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The Best Peace Money Can Buy?

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The phrase “peace at any price” has a new meaning. These days it means the American taxpayer will be forced to pay any price to make the president of the United States look good at a peace conference.

This is how our Middle East policy goes. A president has domestic problems. What to do? War is always good for distracting people. Shakespeare knew that. He had a king ever prepared to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” But war has risks-and not just for the soldiers. If the casualties are high, war can backlash against the president who sent them into action. But it can be very successful, for a time. George Bush got quite a p.r. bump out of our splendid little war against Iraq. Unfortunately for him, it was too far in advance of the 1992 election.

A safer option is the surgical strike. It seems to have all the advantages of outright war, with little or no risk. The World’s Only Remaining Superpower has the smartest death technology going. Our guys can sit safely behind computer terminals and bomb the bejesus out of anyone. Apparently, we can send smart bombs down chimneys. Sometimes they miss and hit residential neighborhoods. They call that “collateral damage.” We’re sorry, but it’s their own fault for having rotten dictators running their states.

But the peace conference may be the most ingenious method of presidential rebound ever conceived. I’m not sure which conference qualifies as the first premeditated use of this device. But a good guess would be the Camp David meetings in 1979. President Carter, mired in the government-created energy crisis, inflation, and high unemployment, was desperate. He needed something to look presidential. So-voila!-he summoned Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains and held them virtual prisoners. It has been reported that when the talks were near breakdown, a frustrated President Carter cried out, “Are you trying to wreck my presidency?”

As it turns out, he didn’t need to invoke his presidency. He merely needed to flash his “American Taxpayer Express” card. He pledged that the American people would pay each nation billions of dollars in perpetuity if they would sign a peace agreement. It was an offer neither Begin or Sadat could refuse (although it later cost Sadat his life).

Forgive me for being overcome by déjà vu, but have you been following the aftermath of the Wye River accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? The other day President Clinton promised that the American people would be forced to pay the Palestinian bureaucrats $400 million more over five years than he had pledged originally. That brings the total to $900 million. I know by Washington standards that’s petty cash. Heck, we routinely shovel $3 billion to Israel each year, and billions more to Egypt. But by more reasonable standards, $900 million over five years is a lot of money. Left in the taxpayers’ pockets, it would finance new enterprises and new consumer spending to make our lives better. American taxpayers are not the only ones who will suffer. At President Clinton’s little Palestinian aid telethon, he collected pledges totaling more than $3 billion from U.S. allies. Nice day’s work.

Israel won’t be missing out on the goodies either. American taxpayers will pick up a hefty share of whatever the Wye accord will cost Israel to move troops off Palestinian land. Like Yasir Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu also accepts American Taxpayer Express.

It would be a mistake to think that sacrificing the American taxpayer is indispensable to peace in the Middle East. Both sides need peaceful relations, and they know it. Israel, a nuclear power, is secure against its neighbors. The Palestinians want a state and need an end to hostilities to get it. We Americans were forced to buy a peace that would have happened anyway. In fact, U.S. backing jeopardizes peace. By giving those nations a safety net, they become less responsible than otherwise. It’s about time all the parties stood on their own feet.

One more thing: foreign aid has never created prosperity. The only path to that destination is individual freedom and private property. Aid only aids politicians. That says it all.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.