Sunday, July 11, 2010

What's the alternative to "nation building"?

Pretty much everyone, left and right, agrees that so-called "nation building" is a foolish and impossible aim of any armed conflict, with the possible exception of a global convulsion like the Second World War. There's no need to list any such critics on the left -- they're against armed conflict anyway, unless it be conflict directed against the West. But on the right, it's not just Ron Paul -- Bush himself campaigned against "nation building" in the 2000 election, after all, and in the past few months George Will and the National Post's George Jonas have urged a quick exit from Afghanistan on the grounds of the hopelessness of "nation building" in that forlorn land. Says Will:
Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.
 And says Jonas:
Surely, it’s better to help people build friendly, democratic nations, than letting them congregate in hostile tyrannies and engage them in periodic warfare.
Yes. Sure. If it could be done, it would be better. But if it can’t be done, it isn’t. It’s worse.
These two pieces are especially well-reasoned and -stated -- they should be read in full. What makes them all the more substantial and sobering, particularly compared to the usual leftist anti-war rhetoric, is that they proceed from no general hostility toward the US and the West in the first place, and they're not simply trying to score partisan political points, as the left so often did during the Bush years (recent comments by RNC chair Michael Steele notwithstanding).

But it raises the question posed in the title -- if "nation building" doesn't work, what does? For Jonas, apparently, nothing does, in the sense of avoiding a humiliating defeat: "Not having quit while we were ahead, we’ll now have to quit while we’re behind. Not having gone while the going was good, we’ll now have to go when the going is bad." For Will, it's the old magic of counter-terrorism that worked so well pre 9/11: "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters." There is, as Jonas himself points out, the empire-like (empire-lite?) alternative of long-term occupation and administration, but that seems no longer really feasible either politically or financially.

So these are depressing assessments, no doubt. But then what is to be done in the face of what still remains a global threat of asymmetric warfare waged by a dispersed but fanatically motivated enemy in the name of a theocratic totalitarian ideology, and in the face of the world's multitude of failed states, semi-feudal despotisms, and porous borders? I've always been quite convinced that, in this type of warfare, military moves alone won't suffice. But is it impossible to find more vigorous means of carrying the ideological and cultural war to the enemy?

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