distributed through non-governmental organizations.   

After World War II, there was a clear effort to impose on Europe (and Japan) the American model.   We should have learned by now that the path to democracy in the Middle East is more likely to be uniquely Middle Eastern.

The original Marshall Plan was paid for mostly by the United States taxpayers. Money for the new plan should come from around the world. 

The first Marshall Plan money was used mostly for purchase of goods from the United States.  Today those goods would be purchased from around parts of the world. 

What are the next steps? First, a coalition of foundations should step forward and announce its willingness to consider proposals from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries that would assist a transition to a more democratic form of government.

Second, the first grants should be quickly approved, probably to non-governmental organizations already in place.  The original Marshall Plan moved slowly.   In this age of instant telecommunications, freedom fighters expect immediate results.   Some evidence of improvement in their lives could help sustain a movement toward democracy against the lure of militant Islam.        

An early State Department memorandum compared Gen. Marshall’s proposal to a Flying Saucer—“nobody knows what it looks like, how big it is, or whether it really exists.”  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposal also is usefully vague, with details to be filled in later by applicants for grants.     But shouldn’t it be enough simply to propose  helping people struggling for freedom based upon the hard-eyed belief that their success will benefit  other democratic countries including the United States and Israel?