In October 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush famously derided the concept of nation building and the suggestion that the U.S. military should take the lead in building up failed states.
“Maybe I’m missing something here,” Mr. Bush said in a debate with Democratic rival Al Gore. “I mean, are we going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.”
Almost eight years later, U.S. interagency “provincial reconstruction teams” are trying to rebuild the economy and government in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army’s just-revised field manual puts military post-conflict “stability operations” on a par with fighting wars. And the State Department’s new Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization is recruiting an elite Civilian Reserve Corps of specialists — engineers, judges, prison wardens, health experts and city planners — to deploy to failed states in a crisis in as little as 48 hours.
And none of the leading candidates to succeed Mr. Bush seems likely to reverse course.
“They don’t typically use the term, but the Bush administration has clearly embraced the idea of nation building with the fervor of a convert,” said James Dobbins, special envoy in the Clinton administration to a string of failed states, from Somalia to Haiti, and Mr. Bush’s first special envoy to Afghanistan after the 2001-02 military campaign.
“After Iraq, the main Democratic criticism has been not that we shouldn’t do nation building, but that we should do it better the next time we try,” he said.
A sign that nation building has gone from pejorative to priority in recent times came at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended a $249 million administration budget proposal to fund 351 government positions devoted to classic nation-building tasks.
Miss Rice, who like Mr. Bush once derided U.S. nation-building missions, acknowledged her thinking has evolved after eight years as national security adviser and as the nation’s top diplomat — especially on the need for American civilian expertise to build up failing states abroad.
“Governance is not a natural act,” she said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times last month.
“You aren’t born knowing how to govern. You have to learn how to govern. You have to learn how to put ministries in place. You have to learn how to execute a budget. Somebody has to help with that. And that’s why I think this civilian capacity is so important,” she said.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, a conservative Republican from California who questioned Miss Rice about the program at the House hearing, said he supported the idea.
“It strikes me that at least in part, this may mean that the president is coming full circle and maybe nation building is a part of our [foreign assistance] effort now,” he said. “And I must say, I don’t regret it at all.”
Richard Perle, neoconservative strategist and a former Pentagon adviser, was a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion but a harsh critic of the postwar U.S. record.
Mr. Perle said a president sincerely skeptical of nation building would have turned over power in Baghdad to Iraqi leaders as soon as possible, not try to micromanage the country from Washington as resentment and anti-U.S. violence exploded.
“Every situation is different, but I hope we have learned some real lessons about the fool’s errand we undertook in Iraq, trying to run the country from afar,” Mr. Perle said. “I would be against trying to run countries in the future that we clearly don’t understand.”