Alan Bock: Nation-building or...

I distinctly remember President Bush, when the war – or the bombing campaign, depending on how much of a stickler you are for constitutionally-declared wars and other anachronisms – was just beginning, promising quite specifically that the United States wasn't going to get involved in "nation-building" in Afghanistan. No, no, we had learned our lessons from the Clinton era and he had stressed it in the campaign. War on evil, yes. Nation-building, no. The Bushlet might even have been sincere at the time – although I tend to view all presidents with skepticism bordering on cynicism rather than respect verging on worship, which I would argue is the proper stance of any people that wants to remain free or become freer. But it hardly took a prophet to figure that when the time came we would most definitely be involved in nation-building there. The international dynamics – not to mention the memory of previous Afghan adventures and the nature of the kinds of people who tend to populate the State and Defense Departments whatever party is in power – virtually guaranteed it. What is emerging as the Bush style also made a sizable commitment in Afghanistan likely. Any number of observers have argued that Bush 43 is tougher and more focused, closer to conservative and less a captive of the establishment schmoozing set than his old man. In some ways this is true – he certainly moved more decisively and surely upon assuming office than either friend or foe anticipated. But if the war has brought out the "real GW," as some have contended, and given him a focus, it has also showed a risk-averse consensus-obsessed side of him that resembles old 41 rather closely.


Thus even though Dubya, with his post-9/11 popularity ratings, has had almost unparalleled political capital, he has been loathe to use it in ways that might disturb the illusion of consensus. He chose not to campaign for Republican candidates in New Jersey and Virginia during the recent elections, citing the focus on the war and reluctance to appear to be – horrors! – a partisan. He did almost nothing for the recent "economic stimulus" package the Republicans pushed in December – which might be just as well considering what a mess it was after going through the congressional mill. It appears that while Mr. Bush might have a few convictions on political matters, they are few and far between – at least those that might be worth fighting for. Even before the terrorist attack he was always going on about bipartisan this and bipartisan that, about making changes in Washington's normal way of doing business. He has shown a certain relish for certain fights, but an absolute distaste for most forms of confrontation. He prefers to believe that the Democrats can be reasoned with – or at least he pretends to believe it. This is not inconsistent with a certain kind of toughness. He was shrewd enough to use the honeymoon even a disputed president gets to get a tax cut done and to announce he didn't plan to take the global warming and ballistic missile treaties very seriously. He has managed to create a virtually-leak-free White House, which is probably not possible through sweet-talking alone. He apparently demands utter loyalty from aides and is not reluctant to punish those who stray from the true path. And he has both talked and acted tough in the war on terrorism. On a number of larger political issues, however (I'm not quite sure yet whether this category embraces all issues that stretch beyond the relatively narrow margins of organization, family, friends and current White House agenda, to include anything about which actual political thinking rather than organizational loyalty is required), he is remarkably confrontation-averse.


If this is the Bush pattern in domestic politics, it is hardly unexpected that a similar pattern would prevail in international affairs. While declaring publicly a willingness to go it alone like a "dead or alive" Western gunslinger, the president has in practice set great store in building coalitions to support his efforts. Getting support from the Tony Blairs of the world, however, means that you must listen to proponents of nation-building and international action on a grand scale. If you don't want to alienate your putative allies, who turn out to be the denizens of that floating crap game of mutual back-scratching most analysts choose to call the "international community" you're not likely to draw a line in the sand over something so trivial as a campaign promise or a matter of principle. So it was likely that, once it mattered -- whatever he might have meant back in October -- Mr. Bush would fall in with the nation-builders, who predominate in most of the circles he deems important.


It's too bad more people haven't read Fool's Errands: America's Recent Encounters with Nation Building, a Cato Institute book by Gary T. Dempsey with Roger W. Fontaine. It details the grand illusions and expensive failures American and other nation-builders have indulged in (sending the bills to American taxpayers) over the past decade, including Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Most Americans have a general notion that these exercises weren't exactly great successes, or in some cases an impression that they have unfortunately taken longer to produce positive results than some had expected. Dempsey and Fontaine, however, offer in excruciating detail just how miserably all these missions failed, despite – or perhaps because of – the best exertions of the "best and the brightest." The administration actually seemed to think that installing Aristide by force in Haiti would transform a country with no tradition of democracy into a democratic utopia. They got involved in Somali domestic disputes and squabbles from a position of almost complete ignorance, with the arrogance of the ignorant that military force and good intentions would ineluctably bring these primitives to heel. They insisted on creating an unstable "multiethnic" Bosnia and dabbled aggressively in politics when the model proved as unstable as anyone with half a brain could have told them it would be (and some did). They openly sided with favorites in both Bosnia and Kosovo, which probably hurt them more than it helped them – and created widespread resentment on all sides against U.S. and Western meddling.

A TOUCHING FAITH These Clinton-era fiascoes, the authors conclude, "were expressions of the administration's faith in the power of government, especially the US government, to engineer solutions to political and social problems." Failure didn't teach these social engineers a thing. At the end of the administration, with failure after international failure staring us in the face, Clinton was saying things like "We've got to realize that there are other places in the world that we haven't fooled with enough." The White House then presented "new development agenda for the 21st century" with an "accelerated campaign against global poverty" and the elimination of the "digital divide." To the end the Democrats were touting "democratic enlargement" and a unique American (i.e. bureaucratic) response to globalism. They were quite open and explicit about the fact that their program meant an end to outdated concepts like national sovereignty and that it would cost a great deal in military force and foreign aid.

A FAINT HOPE Afghanistan has many of the problems that have caused nation-building efforts in other areas to fail. Its borders, like the borders of Bosnia, were established (albeit 100 years ago) by the British for purposes of imperial convenience rather than because of local political and ethnic forces. It has had periods of stability despite the potential for ethnic conflict largely because it has had a weak central government that has not been viewed as a threat by minorities to monopolize power and wield effective oppression. Most of Afghanistan's problems have been caused by meddling from the outside – by the British and Russians in the 19th century, by the Soviets in the 1970s, and by Pakistan and the Western alliance that supported the anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s. It seems more than a little counterintuitive to hope that renewed and intensified attention from outsiders will be the key to stability in the future. Perhaps our best hope is that the Bush administration, like most politicians, really doesn't mean it when people like Colin Powell say we're going to be with Afghanistan for the long haul, that we'll be there to funnel money, hold hands and give orders without much knowledge or concern about local conditions – which is unlikely to deter the arrogance of professional nation-builders. (Indeed, more often than not ignorance is what breeds that kind of arrogance.) If the United States has a core national interest in Afghanistan it is that it not be a breeder of terrorism, a place where terrorists can find a safe harbor and a secure base of operations. If the Bushies understand that and really don't mean all the flowery promises about democracy, prosperity and strong centralized bureaucracies (which would intensify ethnic insecurities and rivalries), perhaps they will be able to concentrate on that narrow goal and keep the more ambitious international tinkerers in check. They wouldn't be likely to say that in public, of course. In public they might go along with the grandiose rhetoric and promises while keeping the mission focused. I have my doubts whether the Bushies really do understand that. If they do, I have my doubts about their knowledge, shrewdness and capacity to keep any mission in Afghanistan narrow and focused – especially since they won't be able to be honest in public about what their real mission is. So I suspect we're going to see yet another grandiose, expensive, ineffective exercise in failed nation-building that might just make Afghans and others in the region so much worse off that it will breed resentment and hostility in the future.

Alan Bock

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