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.
Second, Iraq does not just have infinitely more potential for recovery, it has vastly greater strategic importance. Afghanistan has a kind of negative strategic importance. Our basic objective there is simply to keep it out of the hands of the bad guys. But it is hardly going to be a central locus of American power or pro-Western sentiment in the region.
Baghdad, on the other hand, one of the three great Arab capitals, is a powerful regional actor. Its transformation from a bastion of radical pan-Arabism and anti-Americanism to peaceful, pro-Western capital would have a revolutionary effect on both inter-Arab relations and the political trajectory of the entire region. The stakes could not be higher.
Yes, it would be nice to build American power plants instead of Iraqi power plants. But that is a complaint, not a policy. Even Howard Dean, the most passionately antiwar candidate, admits that now that we are in Iraq, we have to win the peace. Well, if not with a deadly serious investment in infrastructure, with what?
The only alternative the Democrats offer -- it is another mantra -- is to ``internationalize'' the problem.
This is a very nice idea. Everyone would like to see Russia and India and, yes, France sending troops and money to rebuild Iraq. But how do the Democrats propose to persuade France to support our policy?
The French have made their condition for support -- and without France no U.N. resolution can be passed -- the transfer of power to a provisional Iraqi authority within a month, followed by elections, the full transfer of sovereignty and presumably the evacuation of the Anglo-Saxons, by spring.
This ridiculous timetable is a transparent attempt simply to get America out at the cost of undermining the entire reconstruction effort. Such a proposal will do nothing for Iraq but guarantee chaos. Civil society, industrial infrastructure, and the economy were wrecked by Saddam. They need at least a modicum of rebuilding before even a coherent and unified government could hope to rule effectively -- let alone the current Governing Council, which is indeed representative but for that very reason still divided, unused to compromise, and therefore not ready to govern.
The whole French proposal is unserious -- almost as unserious as the Democrats, whose only alternative to Bush's $87 billion is to get bailed out by France.