[Op-Ed] The Arrogance of Senator Corker
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presided over a hearing earlier this month on the subject of “American Food Aid: Why Reform Matters.” During the hearing he remarked that the U.S. Merchant Marine’s participation in USAID PL 480 was a “national disgrace” and a “total hoax.” He opined that he was very tired and hadn’t been able to sleep because the corporate welfare going to U.S. flag lines was causing thousands of people to starve and die around the world.
He also said that the cargo preference for food aid was impacting U.S. strategic interests in Syria and other regions in conflict and limiting the government’s ability to engage foreign governments. He went on to say the redistribution of food aid appropriations would save USAID $440 million in corporate welfare costs, which could feed up to 12 million more people. He concluded by saying that food aid reform would reduce farm income by a negligible 1.1% and agricultural exports by less than one percent.
The Manipulation of Information
That Senate hearing on April 15 was nothing more than a parade of reform proponent testimonies. The stacked deck included Dina Esposito, the USAID Director of the Office of Food for Peace, David Ray of CARE USA, a non-governmental organization, Dr. Vincent Smith of the Montana State University and Dr. Stephanie Mercier of the Farm Journal Foundation.
Esposito testified that 10 million Syrians have been displaced due to the country’s internal war and that four million are now refugees in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. She said that debit cards given to the refugees not only provide them dignity but also create local jobs and stimulate local economies.
She stumbled through most of her statement and could hardly look at Corker during the Q&A session. Perhaps she had already read the October 2014 United Nations’ internal audit on the World Food Program’s Cash Voucher program. The report details the diversion of millions of dollars in food vouchers that were sold by Syrian refugees to middlemen in Lebanon and Jordan.
About $230 million of the $317 million given to Syrian refugees was in cash vouchers, and the agency did not have the systems in place to even identify recipients. Furthermore, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that nearly a million people in Syria were denied access to relief convoys because of the inefficiencies of regional charities and nongovernmental organizations.
Corker and Esposito also portrayed USAID’s 2010 Haitian earthquake relief effort as a complete success, saying millions of displaced people got aid immediately. Corker took the opportunity to characterize the U.S. Merchant Marine’s participation in the relief effort as a “hoax.” In fact, he used the word “hoax” numerous times during the hearings to characterize the participation of U.S. farmers and deepwater mariners in the PL 480 Food for Peace Program.
The HBO series “VICE” took a different view. Its episode on April 24 characterized the $10 billion in foreign relief for the Haitian earthquake as a dismal failure. Five years later, displaced Haitians in Port au Prince, which was the area hardest hit by the quake, are still living in the makeshift encampments built in the aftermath of the quake. Port au Prince itself remains a shambles of broken buildings, and thousands of flimsy structures made of USAID plastic and food bags still exist along the mountainsides around the capital city.
Meanwhile, USAID spent more than $230 million of aid funds to build an industrial park, community center and soccer field in the northern part of the country while starvation and a cholera outbreak plague Port au Prince.
And the Band Played On
Vincent Smith, the Montana State professor, testified that the domestic intercoastal “cargo preference” trade (Jones Act) would absorb the 450 deepwater mariners who would lose their jobs as a result of food aid reform. It is unfortunate that Smith knows nothing about the STCW credentials required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to sail ships in deepwater international trades.
If the U.S. military has another drawdown of any significance, the fact is there will not be enough licensed U.S. seamen to sail supply vessels, and foreign companies will have to move the cargoes for the military and that will be a national travesty.
During the Q&A with Corker, Smith dismissed the U.S. Merchant Marine as totally insignificant to national security, which allowed Corker to call it a total “hoax” of corporate greed again. Their exchange was the height of hypocrisy and misinformation.
The testimonies of David Ray of CARE USA and Stephanie Mercier of the Farm Journal Foundation continued to parrot the reform consensus for the Congressional Record and are not worth commenting on.
The Ignorance of Leaders
Since the Marshall Plan after WW II, which rebuilt Europe, the U.S. Merchant Marine along with American farmers has helped feed the world. In the 50 years of Food for Peace, the U.S. has transported more than 110 million metric tons of food aid around the world, nourishing billions of people. U.S. ships are essentially a moving conveyor belt of logistics delivering food to strategically located USAID warehouses and directly into areas of devastation, continuously.
While Corker used the hearing to call American farmers and the U.S. Merchant Marine a hoax of corporate greed, he should remember that companies like Boeing get 137 government subsidies and $13.2 billion each year. Alcoa gets $5.6 billion, Intel gets $3.5 billion, and General Motors gets $3.5 billion. Even Berkshire Hathaway, with $485 billion in assets, gets $1.1 billion in annual subsidies.
Corker should be advised that it was U.S. merchant marine patriots who fought the most powerful navy in the world on the high seas in 1776. They’ve been on the battlefields with the U.S. military ever since. During the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Merchant Marine transported four times the supplies they did during the Normandy Invasion.
During the hearing, Corker made a sideshow of calling the U.S. Merchant Marine a hoax. Would he have the audacity to say the same thing about the U.S. Navy, Army, Coast Guard, Marines or Air Force? Yet he did it so casually about the Merchant Marine.
The U.S. Merchant Marine deserves more respect from the U.S. Congress, and it’s unbelievable that Corker is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This nation deserves better. – MarEx
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.