Caravans and Controls: Fear, Hate, Foreign Aid, and the Ghassanids

Central American migrants walk towards the US border (screengrab via Washington Post)

President Trump is threatening to cut foreign aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (which he still doesn’t seem to understand he doesn’t quite have the power to do) because a ragtag group of thousands of desperate people are attempting to seek asylum here in the United States.

He’s counting on all of us to be simple minded and fearful—two traits Americans have demonstrated to possess in spades lately.

Trump has said that unless these countries can “control their populations” he will cut the “massive” foreign aid we give them, for which “we get nothing in return.”

First of all, that bit about controlling a population is very telling. That’s what he believes a government should do? Control its population, not the other way around? That’s about as un-American as it gets, yet when Trump says it we don’t even bat an eye. He’s trying, very successfully, to control Americans by dividing us, discrediting the media, and instilling unreasonable fear and hatred in us.

Altogether, the US gave those three countries about $600 million in foreign aid last year. That seems like a tremendous amount of money, especially without some perspective. Allow me to provide it: if you paid $6,000 in federal taxes last year, then $1.00 of that went to aid for those countries. Put another way, we would have to give aid at that level to those countries for twenty-eight years to equal the cost of just one nuclear submarine. It’s about how much we’ve spent every three days on the Global War on Terror for twenty years straight.

And what do we get for that foreign aid? Is it money wasted on governments that can’t seem to “control” their population? Well, most of it isn’t in the form of cash payments. It’s in the form of anti-corruption and good governance programs. Are these programs successful? Many would be quick to say no, as evidenced by the pathetic state of these nations. But consider two salient points here. First, maybe these programs are just successful enough to prevent developing nations from becoming failed states. Think there are a lot of migrants now? Try dealing with twenty million migrants if those countries turn into a Western version of Syria or Libya. You know what happens to failed nations? Genocide, starvation, and radical ideologies are three things that immediately come to mind.

But the most important two things we get for that money and those programs are influence and awareness. What comes with anti-corruption and good governance programs? Effective law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel who gain wide access and influence into sensitive issues and threats within those countries and governments. We get some control and early warning into three unstable and volatile countries in our hemisphere. Seems like a pretty good deal for about a dollar a year per American family, right? A way better deal than what we got out the Iraq War for the three trillion dollars we spent there, anyway.

I’m gonna throw out a word here that I’m sure Trump has never heard—Ghassanids. That’s the name of the Arab allies the Byzantines had on their southernmost frontier. The Byzantine Empire was the Greco-Roman Christian empire that enabled Christianity to spread throughout the world beginning around 400 CE. You see, the Byzantines would give these Arabs foreign aid every year and they got sick of it. The Ghassanids followed some weird and heretical form of early Christianity called miaphysitism—whereby they considered Jesus to have two natures, both human and divine—instead of the monophysitism followed by the Byzantines—whereby he was a synthesis of the two. This drove the Byzantines crazy and made them question the Ghassanids’ allegiance because to them, miaphysitism sounded an awful lot like monotheistic Zoroastrianism followed by their Persian Sassanid enemies.

Under popular pressure the emperor revoked foreign aid to the Ghassanids and even persecuted them over what to us would seem to be a trivial matter of doctrinal differences. The problem was that the Ghassanids formed a crucial buffer between the empire and the Arabian tribes of the peninsula. All of this went down right about the time Mohammad was receiving all of those messages from his buddy Gabriel the angel. And you know what came flooding out of that desert without warning? The Muslim hordes, who would eventually conquer both the Byzantines and their archenemies the Sassanids (who’d made an almost identical mistake with a tribe called the Lakhmids). They came rolling across the desert once patrolled by the devilishly heretical Ghassanids, who were now all too eager to partner with the comparatively tolerant Muslims.

Foreign aid serves a purpose now just as it did two thousand years ago. It’s cheaper and more effective to influence our global neighbors with carrots than with sticks. Substantive foreign support policies work to establish and maintain spheres of influence and spread ideology through the promise of hope in a better future much more effectively than the threat of invasion or annihilation.

Echoing George Santayana (another name Trump probably doesn’t know), those who are ignorant of history are bound to repeat it.