Wise U.S. would make nation-building a priority

October 18, 2001|By Derek Chollet

WASHINGTON -- If there can be a silver lining to the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism, it is that such events force leaders to rethink priorities and seize new opportunities.

For President Bush and his foreign policy team, one hopes that this crisis will stanch their knee-jerk aversion to "nation-building" -- the concept of using U.S. resources to promote democracy, build institutions and infrastructure and provide humanitarian aid in order to enhance stability by giving societies a chance to succeed.

During last year's presidential campaign, Mr. Bush constantly referred to nation-building as a failure of the Clinton administration's foreign policy and as a misuse of the U.S. military. Mr. Bush pledged to curtail U.S. commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo. Nation-building, he pledged, would be a thing of the past.

But if there ever was an example of why nation-building has never been more relevant, the current crisis in Afghanistan is it.

The Sept. 11 attacks showed that the threat to the United States is not just from "rogue" states like North Korea, Iraq and Libya but "failed" states like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. With an absence of authority that allows groups like al-Qaida to hide, train and operate, these places are the global equivalent of vacant lots in bad neighborhoods.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has been one of the most neglected countries on the planet. Its current humanitarian needs are profound. Relief organizations predict that up to 8 million Afghans are threatened by disease and starvation. As the conflict continues, this will only worsen.

President Bush deserves credit for offering $320 million in relief supplies and ensuring that the military campaign includes daily airdrops of food and medicine. But he must show that he understands the larger challenge. While he has acknowledged the need for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, possibly with the United Nations in charge, he still contends that "we're not into nation-building." Absent such a policy, such relief efforts will be little more than Band-Aids.

The resources must therefore be more meaningful. The U.S. Agency for International Development reports that the military airdrops will meet less than 1 percent of the need. To put this in perspective, the Marshall Plan spent nearly $100 billion in today's dollars to rebuild Europe after World War II, and Washington poured out more than $2 billion to finance the Afghan struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s. To spend even a fraction of this is well worth the effort.

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed to triple Mr. Bush's package and provide $1 billion as a "down payment" on a "multinational, multiyear, multibillion-dollar" program to rebuild Afghanistan. The administration should support it.

While Afghanistan is the immediate priority, Mr. Bush should recognize that nation-building will remain critical to fulfilling his other foreign policy goals.

For example, if the administration decides to support Palestinian independence, it will have to make nation-building there a priority. Or to take a more controversial case, if some of Mr. Bush's advisers have their way and the United States expands its war on terrorism and overthrows Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Washington will have tied itself to rebuilding Iraq -- what might be called the mother of all nation-building efforts.

The administration also must not allow the current crisis to undermine its other commitments. Although Mr. Bush quickly backed off his threat to withdraw U.S. troops from the Balkans, it is clear that his administration still does not accept the principle of such missions. Pentagon officials recently have spoken of "using" the war on terrorism to draw down from Bosnia and Kosovo.

The United States should not rob Peter to pay Paul. The Bosnia and Kosovo missions are modest (comprising less than 1 percent of all U.S. troops overseas), and they are an important symbol of America's leadership in Europe. Even in war, their political and diplomatic value far surpasses their military cost. And despite great progress, the job in the Balkans is not done.

All of this points to one basic point: Nation-building, while still perhaps a politically radioactive term in Washington, is both a legitimate and fundamental part of U.S. foreign and military policy. If the United States doesn't put serious resources behind such efforts now, then it's only planting the seeds for future crises.

Derek Chollet is a visiting scholar at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

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