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.”
Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the nation-building lesson to be drawn from Iraq was that the U.S. government has “very limited power” to direct political change in foreign countries, particularly through military force.
“We have to be smart and realistic about how long it takes for fundamental political change to happen,” she said.
Craig Cohen, a specialist in post-conflict reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the nation-building debate in the 2008 presidential race is far different from the 2000 race.
“The idea that we are just going to ignore the political and economic development of, say, Afghanistan, is just not credible anymore,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s just a different world.”
Mr. Cohen said the main lesson of the past eight years has been that the United States needs to build up its civilian capacities and public diplomacy efforts to complement U.S. military power in deployments overseas.
“If we are going to undertake these missions, then it makes sense to invest in all the capabilities we need to do it right,” he said.
Democratic hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have savaged the Bush administration’s record in Iraq and have promised to begin bringing home U.S. troops as soon as they take office.
But neither candidate has repudiated the larger idea of nation building — that U.S. security interests demand an active program to shore up governments and “build capacity” in failed or failing states around the world.
Mr. Obama has promised to create his own “civilian corps” to operate in “post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.”
A campaign position paper states: “Barack Obama believes that strengthening weak states at risk of collapse, economic meltdown or public health crises strengthens America’s security. Obama will double U.S. spending on foreign aid to $50 billion a year by 2012.”
Susan Rice, a top State Department official in the Clinton administration and now a senior foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama, recently proposed a greatly expanded effort by civilian U.S. government agencies to help the military “revive fragile and war-torn states.”
“Beyond boots on the ground, we need the wingtips and Birkenstocks of diplomatic and development professionals,” she wrote in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.
Despite his strong backing of the Iraq mission, Republican John McCain has not always supported ambitious nation-building efforts, especially those that he thought threatened to drag U.S. forces into drawn-out, nonmilitary missions.
He bucked President Reagan and GOP congressional leaders as a freshman congressman in 1983 in opposing the deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon, arguing the U.S. force was too small and U.S. interests too remote to be propping up the fragile Beirut government.
He showed a similar skepticism over U.S. deployments in other failed states, including Somalia and Haiti in the mid-1990s.
But he strongly backed the Clinton administration’s air war in Kosovo in 1999 — again angering some in his own party — supported the decision to go to war in Iraq and was an early proponent of Mr. Bush’s 2007 “surge” to try to stabilize the country and promote political reform.
In a speech in September, Mr. McCain proposed a U.S. government civilian force to complement the military efforts. He proposed a joint civilian-military agency along the lines of the World War II Office of Strategic Services to support allies and deter foes in struggling states, an agency that “could take risks that our bureaucracies today are afraid to take.”
Jason Gluck, an expert on legal issues confronting Iraq and other troubled states for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said whoever succeeds Mr. Bush “will be under competing pressures on nation building in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton may feel more political pressure to reduce or hold even U.S. military deployments abroad, Mr. Gluck said. But all three remaining candidates will confront demands to aid conflict-ridden states, for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.
“The candidates will each have to balance these competing interests, but one might suppose that a McCain presidency might err more towards intervention as part of the war on terror,” Mr. Gluck said.
Not everyone, however, embraces the new nation-building imperative.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian and the only GOP presidential candidate to oppose the Iraq war, also has been the only candidate to challenge publicly the new fervor for nation building.
“In 2000, we won the election by condemning the Democrats for nation building and policing the world, and now, what are we doing?” Mr. Paul said at the Republican debate in January before the South Carolina primary.
“We’re policing the world, we’re involved in all of these countries around the world and threatening going into Iran and Pakistan and on and on,” Mr. Paul said.
Foreign policy “realists” have also expressed doubts about the Bush administration’s about-face. A recent collection of articles in the realist journal National Interest attacked the idea that Washington could drive meaningful reform in troubled states like Pakistan and Iraq or build up the basic institutions of government in failing states like Somalia and Sudan.
“Washington must get over the idea that it can and should micromanage political outcomes in countries like Pakistan,” according to Anatol Lieven, chairman of international relations and terrorism studies at King’s College London and a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation.
Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said in an interview, “You really don’t hear much debate among the candidates at all about the wisdom of nation building, unfortunately. And that includes Senator McCain.”
The Cato analyst said Miss Rice’s hope that civilian government and private agencies could relieve the U.S. military of nation-building chores was unrealistic.
In countries lacking in basic infrastructure, political institutions and security, any major civilian nation-building mission will require a major military deployment to protect it, he said.
“That’s likely to involve us in more conflicts, not fewer,” he predicted.
The difficulties U.S. officials have encountered since 2003 in trying to stand up the central government in Iraq haven’t cooled the fervor, Mr. Preble said.
“I think the key lesson drawn in Washington — and only in Washington — was that nation building in Iraq was a good idea but the Bush administration botched the execution,” he said.
“I don’t see a huge difference between any of the candidates on that.”