The question has less oomph than the famous 1950s lament, "Who lost China?" But in many respects, it could be just as important.
This week, Islamic militants with alleged ties to al-Qaida seized the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It might be more appropriate to refer to the "former" or "historic" capital since Somalia hasn't had a government to speak of for about 15 years.
Another question that may be worth asking in the coming months or years is: Who lost East Timor? That young country was recently plunged into chaos, as violent gangs of former military troops have turned the capital into a thunderdome.
And, of course, if America bugs out of Iraq as an increasingly large number of liberal and isolationist voices suggest, another question we may need to ask is: Who lost Iraq?
You can play this game with lots of countries. One need only scan down the 2006 Failed States Index put out by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace to find a whole bunch of nations poised to revert back to a state of nature - only more red in tooth and claw thanks to land mines and AK-47s. A case in point would be Sudan, which tops the FSI and is committing genocidal atrocities on its own population in Darfur.
In the 1990s, liberal foreign policy wonks in and out of the Clinton administration had pretty much one serious foreign policy idea: nation-building. Many conservatives, for reasons good and bad, objected to the idea. America didn't need to fix Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti and other imploding nations - that's foreign policy as social work, conservatives said. In the 2000 presidential campaign, George Bush opposed nation-building while Al Gore supported it. Gore was right and Bush was wrong, though neither quite appreciated why. Liberal enthusiasm for nation-building - which should really be called "state building" - was largely based in do-gooderism. Conservative opposition was largely grounded in national security. "Superpowers don't do windows," remarked John Hillen, a conservative foreign policy realist and currently a State Department official.
Much has been made of President Bush's "hypocrisy" for now embracing a policy he once opposed. Less criticism has been directed at liberal Democrats who championed nation-building when it wasn't in our national interest but denounce it now that it is. John Kerry's vote against the $87 billion Iraqi reconstruction legislation symbolized a bizarre flip-flop, not just on Kerry's part but on the part of the Democratic Party in general. If all the rhetoric about the "root causes" of terrorism - poverty, disease, political instability, hopelessness, etc. - are to be taken seriously, then the morally compelling position on Iraq (and Afghanistan) should be to spend whatever it takes to get Iraq and other crucial failed states up and running on the path to normalcy and decency. That is, in effect, what many liberals are saying about Sudan.
But the truth is that failed states are a direct threat to American and global security. For example, foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum see Somalia as the "new Afghanistan." The Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan thanks to popular frustration with chaos, rape and crime. Once in control, they hosted al-Qaida officials and training centers. The Islamic militia now controlling Mogadishu rose to power largely thanks to the same preconditions, and there's every reason to believe that they will accommodate al-Qaida down the road.
Indeed, the irony of all this "new Afghanistan" talk is that Somalia was, in a sense, the old Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, you may recall, claimed the credit for the "Black Hawk Down" incident in 1993. And although he probably exaggerated his role, it's certainly true that the al-Qaida franchise in Mogadishu flourished and that many of the Somalis fighting American troops there were trained in al-Qaida camps in Somalia.
The really tough question is, "Therefore what?" Liberals tend to emphasize the need to enlarge the United Nations' peacekeeping and nation-building mission. The problem is that the UN, to use a technical term, stinks. It's prone to moral and financial corruption, bureaucratic idiocy of metaphysical proportions, and internal sabotage by dictatorial regimes hostile to democracy in general and America in particular.
Meanwhile, America simply isn't up to the task alone. Even if we had the political will, our military cannot lose sight of its primary, if not singular, mission to fight and win wars. The remedy to this problem is undoubtedly a both/and - not either/or - proposition. The UN isn't going anywhere and, bizarrely, it has moral legitimacy around the globe. So fixing it and using it is a necessity. But so is working around it. As I've written before, it's time for a new international institution, a League of Democracies, perhaps with NATO as its military wing and a souped-up version of the Peace Corps as its political wing, to shrug off charges of imperialism and to start doing windows.