Commentary Magazine


Defending “Nation-Building”

In the L.A. Times today, I attempt to defend what to many will seem indefensible–i.e., “nation-building.” Bashing nation building has become a standard, mom-and-apple pie theme in American politics.

George W. Bush did it while running for president; his national security guru, Condoleezza Rice, famously said soldiers shouldn’t be escorting children to kindergarten. Then Bush launched two of the biggest nation-building exercises in our history–in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why did he do it? The standard media narrative was that his administration was captured by a small cabal of neocons (read: Jews). I hardly need tell COMMENTARY readers this was a nonsensical interpretation. What changed was simply the course of events: 9/11 led us directly into Afghanistan and indirectly into Iraq. Once there, the administration realized the only responsible way out was to prop up governments capable of maintaining law and order after our departure. This forced us to engage, whether we liked it or not, in the dread exercise known as nation-building–more properly, state-building.

Unfortunately, in both cases we were late to the task, because the administration harbored so much animus against the very concept. Donald Rumsfeld was a particularly extreme case: In 2003-2004 he trashed the Clinton administration’s (relatively successful) exercises in nation-building in the Balkans because he claimed they fostered dependency–we still have a small number of troops in Kosovo, after all. So as to avoid “dependence” syndrome in Iraq, he tried to draw down U.S. troop levels as fast as possible and to keep U.S. troops from engaging too much with the civilian population. The result, as we know, was a disaster. This is what happens when we shy away from nation-building.

In Afghanistan, we are facing much the same challenge, and once again an American president directs that we should not engage in nation-building. One could take Obama’s words with a grain of salt until recently because there was little doubt we were doing nation-building in Afghanistan–except now his hasty and ill-advised orders to withdraw all of our surge forces by the end of next summer put in peril our troops’ ability to get the job done. In other words, Obama is raising the prospects of state failure–the very contingency that state-building is designed to avoid.

The more successful we are at state-building the less our commitment of troops need be; the less successful we are, the more the prospects ungoverned territory will become a breeding ground for terrorists, narco-traffickers, and other international threats, thereby neccessitating a greater commitment of U.S. troops in the future. That is a good reason why we should overcome our juvenile aversion to “nation-building” and get on with the task. Like it or not, we will be in the nation-building business for a long time to come.

We have no choice, really: If the collapse of the state in a country as remote as Afghanistan can be a direct threat to American national security (as it was on 9/11), then we do not have the luxury of overlooking any failed state anywhere in the world. That does not mean we could or should invade all these ungoverned spaces; but we definitely need to work with allies to bolster their governance capacity. Otherwise, we could pay a terrible price for our neglect.