The Illusion of Saving Nations From Themselves

The Bush government was elected in 2000 on a platform including vigorous opposition to the United States Army's doing "nation-building." Swedes, Danes, the European Union, and NGOs did nation-building. The United States Army was a fighting army.

This was the principle on which the new U.S. volunteer army was formed after Vietnam. It is the explanation why, after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the army looked on, bemused, while the people of Baghdad hesitantly, and then enthusiastically, tore down the phone and power wires, dug up the copper pipes, and destroyed the power generators of the city infrastructure, looting their own capital city of everything that had value and could be sold.

U.S. commanders, asked to protect at least the National Archaeological Museum, and the arts museums and universities, politely replied to curators, professors and concerned citizens, "sorry, Sir (or M'am), we don't do that sort of thing." We only protect ourselves and the oil ministry.

What a difference a 5-year-long military disaster can make! It now has cleared the way for another and opposite disaster. In the latest issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that "it is absolutely clear that [the United States] will be involved in nation building for years to come. Democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest."

In the U.S. Army "a new generation of military leaders [is being trained] for stabilization and counter-insurgency missions" for decades to come, part of "our long-term partnerships with Afghanistan and Iraq,...our new relationships in Central Asia, and our long-standing partnerships in the Persian Gulf, providing a solid geostrategic foundation for the generational work ahead."

This means American efforts to place and/or maintain in power, by military means when necessary, pro-American governments that will cooperate in an area-wide American policy of suppressing fundamentalist Islamic movements, and combating Palestine liberation groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, hostile to the United States as well as Israel, or committed to the idea of anti-Western jihad. That's not the way the secretary of state phrased it; she talks about nation-building and creating democracy. But that is what she was saying.

One might have thought that a decade of laying waste to Vietnam and Cambodia in order to accomplish "democratic state-building" would have taught the eminently practical lesson that the United States cannot democratic-state-build for anyone else. It is not even a total success in doing it at home.

It is a rule in the life of modern nations that nationalism trumps all else. If the government in Saigon, or a government in Baghdad or Kabul, cannot, even with appropriate foreign material assistance, establish and maintain order within its own frontiers and by its own means, armed legions of foreign democracy-teachers, state-builders, and winners of hearts and mind cannot do it for them.

As the British soldier-- and state-builder in Bosnia -- Paddy Ashdown said recently, the time it takes for a liberation army to turn into an occupation army is very short. The transformation is already well-advanced, if not complete, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In denial of that fact, the Bush administration has ordered reorganization and retraining of American military and political expeditionary forces so as to continue to build nations and democracy, by means of armed intervention and military occupation, for many more years in unlucky Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries (and who knows wherever else).

It is an axiom of history that no government put in place by foreign troops, or needing to be maintained in place by them against internal opposition, can be considered a legitimate government.

The Taliban in Afghanistan are not the Russian army, overrunning Afghanistan with tanks and helicopters, or an invading British colonial army. If they were, the problem would be simple. They are Afghans, members of the 40-million strong Pathan (or Pushtoon) people, who make up the largest part of the Afghan population. If other Pathans, inside Afghanistan, who are not religious fundamentalists, and the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks who make up the rest of the country's population, do not wish to be ruled by Pathan religious reactionaries, they should not need 60 thousand NATO and U.S. troops to defend them. If they will not defend themselves, there is nothing the foreigners can do to save them from their countrymen.

The same is true of the Iraqis. The only foreign army that has invaded Iraq is the American army. The Iraq government is resisting long-term American extraterritorial presence in the country, and Iraqis are increasingly pressing the United States to get out. They are finding that the Pentagon and the White House have actually been planning to stay indefinitely (for 100 years?). This automatically will sooner or later produce popular uprising against military occupation.

Then what will an Obama or McCain administration do? They might order the troops to pull out. They will be accused of surrendering America to forces of evil.

Or they might order the army and Marines to do again what was done to Falluja. They could forget about democracy and nation-building.

In the present (post-political-campaign) stage of American foreign policy thinking, and under mounting pressure from AIPAC for military solutions in the region, all of this deserves more reflection than it is receiving.

William Pfaff is a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He is published in five countries and his column is syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

(c) 2008 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

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