The signature line of President Obama's June 22 Afghanistan address was "America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home." This no doubt resonates among an electorate sick of foreign wars and eager to focus on domestic problems, but it is a wrongheaded statement.
Whenever America has eschewed commitments abroad and turned inward, the results have been disastrous. The most isolationist decade in the country's history — the 1930s — was followed by World War II. The "Come Home, America" isolationism of the 1970s was followed by the fall of South Vietnam, the genocide in Cambodia, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the post-Cold War desire to spend the "peace dividend" led the U.S. to turn a blind eye to the rising threat from Al Qaeda.
Is isolationism really a course we want to follow today at a time when Iran is going nuclear, Pakistan is turning against the West, North Korea is trying to export its destructive technology, turmoil is spreading across the Middle East, Al Qaeda is far from defeated and China's power is growing?
If the U.S. and its allies are to address national security challenges successfully, then there is no choice but to engage in nation-building, at least sometimes, even if that phrase has become a political curse word lately.
The country's distrust of nation-building began with Somalia. U.S. troops first arrived there in 1992 to deliver humanitarian relief to stanch a famine. Their mission expanded after Washington realized that Somalia's problems were man-made: It would be impossible to ensure delivery of relief supplies without helping to stabilize the country's turbulent politics. Before long, U.S. special operations forces were trying to hunt down the notorious warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. One such mission in 1993 led to the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed.
Many Americans drew the lesson that we should stay away from nation-building. It never seemed to register with the public that subsequent forays into nation-building, in Bosnia and Kosovo, were more successful.
There is no doubt that helping to create a functioning state where there is none is difficult, especially when resources commensurate to the task aren't committed, as was the case in Somalia. But Somalia also shows why nation-building is unavoidable.
Since the U.S. left Somalia, tail between our legs, it has become a haven for terrorists and pirates. Now an Islamist movement modeled on the Taliban, known as the Shabab, threatens to take over the country. If this were to happen, it would replicate the disaster that struck Afghanistan in the 1990s — another example of what happens when the U.S. refuses to help build a viable state in a country desperately in need of one.
If you want yet another example of how costly our aversion to nation-building has been, look no further than Iraq. The Bush administration associated nation-building with the hated policies of the Clinton administration and refused to prepare for it. The result was that Iraq fell apart after U.S. troops had toppled its existing regime.
Iraq is more stable now, but only because the Bush administration overcame its early reluctance to nation-build. After dithering far too long, Bush finally acted to improve the security situation and expand the capacity of Iraqis to govern themselves. Iraq continues to struggle because the state remains weak; nation-building is a time-consuming, costly endeavor. But it sure beats the alternative — i.e., the kind of nihilistic violence that was threatening to consume Iraq in 2006-07.
Today the U.S. is engaged in nation-building not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also, on a smaller scale, in Chad, the Philippines, Colombia and Mexico. In all those places, small numbers of U.S. military personnel and civilian advisors are trying to help weak states secure their territory against gangsters, terrorists and other threats. Nation-building seldom involves large numbers of troops. Actually, one of the most effective ways to avoid a large-scale troop commitment is to help a friendly regime get its own house in order.
The problem isn't that we are engaged in nation-building. The problem is that we do it so poorly. The U.S military hasn't fully embraced it as a part of its mission, and neither has the State Department. The job often falls to the U.S. Agency for International Development, but it is so under-resourced that it has become little more than a contract-oversight office.
As I've been arguing since the start of the Iraq war, we desperately need a new agency — call it the Department of Peace — to expand our capacity for nation-building. Like it or not, it's a mission that the U.S. can't avoid for the simple reason that the alternative — letting critical territory go ungoverned — is unacceptable. Rather than demonizing nation-building, President Obama would be better advised to improve it.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is completing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.