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Mary McGrory

Hungry for Justice

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, August 1, 2002; Page A27

It isn't every day we hear that doing right means also doing well in politics. But the Alliance to End World Hunger has brought us just such a message in the form of a poll showing that Americans care deeply that some of their countrymen are hungry and that others around the world are starving, and that they will vote for candidates who agree with them.

Three political consultants, Democrats Bill Knapp and Tom Freedman, and Republican Jim McLaughlin, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 likely voters to find out the good news. The poll was commissioned by David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, an organization that takes the position that no one should go hungry. Surprisingly, 92.7 percent of the voters considered fighting hunger "an important issue," and 48.5 percent said it was "very important," meaning they would vote on it.

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The figures are reassuring at a time when isolationism, known currently as "unilateralism," is making a comeback. The United States is busy emphasizing its uniqueness. President Bush has been vehemently opposing an International Criminal Court despite the fact that his fellow Americans think well of the United Nations. Sixty-nine percent declare "positive impressions."

The pollsters provide a good profile of kind-hearted and pragmatic Americans. They want to feed the hungry at home and abroad because, as 59.14 percent put it, "It is the moral and right thing to do." They do not want to be merely bleeding hearts, but want to show the needy how to help themselves by learning better farming.

Americans think that a combination of government and nongovernmental agencies works best in delivering the food where it is needed most. They also feel that the United Nations does a better job than we do in famine relief.

Beckman organized a coalition of 26 "international partners" to participate in the project. His purpose? "To move the issue of hunger from the church basement to the White House." He had a hunch about the potential political nourishment lurking in the hunger problem, but he was agreeably startled by its robust margins.

Beckman thinks that American attitudes toward foreign aid -- once the "rat hole" of rabid right-wing rhetoric -- have shifted markedly since Sept. 11. "They have been thinking again about what is really important."

If world hunger has made a significant penetration in the U.S. conscience, international law is a loser. A proposal for an International Criminal Court went down by a vote of 75 to 19 in the Senate. The Bush administration has been merrily demagoging the issue since May 6, when our ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, formally withdrew from the treaty. Bill Clinton, in the face of much flak from the Pentagon, had reluctantly signed the treaty on his last day in office, while noting its flaws.

George Bush, made aware of right-wing opposition, announced with satisfaction that he was "de-signing" the treaty, which had the ardent support of our European allies, particularly Great Britain. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, is equally keen. While both those staunch allies have been too polite to say so out loud, they have conveyed their disappointment in our stance that American servicemen just doing their duty would be at the mercy of villainous international shysters seeking to take out their resentment and envy of the world's only superpower by railroading our GIs into jail.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) made an impassioned plea before the Senate Appropriations Committee for us to join the rest of the world in extending the rule of law.

"Finally, the world stands up. We have been begging to do it for half a century. Any individual who commits genocide or crimes against humanity will be on notice that they will be prosecuted for those crimes."

But Bush was adamant. The United States was different, special -- not like any other nation on earth. We would withdraw our soldiers from peacekeeping in Bosnia -- and elsewhere -- if the U.N. Security Council failed to take note of our difference. The Security Council gave in. For one year, we were not like anyone else.

President Bush got a big cheer from soldiers at Fort Drum when he gloated that he had saved "our military from international courts and committees with agendas of their own." Dodd pleaded with his colleagues to take up the cause of extending the rule of law. He begged Republicans to "be a Vandenberg" -- that is, follow the Michigan Republican who helped Harry Truman devise the Marshall Plan while World War II wounds were still open. He got nowhere.

The United States will give strangers tons of wheat, but those hungry for justice may have to wait longer. We won't give up an ounce of our sovereignty.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company