Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Powell Doctrine and social programs (paca)

I followed last week's election pretty closely, mostly over on "The Moderate Voice" weblog, as well as news sites. Of course, that means there was a lot of discussion about Iraq, and periodically its possible parallels to Vietnam.

Now, I honestly know little about Vietnam. I was born right around its end, and I don't remember much from high school about American history after the failure of the The League of Nations. Apparently, there was this WWII thing that we never got to. But my understanding is that what went wrong in the last few years of Vietnam was that American policy got stuck in a rut. They weren't moving forward or backward. Many people didn't want to leave for the dumb reason that they didn't want to admit defeat and for the good reason that the American presence was doing some good. After all, Saigon fell right after we left. But while there, I don't think the goals were all that clear anymore. It was a little of this and a little of that. People were fighting and dying, but exactly what they had to do before they could come home was unknown.

And it seems that in some ways this is where we have gotten ourselves in Iraq. I kept thinking that the President must have measurable goals that he just doesn't want to reveal to the public for security reasons, but I really wonder now, not just that he didn't have them when he started, which seems to be decently documented, but that he didn't even draw them up last month when it became clear they needed some. So we seem to be in this place where other than generalities about standing up and freedom we don't know what we are doing, or if we do, we don't seem to want to commit the resources to do it. Despite this possibility (and it may be wrong), many people, including myself, are inclined to say, "you can't just up and leave! We destroyed the government, so now we are stuck there morally, not for pride or reputation, but for the real Iraqi citizens who need help." I still think that is probably right. What I just don't know is if we are able to meet our obligations. Generals and politicians and wise people know that, not me.

I am going to leave Iraq now and move to the main point of this blog entry.

Are social programs the liberal version of Vietnam? In other words, have the Great Society programs of the Johnson era or even the FDR ones gotten to a point where 1) there aren't really any goals to achieve, but instead we just muddle along with no ability to "win"; 2) we see that poverty is just as bad (if this is true) as when we started, but we think we have to "stay the course" until someone comes up with something better? After all, we are doing some good. 3) We have thousands of social workers and government employees doing everything they can to help people in these programs, just like American soldiers were/are doing everything they could to help Vietnamese and Iraqis, but the system is broken?

There are surely problems with such an analysis. I gave one I still like a few months back - we may not solve "Hunger" but we do feed a real hungry person, and isn't that the point?

But let's say there is a kernel of truth to my analogy as well. If so, then perhaps they both have similar solutions. What was supposed to be the policy solution to prevent quagmires like Vietnam from happening again? The Powell Doctrine - Use overwhelming force; only go in when you have exact ideas on how to get out. In short, decide exactly what you want to do and then throw everything and the kitchen sink at it. This doctrine seems to have worked decently well militarily until Iraq, at which point we ignored the idea in large part.

My question is: do we need to be applying the Powell Doctrine to social programs? Instead of choosing between small bits here and there, which we then apply across the U.S., choose some specific problem and then do everything you possibly can to fix it. Of course, you can't fix poverty. But the Powell doctrine isn't supposed to end war either. It is, however, supposed to keep you out of ill-defined never-ending war. So for a social program, you can't cure poverty. But maybe you can choose one broken neighborhood and attack its problems like no one has ever seen. Take East St. Louis or the 9th Ward or "across the slew" and go after it. Beautify the neighborhood, give tax breaks to small business, have Head Start programs in every neighborhood, find mental health treatment for the homeless who need it, triple the community policing, get drug treatment in there, engage every church and civic organization you can to participate in creating the solutions, build schools throughout the district, and right on down the list.

Of course, you cannot do this in every single place at once. We'd all go bankrupt. But if you can truly "fix" a neighborhood in 5-10 years, based on some defined goal before you started, then you can move to the next place. When East St. Louis supports itself, you don't have to spend the money there anymore. Ironically, one drawback to such a solution is that people might start moving to that location to take advantage of the new schools and the tax breaks on business. But if people are now moving to the place most people were afraid to go before, then it seems you have succeeded. Time to find the next problem.

I don't know, but I wonder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well thought out and well stated! Quelle bonne idee! Muffy