WASHINGTON -- For more than a year, the Democratic mantra on Afghanistan was that President Bush was not doing enough -- not spending enough money, not building the army fast enough, not deploying troops to tame the warlords. The charge was neglect and aversion to nation-building. The result? Afghanistan is ``falling back into chaos,'' said Al Gore last November.
One could reasonably argue that slowly building up the Kabul government while maintaining a kind of warlord equilibrium is the best that we can hope for right now. Anything more ambitious -- attempting to revolutionize a pre-industrial economy, radically extend democracy or take down the warlords -- would be bound to fail.
Nonetheless, it is useful to have the Democratic opposition make the case for nation-building. This year, however, the Democrats have adopted the opposite tune, denouncing the administration for ambitious, budget-busting nation-building in Iraq.
The Democrats are not quite prepared to say that we should not be spending any money on Iraq, and they all line up for the $66 billion earmarked for ``protecting our troops'' (although, as their own Dennis Kucinich points out, the best and cheapest way to protect troops is to bring them home).
But when it comes to the other $20-odd billion for infrastructure, the Democrats have had a field day blasting the administration. The universal theme is: Why there, and not here?
Sen. John Edwards gave the usual formulation: ``This is the same administration who says we can't afford a real prescription drug benefit, we can't afford to invest in our public schools, we can't afford to address the serious health care crisis in America, but the American taxpayer can afford to pay for everything that's happening in Iraq right now.'' Rep. Rahm Emanuel is more pithy: ``(For) Iraq, $2 billion to the electric grid; (for) America, a blackout.''
This enthusiasm for nation-building in Afghanistan but not Iraq is not just incoherent, it is illogical. First of all, if you are choosing where to plant the American flag and open the treasury, Iraq is the far better place. With its oil, its urbanized middle class, its educated population, its essential modernity, Iraq has a future. In two decades, Saddam reduced its GDP by 75 percent. Once its political and industrial infrastructures are re-established, Iraq's potential for rebound, indeed for explosive growth, is unlimited. None of this is true of Afghanistan.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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