A reader writes:
Look: no one is for nation building. In the past, realists recognized the national interest at stake in our supporting deeply flawed governments against communist revolutions. The belief was that Communist revolutions were bad for us and bad for the people who suffered in their wake. The hope was that by resisting them and applying pressure, these societies might evolve overtime into something better.
This meant supporting some pretty nasty guys who tortured and killed people. Not a great choice but it's the very essence of realism which expresses Henry K's mordant witticism "it has the advantage of being true". In other words, it was good for us (so we thought) and also good for them. You are correct that conservatives usually opposed these initiatives but supported wars once engaged - sort of the other way round with the liberals.
Clinton brought the notion back into service after the cold war ended in Somalia when he escalated the mission from relief to nation building. There was no national interest explained at the time - only the humanitarian one that unless we stopped Adid, the famine would start again after we left. You make the call.
9/11 linked for the first time the idea of nation building directly to national interest. People like Tom Friedman and you analyzed the threat and came to the conclusion that so long as the Arab/Persian/Muslim world remained mired in various forms of undemocratic governance that were good enough for cold war realist purposes, it would fuel the Islamic radicalism that now threatened us at home and that if we had a hope of defending against it in the long term it would be by providing counter examples - societies that did not waste and torture their human capital, you reasoned, would be less likely to make more Mohammed Attas.
So instead of stability we decided on the Nietzschean exhortation 'further into disorder'. This idea may be wrong but the alternative is the REAL conservative view expressed by people like John Derbyshire, namely, leave them alone and if they hurt us bomb them to smithereens, invade if you must, kill them all and then go home like we did in WW2. Do you have the fortitude for that? And even if you do, the WW2 model doesn't work with Pakistan or Iran or NK which, unlike Mexico (yet), have nuclear weapons.
The only refuge left for you is the Biden one - convince yourself that our interests are being served by stand-off surgical strikes and small applications of troops. That will allow you to support the president, argue resources should be applied at home and feel good about yourself. Until the next attack that is...
My regular reader and emailer makes some very solid points here about the last decade or so, and it's really helpful to remember how many of us have drifted over the years, reassessed and re-reassessed. I don't think we should flee these shifts - because they reflected good faith judgments at the time rendered inoperable by time and experience. But we should keep examining them, to make sure we haven't changed our minds for reasons other than the hard evidence and sober scrutiny. Righteous emotion blinded some of us for a while to the limits of American power; but in these mercifully less fraught moments (and they may not last), we may have a chance at cooler reasoning.
For the record, I opposed intervention in Somalia. I opposed it in Darfur. And my view of the "further into disorder" argument has been chastened deeply by time. The Iraq war demands we learn its lessons. We do not have enough data yet, but I remain skeptical that Iraq is in any way stable yet, given the entropic forces within; but the US has done its best after doing its worst. And that is some opportunity for departure and leeway for delay. Obama has wisely kept his options open here.