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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Bill Schneider

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Has Bush has flip-flopped on 'nation-building'? -- AMERICANS see the military as the ultimate problem-solvers. They see politics as the enemy of problem-solving. So how is the U.S. supposed to fight a political war in Afghanistan?

During the presidential campaign last year, George W. Bush had contempt for "nation-building.'' "If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road,'' he warned in the Oct. 3, 2000, debate. "I'm going to prevent that.''

Al Gore was cautiously defensive of the idea. Hadn't the U.S. taken up the cause of "nation-building'' in Germany and Japan after World War II -- and done a masterful job of it? It seemed to work in the Cold War as well. "What did we do in the late '40s and '50s and '60s?'' Gore asked in the Oct. 11 debate. "We were nation-building. It was economic, but it was also military.''

Candidate Bush was adamant on one point. It was a point he made in rally after rally: "I'm worried about the fact I'm running against a man who uses `military' and `nation-building' in the same breath'' (St. Charles, Mo., Nov. 2, 2000). "I worry a lot about running against an opponenmt who uses the words `U.S. military' and `nation-building' in the same breath. I worry about an unfocused mission'' (Tampa, Nov. 5).

A year later, the U.S. is in a war where nation-building seems unavoidable. When the U.S. overthrows the Taliban regime, it becomes politically responsible for what happens in Afghanistan. After all, who will have put the new government in power?

Last month, President Bush once again repudiated nation-building. "We're not into nation-building. We're into justice,'' he said at a Sept. 25 news conference with the Japanese prime minister.

That drew a lecture from British prime minister Tony Blair a week later about taking political responsibility. "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment,'' Blair told the British Labour Party Conference on Oct. 2. "The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away as the outside world has done so many times before. If the Taliban regime changes, we will work with you to make sure its successor is one that is broad-based, that unites all ethnic groups and that offers some way out of the miserable poverty that is your present existence.''

At his prime-time news conference the next week, President Bush signaled that he got the message. "I think we did learn a lesson, and should learn a lesson, from the previous engagement in the Afghan area, that we should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved,'' the President said on Oct. 11.

Does that mean President Bush has flip-flopped on nation-building? Not exactly. What he did was set some rules.

Rule One: the U.S. should keep out of Afghan politics. Or as the President put it at his news conference, "We shouldn't play favorites between one group or another within Afghanistan.'' Which is why the U.S. has not openly supported the Northern Alliance as an alternative government. Allowing minority ethnic groups to take power would split the country along ethnic lines, rally many Afghans to the Taliban regime and antagonize the Pakistanis. Secretary of State Powell even hinted last week that the U.S. might be willing to allow some role for so-called "moderate'' elements of the Taliban regime in a new Afghan government.

Rule Two: the U.S. should share the political burden with other countries. "It would be a useful function for the United Nations to take over the so-called 'nation-building,''' President Bush said at his news conference. "I would call it the stabilization of a future government.'' In other words, it's a distasteful task for a distasteful institution. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage seemed to capture Administration thinking on Afghanistan when he remarked, "We have said we don't want to run it. It's not ours.''

Most important, Rule Three: keep the military as far away from politics as possible. Which means, in effect, not tying the military down in a peacekeeping role. "I wouldn't read anything [President Bush] is saying to suggest he plans to keep American troops on the ground in Afghanistan,'' a senior Administration official told "The New York Times". "He's quite adamant on the point.''

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer used the occasion of the one-year anniversary of a Bush campaign statement to emphasize continuity in the President's position. At his Oct. 12 briefing, Fleischer said, "The purpose of the military is not -- as he said on October 12 during the course of the campaign -- to use troops around the world to serve as social workers or policemen or school walking-guards. `I'm not for that,' the President said. That's the complaint the President had about the use of the military for nation-building.''

The idea is to build a wall between the military and politics. So how do you fight a political war like the one in Afghanistan? With politicians. Which is exactly why Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush were in Asia. They were meeting with politicians.

Apparently the U.S. does do nation-building. Just not with the U.S. military. Don't even mention the two in the same breath.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.

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© 2001, William Schneider