Not Exactly a Bush Flip-Flop

Americans see the military as the ultimate problem solvers. Americans see politics as the enemy of problem-solving. So, how is the United States supposed to fight a political war in Afghanistan?

During last year's presidential campaign, George W. Bush expressed contempt for "nation-building." In the October 3, 2000, debate, he warned: "If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road. I'm going to prevent that."

Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore was cautiously defensive about nation-building. Hadn't the United States done a masterful job of nation-building in Germany and Japan after World War II? It had seemed to work in the Cold War as well. "What did we do in the late '40s and '50s and '60s?" Gore asked in the October 11 debate. "We were nation-building. It was economic, but it was also military."

Candidate Bush was adamant on one point that he made in rally after rally: "I'm worried about the fact I'm running against a man who uses 'military' and 'nation-building' in the same breath." (St. Charles, Mo., November 2, 2000) "I worry a lot about running against an opponent who uses the words 'U.S. military' and 'nation-building' in the same breath. I worry about an unfocused mission."(Tampa, Fla., November 5, 2000)

Just under a year later, the United States is in a war in which nation-building seems unavoidable. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the United States will become politically responsible for what happens next in Afghanistan.

Last month, President Bush once again repudiated nation-building. "We're not into nation-building," he said at a September 25 news conference with Japan's prime minister. "We're into justice."

That drew a lecture a week later from British Prime Minister Tony Blair on taking political responsibility. "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment," Blair told the British Labor Party Conference on October 2. "The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away as the outside world has done so many times before. If the Taliban regime changes, we will work with you to make sure its successor is one that is broad-based, that unites all ethnic groups, and that offers some way out of the miserable poverty that is your present existence."

At his prime-time news conference the following week, Bush signaled that he had gotten the message. "I think we did learn a lesson, and should learn a lesson, from the previous engagement in the Afghan area, that we should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved," the President said on October 11.

Does that mean Bush has flip-flopped on nation-building? Not exactly, because he has set some rules.

• Rule 1: The United States should keep out of Afghan politics. Or, as the President puts it, "We shouldn't play favorites between one group or another within Afghanistan." That is why the United States has not openly supported the Northern Alliance as an alternative government. Allowing minority ethnic groups to take power would split the country along ethnic lines, rally many Afghans to the Taliban regime, and antagonize the Pakistanis. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has even hinted that the United States might be willing to allow some role for "moderate" elements of the Taliban regime in a new Afghan government.

• Rule 2: The United States should share the political burden with other countries. "It would be a useful function for the United Nations to take over the so-called 'nation-building,' " Bush said at his news conference. "I would call it the stabilization of a future government." In other words, it's a distasteful task for a distasteful institution. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage seemed to capture Bush Administration thinking on Afghanistan when he remarked, "We have said we don't want to run it. It's not ours."

• Rule 3: Keep the military as far away from politics as possible. That means, in effect, not tying the military down with a peacekeeping role. "I wouldn't read anything [Bush] is saying to suggest he plans to keep American troops on the ground in Afghanistan," a senior Administration official told The New York Times. "He's quite adamant on the point."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer used the occasion of the one-year anniversary of a Bush campaign statement to emphasize continuity in the President's position. At his October 12 press briefing, Fleischer said: "The purpose of the military is not—as [Bush] said on October 12 during the course of the campaign—to use troops around the world to serve as social workers or policemen or school walking-guards. 'I'm not for that,' the President said. That's the complaint the President had about the use of the military for nation-building."

The idea is to build a wall between the military and politics. So how do you fight a political war such as the one in Afghanistan? With politicians. And that is why Bush and Powell were in Asia last week. They were meeting with politicians.

Apparently, the United States does nation-building—just not with the U.S. military. Don't even mention the two in the same breath.