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Transcript: USAID, America's non-military muscle

Steve Clemons, publisher of The Washington Note, talks with Rachel Maddow about the value of the USAID in responding to international disasters.

  USAID, America's non-military muscle
Jan. 13: Steve Clemons, publisher of The Washington Note, talks with Rachel Maddow about the value of the USAID in responding to international disasters.
Video - Follow-up
  Acting on behalf of the American people
Jan. 15: Rachel Maddow updates the news on progress being made by USAID in Haiti and responds to critics who think reporting on the government's efforts on behalf of the American people is inappropriately political.

January 13, 2010 - Transcript

MADDOW:  A massive rescue and relief effort by the United States government is underway in Haiti tonight.  Ships, helicopters, transport planes and 2,000 Marines reportedly on their way to Haiti now or likely to head that way soon with another 3,500 U.S. troops on alert.

The hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which responded to Haiti two years ago after hurricanes hit Port-au-Prince, which you heard the Haitian ambassador mentioned by name just moments ago—that ship has been ordered to deploy to Haiti again by next week.

The USS Carl Vinson is also set to arrive in Haiti tomorrow afternoon.

Now the Vinson is a super carrier.  It‘s in effect an off-shore airport.

It‘s the height of a 20-storey building.  It can accommodate 80 aircrafts.  It can produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of portable water every day.

But the first American ship to arrive in Haiti got there early today.  It‘s a Coast Guard Cutter, which was assigned to provide air traffic control for military planes and helicopters flying into the airport.

If you‘re wondering how and when this giant coordinated U.S.  mobilization was planned, well, here‘s a hunch.  Late last night, after this show was off the air, NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, was on air here talking to David Shuster.

She described U.S. government-wide conference calls that had already taken place, that were going on late into the night, and that were already further scheduled for early this morning.

By 7:00 this morning, Eastern Time, Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID, President Obama‘s designated point man on the Haiti response, was listing concrete details of what exactly the American response would look like on television.


DR. RAJIV SHAH, U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT:  We immediately activated a whole of government response.  We have stood up disaster assistance response team that will be going in today.

We have two standing search and rescue teams with specialized technical capabilities and appropriate equipment to begin an aggressive search and rescue effort on the ground in Port-au-Prince, and we‘re working very closely with U.S. southern command to help make sure that we have the logistic support, the transport capacities, and other needed capabilities in order to put really the full force and capacity of the U.S. government to work on behalf of the Haitian people and on behalf of our U.S. citizens in Haiti right now.


MADDOW:  That is Rajiv Shah, the brand-new administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, commonly called USAID.  His agency, USAID, is leading our government‘s relief effort for Haiti.  He‘s the go-to guy.

Why do we care who‘s in charge of our Haiti response?  Well, because the way we as a country respond to international disasters is not just about the response itself, it‘s also about America‘s power in the world.  Not just our power over others, but our power to project what we want to get done out into the world.

If you think about it, there are about, maybe, arguably, four major ways that America exerts power around the world.  One, leading by example.  Two, trade and economic leverage.  Three, people with guns and bombs, AKA, military force.  And four, a little shop of powers called the State Department, diplomacy, along with development and direct assistance to other countries.

Development and direct assistance is what USAID does.  And when we‘re responding to a disaster like the one in Haiti right now, we use USAID and the military alongside one another.

After the December 2003 earthquake in Iran, you might recall that USAID sent almost $9 million in aid.  Within days of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean region, more than 15,000 members of the U.S. military were in Southeast Asia to respond.

After the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the U.S. government supported 25 flights of relief supplies.  We spent six months working with U.N.  agencies and nongovernmental organizations on that recovery effort.

But beyond the immediate ability to have an impact in Haiti now, it‘s also important to understand what USAID is up to because the idea of more diplomacy and development, more USAID-style power is a major part of the Obama administration‘s agenda, diplo-Obama-sy?  Remember?

Putting someone as high profile and powerful and capable as Hillary Clinton in charge of the State Department, all of that, is central to what the Obama administration says it wants to do differently than what Bush and Cheney did.

Here, for example, is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to say, recently, about USAID.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE:  It‘s time for a new mindset, for a new century, and time to elevate development as a central pillar of all that we do in our foreign policy.  And it is past time to rebuild USAID into the world‘s premiere development agency.


MADDOW:  That was Hillary Clinton speaking just last week.  Today, USAID in charge of our country‘s massive recovery and relief effort in Haiti.

Not only is this us doing what we think is our obligation as a responsible partner in the community of nations, but in blunt terms, it often has good consequences for our country in terms of American power, our prestige, goodwill around the world.

