The belated discussion about our objectives in Afghanistan recalls the long-standing division between the George Washington-style "Non-interventionists" and Woodrow Wilson-style "Make the World Safe for Democracy" internationalists. It is time for Washington's realism.
In our quest for rapid "nation building" in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have thought that military success would lead to elections and stable societies, lubricated with a few billion dollars of assistance for roads and schools. To our surprise, we are finding that the real test of democracy is not the courage of the public to vote in the face of insurgent threats, but whether leaders are willing to relinquish power - to alternative national leaders (in Iraq), or to local leaders (in Afghanistan.) To his great credit, George Washington did; to his great discredit, Al Gore did not (even though he really did lose.)
Most of today's major nations have taken centuries to form - Italy; Germany; the United Kingdom; China - and even at that there frequently remain separatist tendencies. We keep being shown the lesson that it is very difficult to impose nationhood, democracy, and economic development - most recently in Haiti and Kosovo. Even in the United States, nationhood is not a totally settled question; within the past few weeks:
- An Iroquois lacrosse team refused to travel to an international tournament on US and Canadian passports, insisting instead on their own;
- Senator Akaka's bill for a single Hawaiian Native governing entity burbled along in the Senate;
- The House passed a bill to allow a referendum on Puerto Rican statehood. (It will presumably die in the Senate.)
These may seem like quixotic dalliances, but they do make one wonder why we think the Afghans would suddenly want a strong central government. Any "nation building" strategy which starts from that premise - including a strong central army instead of local militias - is doomed to failure.
Some years ago I listened to a presentation by a senior CIA officer who had helped defeat the Taliban with a few hundred Americans, a freightening mix of tribal leaders, a focused mission, and no embedded NY Times reporters. My guess is that, without calling it the Bush approach revisited, Obama will within a year see the wisdom of "less is more".
This video of Congressman Pete Stark defending the right of the federal government to do anything they wanted comes courtesy of the now-famous Andrew Breitbart.
bill bowen - 8/6/10