We have sworn off Nation Building and Forever Wars. We have decided to apply the Alcoholics Anonymous cure when next something from abroad threatens our security. Three Presidents, Obama, Trump, and Biden, have all reacted to the not unreasonable belief that American public opinion will no longer tolerate the use of American ground troops to respond to another foreign threat. At best, we might get away with Rambo-style Special Forces raids – if they succeed and there are zero casualties. Instead, in the future we will rain death and destruction from afar via drones or cruise missiles to deter or punish those who threaten us. Given the sorry history and cost in blood and treasure of our failures from Vietnam to our spectacular defeat in Afghanistan, one can understand the public desire to never again send troops to occupy and rebuild a problematic country. A bipartisan consensus exists that the American people want to pull up the drawbridge and default to the isolationism that once kept us safe and happy. After all, it worked for a century between sending frigates to fight the Barbary pirates and entering World War I in Europe in 1917. Even Washington’s foreign policy establishment, long a bastion for globalizing nation builders and war hawks, has witnessed the establishment of a plethora of new think tanks and other institutions that unabashedly advocate a neo-isolationism little different than the pre-1917 model. (As an aside, isolationists have never regarded our repeated invasion, occupation, and overthrow of regimes in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean as foreign entanglements. Admittedly, we did it mostly to grab territory or help American companies make money. But that is a topic for another day.)
Let’s assume that history repeats itself and a revived al-Qaeda manages to evade detection and, for example, spreads Sarin gas through the food court in the new World Trade Center at Ground Zero, killing thousands. Terrorists are fiendishly clever people, and history shows that any defenses can be penetrated. We discover that their leaders are hiding not in isolated mountains but scattered amongst the residents of a large city in an unstable country whose security services could not find, arrest, and extradite them to the United States even if they dared try. What do we do? Should we send drones to level the city block where we believe the terrorists might be located? One friend told me that we should follow the example of the Philadelphia police who, while pursuing a dissident group, dropped a bomb that burned out two city blocks, destroyed 61 homes, and killed six children. And then he said we can repeat that until we kill enough people to terrify them into knuckling under. He could not put a number on how many dead innocents is “enough,” but he was certain that we can reach it. Leaving aside the moral questions such a policy raises, experience shows that for every innocent person we kill we inspire ten to dedicate their lives to killing Americans.
The sad truth is that we created many of those unstable states by supporting brutal dictators masquerading as anti-communist or anti-Islamist or anti-anything else we feared. The Soviets did the same for anti-American dictators. Dictators do not last forever and always leave chaos in their wake. 9/11 was an inevitable consequence of protecting dictators. We enabled the environment that Osama bin Laden exploited. Looking beyond direct attacks on Americans we also need to be mindful of other threats to our prosperity and security. Unstable countries not only provide haven to terrorists; they also destabilize their neighborhoods, threatening trade and provoking refugee flows. A coup this week in Guinea, a major bauxite producer, sent aluminum prices soaring.
Unless we engage in mass murder at a level that would shame Hitler as my friend suggests, we have no choice but to find a way to deal with failing states. Call it a form of vaccination; the coronavirus delta variant evolved because we still have large numbers of unvaccinated people. Not dealing with failed states is the equivalent of accepting the arguments of the anti-vaxxers. The question is not whether we need to engage in nation building but to closely examine what went wrong and fix it. We should not limit the study to Afghanistan but to the five decades of failure at nation building beginning with Vietnam. Silicon Valley treats business failure as a lesson; the same should apply to national policy.
The failure of the United States to define the endgame of military interventions is a good starting point. Bush ’41 was the last President to start a war with a defined objective, achieve it decisively, and then avoid the temptation of going further. The elder Bush left a manageable steady state of a contained and weakened Saddam. Bush ’43 attacked Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and overthrow their protectors the Taliban. There is no evidence that he had his administration ever discuss what we would do next. The neocons did have a plan for the 2003 invasion of Iraq: the first step in democratizing the entire Middle East. One asks if they had thought it through.
We also need to ask why the U.S. military always wants to fight indigenous insurgents on its own, and never tried to set up a self-sufficient indigenous force capable of fighting and winning on its own.
We have already established that in almost every instance we have enriched American contractors and the local corrupt officials we supported. Could we have avoided enabling (often creating) a local culture of corruption that our adversaries exploited? What were the lessons we failed to learn from our success at nation building in Europe and Korea in the aftermath of World War II?
The neo isolationists of today delude themselves and the American people. Do they really believe that policies appropriate to the 19th century fit the 21st century? COVID-19 proved that those days are gone – so did 9/11.