Commentary

Nation-Building Secures Neither Homeland Nor the World

By Subodh Atal
November 24, 2003

President Bush said that “it’s in the interest of long-term peace in the world that we work for a free and secure and peaceful Iraq” shortly before he signed a bill that includes $20 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. But the nation-building experiment in Iraq has only served to help recruit large numbers of Muslims to join a renewed global jihad. The violence has spread beyond Iraq, as evidenced by the synagogue bombings in Istanbul and repeated suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia.

The prospects for peace in the world or security in the U.S. homeland are not good. A recent U.N. expert panel report says that the fight against Al Qaeda is failing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested in a recent memo leaked to the media that the “cost-benefit ratio is against us.” Rumsfeld seemed to recognize that throwing money at terrorists (or potential terrorists) through nation-building is not the answer — after all, Osama bin Laden is a millionaire.

Nonetheless, the belief that we need to rebuild failed nations to secure peace is the new mantra in Washington. While most Republicans lined up behind an embattled President Bush to support the spending package, Democrats questioned the legislation less for its faulty premises, than for not being allowed to spend equivalent amounts at home.

The line items in the spending bill for Iraq include tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each for planned communities, prisons, roads, bridges, hospitals, a witness protection program and airports. Billions will be spent on Iraq’s water and sewer system and on electric power infrastructure. Will such spending deter Islamic extremists from joining terrorist groups that threaten America? History suggests it will not.

The hijackers, the planners, and the leaders of the 9/11 conspiracy did not attack America because they did not grow up in planned communities, or because their hometowns did not have roads, prisons and bridges. Bin Laden’s lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was an Egyptian doctor raised in an upper-middle class family. Other planners, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were far from destitute. Most of the 9/11 hijackers themselves were from middle-class families in Saudi Arabia. They did not fly planes into buildings because of resentment over economic conditions in their homelands. They were not susceptible to recruitment by Al Qaeda because they were homeless and jobless. Similarly, the billions of dollars already spent in Iraq have not prevented dozens of daily attacks against American personnel.

If preventing terrorism and conflict was simply a matter of financial grants to unstable or troubled regions, then U.S. aid to Palestinians would have paved the road map to peace, and India’s half-century long financial subsidies to Jammu and Kashmir would have prevented that state from becoming a nuclear flashpoint. Similarly, Soviet attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan in the 1980s should have led to popular support for that occupation. Post-9/11 U.S. aid to Pakistan has not prevented radicalization of that country, with part of the aid reportedly being diverted to a resurgent Taliban.

Nation-building is thus grossly unsuitable as a tool to combat terrorism, or the religious fundamentalism that drives it. An America that takes on the task of rebuilding the many failed or failing nations around the world will drive itself into bankruptcy and will find itself struggling against the same insecurity and combating the same forces that it encountered on 9/11.

The war against global terrorism entails the elimination of genuine threats that are lurking around the world today. This war will be most effective when it is based on sound intelligence collected in collaboration with other nations. Meanwhile, the war against the underlying religious fervor that fuels terrorism is not going to be won through nation-building or by the continued expansion of America’s imperial footprint that engenders global resentment. It will be won through the patient building of a global consensus against hateful, nihilistic ideologies.

Rumsfeld’s candid comments suggest that some in the administration have doubts about whether the terrorist threat can be neutralized by billions of dollars in foreign aid. President Bush should be equally candid with the American people. He should explain that we won’t be able to bribe away international terrorism, and he should refuse to authorize any more resources for counter-productive nation-building.

Subodh Atal is the author of a recent Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing, “At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States be Nation-Building?”