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Sometimes nothing gets it done

July 29, 2007|By Edward J. Donohue Jr.

"Don't just do something, stand there" is advice often given by old professionals to young professionals. It conveys the message that sometimes in a bad situation it is better to stop and reflect before taking action to make a bad situation a very bad situation. Young physicians and military officers are prone to the "do something, even if it is wrong" syndrome, and those who learn to stop to evaluate before acting usually become successful.

A good argument could be made that American policy, domestic and international, has been one of "do something even if it's wrong" for much of the 20th and now into the 21st century. Internationally, America has transferred billions of dollars to Swiss bank accounts via assistance programs to corrupt and inefficient regimes around the globe. Internally, prodigious amounts of national treasure have been squandered on programs like The Great Society, Whip Inflation Now, No Child Left Behind, welfare and welfare reform, wars on drugs and crime and gangs and illegal immigration and a host of other "worthy" causes. Military "Do Somethings" are more conspicuous and include major debacles like Vietnam and Iraq, as well as minor incursions like Grenada, Panama and the firing of multi-million dollar Tomahawk missiles as an indication of our displeasure with some action or other.


Senator and ambassador Patrick Moynihan was one of the most astute observers of the national scene, and although a confirmed New Dealer and Roosevelt Democrat, he saw that the "do something even if it's wrong" syndrome was dangerous. He may not have invented the phrase "benign neglect," but he advocated it as a national policy toward the problem of civil rights at one time.

Respected columnist George Will recently advocated a policy of "benign neglect" toward the illegal immigrants now living in this country. He asks, "So, why not leave bad enough alone? Concentrate on border control and on workplace enforcement facilitated by a biometric identification card issued to immigrants who are or will arrive here legally. Treat the problem of the 12 million with benign neglect. Their children born here are American citizens; the parents of these children will pass away." There are worse solutions to the problem.

At the present time, our nation is involved in an expensive "war on terrorism" or "Islamofascism" or whatever phrase is the flavor of the day. The military and political efforts in Afghanistan (collaterally Pakistan), Iraq, and soon Iran, coupled with the continuous efforts to find "the roadmap to peace" in Palestine/Israel may be better handled with a policy of benign neglect." More than 50 years of U.S. involvement in the Israel/Palestine conflict has not brought the parties any closer - in fact the situation today might be worse than it has ever been. It is obvious to most observers, including the military on the ground, that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is not going to soon produce a stable, peaceful, homogeneous nation.

Let us agree that a major issue in the world today is the growth and strength of Islamic fundamentalism coupled with terrorism. This author believes that like all religious movements, it will wax and wane with the tides of social, political and economic development. At the present time, it is fueled by the sharp contrast between the developed Western world and the struggling world of many Islamic countries. Additional fuel is constantly poured on the flames by the situation in the Holy Land and Mesopotamia, where atrocities committed by both sides are daily seen throughout the world thanks to the Internet and television.

Can an argument be made that the passion of the fundamentalists will cool as economic and political conditions improve over time? Would full employment and a decent wage with the material benefits available to a young man with a job temper the desire to strap on a suicide bomber vest?

One could point to China to see how economic development over the past 30 years has led to a system nominally communistic, but in reality one of fervent capitalism. Billions of dollars were given to India during the Cold War, but India only blossomed after the end of the Cold War when it found the correct internal economic path. As a typical example, the Republic of the Maldives is a little-known nation in the Indian Ocean. It is 100 percent Islamic with only sun and sea as resources, but with wise leadership, it developed from a poor and backward nation to one with a profitable tourism industry and greatly improved living conditions for its population.

To my knowledge, no Maldivian Muslims have rushed to join Al Qaeda. With our "benign neglect," if not our ignorance of their existence, they are developing and have a place in the modern world.

Recognizing that there are some problems that cannot be immediately solved is a virtue, a virtue that seems to have been lacking in much of American leaders' decision making in the modern past. "Do somethingism" must be a genetic defect of politicians, or a device learned as a method of obtaining votes. How much wiser do George Washington and Benjamin Franklin seem now compared to the neocons, religious zealots and extreme liberals who have been responsible for "making bad situations very bad situations." It is time to for American policy in many cases to be, "Don't Just Do Something, Stand There."

Edward J. Donohue Jr. is a resident of Smithsburg.

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