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David Gewirtz | BIO

AC360° Contributor

First, I’d like to send a good thought to all those suffering today in Haiti, and all their family members here in the United States.

No one can look at the horror of Haiti and not feel both a deep sense of sadness and a desire to help. It seems almost mean and selfish to suggest that we need to do something other than provide our full support to this devastated nation, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Over the next few weeks, there’s going to be a crucial decision-making point when policy makers will have to decide whether to move from a perfectly valid emergency response policy to a potentially disastrous nation-building policy.

Since the 1960s, we have operated under President Kennedy’s mandate of moral obligation:


“The answer is that there is no escaping our obligations: our moral obligations as a wise leader and good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations – our economic obligations as the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people, as a nation no longer dependent upon the loans from abroad that once helped us develop our own economy – and our political obligations as the single largest counter to the adversaries of freedom.”

But times have changed since JFK was President and Dr. King gave his great speech challenging us to “let freedom ring” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Today, we’re again dangerously in debt, this time to “adversaries of freedom” like China. Many of our own people are desperately hurting.

Foreclosures rose by 21 percent in 2009. Nearly half of all Americans owe more on their homes than they’re actually worth. As we’ve all come to know, millions of Americans over-reached and bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford. But Americans need to live somewhere and the lack of affordable housing (whether to rent or own) is a huge problem in America.

Millions more Americans will lose their homes in 2010. Our bridges and levees are crumbling and at least one out of every ten American adults is out of work.

After more than four years, there are still people who haven’t been able to return home from the damage inflicted by Katrina. Cities like Detroit and Chicago have unemployment rates above 22% and thousands of abandoned homes due to the damage inflicted by bankers and the financial industry.

America needs to get its own house in order.

Before we decide it’s our responsibility to rebuild all the lost homes in Haiti, let’s remember that it’s our actual responsibility to make sure our own people have roofs over their heads.

Haiti isn’t our problem alone. China and Germany and other economically powerful countries also have a “good neighbor” responsibility to less fortunate nations like Haiti. In fact, Haiti’s not really our problem at all.

Our “good neighbor” responsibility today is to our actual neighbors here in America, the mom in Milwaukee, the dad in Detroit, the grandparents in Grand Rapids, and the brothers and sisters in Baltimore and Cincinnati – not the huddled masses of Haiti, horrifying as their situation might be.

Sure, for a few weeks, it makes sense to send American forces into Haiti to help them recover from the initial shock of the crisis. But with two wars already stop-lossing our troops to the breaking point, we can’t afford to adopt another country as a matter of national policy.

Until we can make sure that the kids in Kentucky can get medical care, or the millions of uninsured Americans can have access to the drugs they need to stay alive, we can’t commit to sending a never-ending supply of free medicine to another country while at the same time blocking lower-cost medicine from entering the U.S. at our borders – with the blessing of the U.S. Congress – simply because Big Pharma wants to make an even greater profit.

In the past week, we’ve seen cabinet members and the First Lady ask Americans to give $10 to the Red Cross by texting “HAITI”. Perhaps, instead, these leaders should ask, nay, demand that all those bankers who bungled billions and stole millions in bonuses directly from taxpayers, send some of it to Haiti. Or perhaps, even, to the newly homeless in Houston.

I hesitated to write this article because those in Haiti are in a world of hurt and they truly need our help. Unfortunately, American policy makers tend to make long-term strategic mistakes in the name of compassion and good PR. We’re already stretching our resources too thin. Taking on yet another long-term responsibility for yet another nation may mean we have to abandon more Americans in more American cities.

Once we fix our own problems, then we can muck around in other nations, trying to prove we still have the chops to be a “wise leader and good neighbor”. But until we can take care of our own, we have no right trying to fix the ills of the entire world.