This is the kind of thing that transcends politics.  It is a way for us to directly help the citizens of another country, often in difficult parts of the world, and the interaction is not mediated by politics or by their government, really.

I don‘t think we do it so that we will be better liked in the world, but that, fortunately, is often a side effect.

Joining us now is Steve Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation and publisher of the “Washington Note.”

Steve, it‘s really good to have you on the show tonight.  Thank you for being here.


MADDOW:  Is it inevitable that USAID would be the lead agency here?

And how capable are they of doing what needs to be done?

CLEMONS:  USAID is probably the most vital, under-resourced, and often-neglected institution in the international portfolio of the United States.  When a big natural disaster or we have foreign policy objectives that need USAID, they‘re there.

But during times of calm, they‘re neglected and severely under-resourced, as I think they were under the Bush administration, and of course, they were a major target in the old days of Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich and others who really didn‘t value this kind of international engagement.

When you think back to Katrina and how badly we responded to our own domestic crises, you can see a real step up to both how we responded in the tsunami crisis in Southeast Asia a few years ago and now what we‘re seeing unfold today in Haiti, which is incredibly impressive.

MADDOW:  Is there a connection between our domestic capacity for response, things like FEMA, things like we think about when we think about Katrina and what we‘re able to project internationally?

Obviously, a lot of the same logistical capacities come into play, but it‘s got to be run through different parts of the government and it‘s got to be sort of a shared expertise.  It can‘t just be the same agency.

CLEMONS:  Well, what USAID—I mean there are lots of different agencies that have different sort of roles and responsibilities.  But in the diplomatic international portfolio, USAID is an implementer, a doer, if you will, not a policy-making institution.

But when you compare what they have as resources to what the Pentagon has, USAID is as important a coordinator, not only of what Pentagon resources, which are rather bloated and just out-resource every other operation in government, but there is relatively good coordinating between them.

But they also coordinate with other governments around the world, as they‘re beginning to do in the Haiti case.  And I think this does translate into the kind of smart power, soft power that gets us real credits, as we saw—you know, after the tsunami, U.S. popularity in Asia skyrocketed after our very credible and competent response, helping the victims in the tsunami crisis.

I suspect we may see the same kind of thing in Haiti, but I have to say that the systemic level of this impact on the country of Haiti may require an adoption of this problem that we—that‘s going to be pretty staggering.

MADDOW:  In terms of the hemispheric relationship between us and Haiti, one of the things that has always been so remarkable about Haiti is that it stands alone in our half of the globe.  It stands alone in the western hemisphere in terms of its challenges with poverty and instability.

You look at the table, the U.N. Human Development Index, and you look at that table, and there is really nobody other than East Timor and Afghanistan that is not an African country, that is ranked as low as Haiti is.

As the dominant power in this hemisphere in the world, do we—are we seen internationally as having a special responsibility to Haiti?

CLEMONS:  I absolutely think we do.  I think it‘s beyond negligent, our dismissal and our distance from Haiti‘s problems.  We really need to get in and develop a serious approach to the Caribbean and Latin America as a whole.

We saw some parts of this in Barack Obama‘s engagement in the Summit of the Americas earlier last year, but I don‘t think it‘s enough.  I think Latin America is still somewhat of an afterthought and Haiti is at the very lowest part of that list.

The developing nation challenge around the world, whether it‘s in Africa, Southeast Asia, or right next to our border, is a national security problem that ought to be considered at a much higher level than we are considering it today.

And I‘d only add that the numbers are—you know, somewhat staggering.  You know when you go into Afghanistan‘s region, we‘re about to spend more than $100 billion a year in security and defense and society building in Afghanistan, with a country with a GDP of $12 billion.

Haiti is much lesser of a challenge.  It‘s not a financial jump for us to begin trying to figure out how we can move in and help animate (ph) some healthy civil society and economic reconstruction of that state.  And I believe we‘re beginning to get some of the resources in the government to do it.

But again, we have a real imbalance between what the Pentagon gets versus these very vital institutions that we begin talking about after earthquakes or tsunamis, but not much when we don‘t have these problems.

MADDOW:  And if the damage in Haiti is half of what we are able to see from the limited images that we have right now, there will be no debate about the need to quite literally reconstruct what it is, what Haiti is, as a nation, and as a capital in Port-au-Prince.

Steve Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation, publisher of the “Washington Note,” again, it‘s great to have you here.  Thank you, Steve.

CLEMONS:  Thank you, Rachel.

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