Bush shows shift in policy toward `nation-building'

As candidate, he opposed role, but his view changed after Sept. 11, officials say

October 19, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush speaks with pride about what the military has achieved in Afghanistan since ousting the Taliban: It has helped to train an army and to build roads, schools and hospitals - even start a baseball league.

Now, the White House is discussing a far more ambitious reconstruction plan for Iraq if Saddam Hussein is toppled. One idea is for the United States and its allies to occupy Iraq and lead the government until a new regime is safely in place.

Both actions amount to "nation-building" - the use of the military, and often aid organizations, to police a war-ravaged country and rebuild institutions. The theme has become central to Bush's foreign policy.

Yet as a presidential candidate, Bush derided President Bill Clinton for engaging in nation-building. Back then, he insisted that the military should fight wars, not keep peace and build schools. In the 2000 campaign, he ridiculed his Democratic rival, Al Gore, saying: "I am worried about the fact that I'm running against a man who uses the military and nation-building in the same breath."

Bush's belated support for nation-building marks a striking evolution in his foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks. Recently, the president brought a uniformed U.S. Army captain to the White House to congratulate him for helping rebuild hospitals and schools in Afghanistan.

"Our soldiers wear the uniforms of warriors," Bush said. "But they are also compassionate people."

People inside and outside his administration, Democrats and Republicans, agree that Bush was duty-bound to shift his thinking after Sept. 11, especially after using the military to oust the Taliban. Leaving a leadership vacuum, after all, could have paved the way for a brutal regime like the Taliban to return, and perhaps serve again as a terrorist breeding ground.

Some have been critical of Bush - not for pursuing nation-building but for his reluctance to fully embrace it. In Afghanistan, some critics charge, the United States has failed to play a leading role in reconstruction - something they say is needed to persuade other countries to send more troops and money.

Among Bush's more vocal critics has been Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the influential Delaware Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the United States does not become more involved in policing Afghanistan, especially outside the capital of Kabul, Biden has warned, warlords will gain more power. And the nation, he said, could "degenerate into the state of lawlessness that made way for the Taliban."

Biden's spokesman, Norm Kurz, said yesterday that the senator "feels adamantly that we should have done more, should be doing more and that if we don't lead, our allies won't have the heart to do it."

Administration officials concede that Bush's views on nation-building have shifted. But they insist that as a candidate, he never ruled out engaging in it. What he opposed, they say, was the use of the military for international peacekeeping. Still, they note that Sept. 11 altered Bush's world view.

"There is an apparent contradiction," a senior White House official acknowledged. "The administration, with its international partners, is doing something akin to nation-building. But nobody saw Sept. 11 coming. Sept. 11 changed the realities of the world."

Once the attacks exposed America's vulnerabilities, Bush took on a mission to confront global terror and governments that aid terrorists or wield weapons of mass destruction. But in ousting regimes like the Taliban, and perhaps Hussein's, analysts say, Bush is obliged to help replace them with stable governments.

Indeed, many say that rebuilding such nations as Afghanistan and Iraq is vital to U.S. efforts to eradicate terrorism. The Soviet Union's abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989, for example, led to the rise of the Taliban, which provided havens for al-Qaida terrorists.

Ivo Daalder, a former national security aide to Clinton, suggested that Bush has come to recognize the perils of leaving behind a failed state without stable leadership. "It is a welcome recognition of something Clinton was saying for eight years," Daalder said.

Still, Daalder argued, the president is pressured by conservatives who staunchly oppose nation-building. In Afghanistan, he said, Bush has made a halfhearted effort, barring U.S. forces from a direct role in peacekeeping and limiting their geographic reach.

The risk, Daalder said, is that renegade Afghan warlords will regain power in the absence of enough peacekeepers and will destabilize the country.

"In Afghanistan, [Bush] has not recognized the fundamental truism that you need to be engaged throughout the country," Daalder said. "Yes, they are basically engaged in what everyone would call nation-building. The White House has now recognized the importance of doing this. They recognize the problem. But they really don't have the answer to solve it."

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