Day: August 16, 2016

Nation-building isn’t a four letter word

Donald Trump yesterday followed in a long tradition of American presidential candidates and presidents who have forsworn nation-building.

George H. W. Bush said he was sending the marines to Somalia in 1992 to restore order and enable feeding the population. When Washington discovered that we couldn’t get out without leaving chaos behind, we turned the nation-building over to a UN mission (run by a US Navy Admiral) that failed. We are still fighting insurgent terrorists in Somalia.

Bill Clinton said in 1995 we would send US troops to a NATO mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina for only a year, to oversee implementation of only the military aspects of the Dayton peace agreements. He discovered the obstacles to peace implementation didn’t divide neatly into civilian and military components. US troops stayed for almost 10 years and some still remain. They likewise have stayed in Kosovo much longer than initially projected. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, their presence has had positive effects.

George W. Bush declared during the 2000 election campaign that US troops don’t do nation-building. But once he had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq he discovered that we couldn’t get the troops out without it. He then launched the two biggest and most expensive nation-building efforts since the Marshall Plan after World War II.

Barack Obama has been more disciplined than his predecessors: he pulled US troops out of Iraq almost completely (in accordance with an agreement and timetable negotiated and signed by his predecessor) and has tried to get them out of Afghanistan. The negative consequences of failure to build an inclusive state in Iraq, including Prime Minister Maliki’s turn to sectarianism and the rise of a Sunni insurgency, are documented in the Washington Post this morning. The consequences in Afghanistan are all too obvious: the Taliban are back in force and the Islamic State is trying to gain traction. Obama has said that one of his worst mistakes was failing to provide adequate assistance to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

When Trump yesterday declared an end to nation-building, he was repeating what his predecessors have said, and mostly regretted. The American people are reluctant to govern others, even if they are quick to tell others how to govern. Trump followed that tradition too, by announcing that he would somehow make sure that lesbians, gays, transgender and queer people are treated with respect abroad and honor killings stopped.

It is of course unfair to blame all the consequences of reluctance to do nation-building on American presidents.

First, because they are reflecting the real preferences of their constituents. Americans want their resources expended at home, not abroad. Many believe that 25% of the Federal budget is spent on foreign aid, even though the actual figure is less than 1%. If I thought one-quarter of my tax money was going overseas, I would want foreign aid cut too.

Second, because the task they are trying to avoid really is difficult and expensive. It is properly called state-building rather than nation-building, a term presidents prefer because it sounds pejorative. But what we needed in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya is a legitimate organization that could govern on a particular territory. The people on that territory might or might not constitute a “nation.”

Given what we know about terrorist groups and their affinity for weak or fragile states that cannot fully control their territory, state-building is not optional. Without it, post-war Syria or Yemen will, like post-war Iraq and Afghanistan, provide haven to people who wish harm not only to their own state but also to us.

That doesn’t mean the US has to be responsible for the state-building. You break it, you buy it is the prevailing rule. The Russians and Iranians in Syria along with the Saudis and other Gulf states in Yemen should be thinking about that as they bomb with abandon. The UN is already stuck with the job in Libya, where it appears to be making slow headway in gaining traction for a national unity government.

But what kind of state-building will Russia and Iran, or the Gulf states, do? Not the kind of state-building that even Donald Trump says he wants. What presidents call nation-building may not be what they want to do, but it is not a four letter word either. If you want to keep America safe, you are going to have to figure out how to get it done.

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