No to nation building

Posted: Dec 18, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--There was much self-congratulation in the foreign policy establishment when President Bush averred at his Oct. 11 prime time news conference that the United States would help stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan, doing ``so-called nation-building ... after our military mission is complete.'' Gotcha! ``Mr. Bush, who had campaigned against a foreign policy based on `nation building,''' was now sporting a ``strikingly different'' theme, crowed The New York Times. Bush was now forced by reality, and recognition of his opponents' wisdom, to admit that nation-building is an essential function of American foreign policy. Nonsense. A great Bush reversal on nation-building? What the critics cannot seem to understand is that the conservative critique of nation-building for the last 10 years has been about nation-building in places of strategic irrelevance. No sane person opposes nation-building in places that count. The debate is about nation-building in places that don't. The world's sole superpower has no business squandering its resources and diluting its military doing police work and handholding in places like Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. But just because it is lunacy to use the Marines to try to rebuild Haiti, that does not mean that we should not have rebuilt Germany and Japan after World War II. Reconstructing countries in our own image--rendering them democratic, prosperous and friendly--is a huge, decades-long undertaking. Half a century later, we still have troops in Germany and Japan. It is precisely because the task is so formidable that you do it only when the stakes are high and the country in question is crucial to the security of the United States and the world. Germany and Japan count. Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo--the archipelago of Clintonian do-goodism--don't. After Sept. 11, Central Asia does. Afghanistan housed the Taliban, the most radical Islamic regime on the planet, and provided a home base for al Qaeda. Now that they are both on the run, Afghanistan must be made inhospitable for their return. Even that is not true nation-building. ``I would call it the stabilization of a future government,'' said the president on Oct. 11. We are not going to turn Afghanistan, like Germany and Japan, into a Western democracy. We should, however, give it enough economic, political and military support to make sure it is stable and held together, even if only by a coalition of warlords. Stabilization--nation-building lite--will require a peacekeeping force. You need to have outsiders. And the British have volunteered to lead it. That is a perfectly good idea. But here is where the nation-building enthusiasts wax really enthusiastic. Now that Afghanistan is post-Taliban, many are calling for American troops to join the soon-to-be-deployed peacekeeping force there. Wrong again. The United States should help the peacekeepers with logistics and, if necessary, air support. But no American peacekeeping troops. Why? Because the American military is the world's premier fighting force, and ought to husband its resources for just that. Anybody can peacekeep; no one can do what we did in Afghanistan. Many nations can do police work; only we can drop thousand-pound bombs with the precision of a medieval archer. Peacekeeping is a job for others. The Canadians invented it in the late 1950s and have completely reorganized their armed forces for that role. There are dozens of countries that are never going to fight a real war against a real enemy but whose armed forces are perfectly suited for peacekeeping. Ours is not. It is not just the Law of Comparative Advantage. It is common sense. Americans make lousy peacekeepers--not because they are not great soldiers, but precisely because they are. Being the best, and representing the strongest country in the world, they automatically become prime targets. You're a terrorist. You see three peacekeepers--a Fijian, a Canadian and an American--riding shotgun, say, for a food shipment headed for Kabul. Whom are you going to ambush? Whom are you going to expend a suicide bomber on? Or, best of all, whom are you going to kidnap? If you think Osama is worth $25 million to us, think of what one American peacekeeper held hostage and tortured on videotape is worth to al Qaeda. Because our soldiers are such rich targets, American peacekeepers end up spending 95 percent of their energy just protecting themselves--thus making their mission circular and quite useless. As the commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command once testified, explaining why no change had been effected in Haiti, ``Force protection (is) job one for our deployed forces.'' In 1983, our Lebanon peacekeepers spent all their effort just hunkering down for safety at the Beirut airport. And we know how that ended. That should have cured us for life. No to American peacekeepers. We fight the wars. Our friends should patrol the peace.