Commentary

Who Gave Us the World?

Earlier this month, Jonah Goldberg declared, “The truth is that failed states are a direct threat to American and global security.” With respect to nation building, Goldberg looked back to the debates in the 2000 presidential election and concluded that “Gore was right and Bush was wrong, though neither quite appreciated why.” He concluded by advocating that the United States attempt to create a “League of Democracies, perhaps with NATO as its military wing and a souped-up version of the Peace Corps as its political wing, to shrug off charges of imperialism and to start doing windows.”

That packs a lot of bad ideas into a pretty short column.

The first problem with Goldberg’s argument is his claim that failed states are a threatening to American security. They almost always aren’t. Moreover, when failed states do present threats, it is something other than the “failure.” that is threatening. Attempting large-scale nation-building projects would do nothing to eliminate threats, and could bog the United States down in civil conflicts far removed from its national interests.

Goldberg points to the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Failed States Index for evidence that state failure is threatening, but one wonders whether he’s looked at it himself. Just culling through the top 10 ten most “failed” states, we find strategic backwaters like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Chad, and Haiti among the ranks. Is Goldberg in favor of sending U.S. servicemen and women to attempt to implant good governance in Kinshasa and N’Djamena? Why on Earth would we want to do that? More to the point, what makes us think we could succeed?

Goldberg doesn’t tell us, but rather argues that recent events in Somalia and the Afghanistan example force our hand. Even the historical track record of nation-building failures isn’t sufficient to cast doubt in his mind. Embracing the liberal explanation of terrorism (which, unfortunately, the Bush administration has largely embraced as well), Goldberg tells us:

If all the rhetoric about the “root causes” of terrorism — poverty, disease, political instability, hopelessness, etc.— are to be taken seriously, then the morally compelling position on Iraq (and Afghanistan) should be to spend whatever it takes to get Iraq and other crucial failed states up and running on the path to normalcy and decency.

Trouble is, all the rhetoric about root causes is wrong. It should not be taken seriously. It isn’t poverty, disease, and political instability that cause terrorism; if it were, all of sub-Saharan Africa would be awash in terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers came from middle- and upper-middle class families, not impoverished or diseased ones.

Much as it hurts to say it, our enemies by and large don’t hate us because they’re poor, or because they’re hopeless; they hate us because they believe that we are hostile to them. As a recent report from the Government Accountability Office put things, “U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations and…this point needs to be better researched, absorbed, and acted upon by government officials.” Mucking about in Chad isn’t going to help our position in the war on terror, and could well serve to make it worse by strengthening Muslims’ beliefs about American foreign policy.

Moreover, the Somalia example doesn’t demonstrate what Goldberg thinks it does. Although the news remains far from conclusive about the implications of recent events in that country, attempting to build a coherent state in Somalia is going to do little to eliminate any threat that may exist there. Attacking threats rarely involves paving roads or establishing new judicial standards. It may be the case that the now-ruling factions in Somalia are too cozy with Islamic terrorists. We may even need to go in and kill some people. But sending Goldberg’s “souped-up version of the Peace Corps” is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

And it is here where Goldberg veers wildly off course into the mushiest liberal idealism. He acknowledges that we can’t go it alone, and proposes his “League of Democracies” in order to take up the nation-building cause. Trouble is, there are only a few democracies with military and constabulary forces which could make any meaningful contribution in failed states. The even bigger trouble is, none of them seem to want to. France, India, Japan, and Germany didn’t seem too inclined to accompany us into Iraq, and Russia and China would not be members of the League of Democracies. So that leaves America and England.

But the article is a sign of a much deeper problem than just one commentator’s views on failed states. Since the invasion of Iraq, Republicans have been on a reckless binge in foreign policy. Aspirations of empire even came into vogue, with pro-empire pundits invading the pages not just of the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, but making appearances even on the pages of this esteemed magazine. This tendency is a worrying sign for American conservatism — and the country itself.

As a hangover cure to this foreign-policy bender, we offer George Will’s remarks about nation building, given in an address to the recent dinner for Cato’s Milton Friedman Award:

[W]hen you hear the phrase “nation building,” remember, it is as preposterous as the phrase “orchid building.” Nations are not built like Tinker Toys and erector sets. They are complicated, organic growths, just as orchids are. And they are not built, either.

We agree. Conservative skepticism about government action should not be limited to domestic policy. If the American government is smart enough to figure out how to make a coherent state out of Chad, what is it not smart enough to do? Surely it could run an education system here at home, where it speaks the language and understands the culture. Surely it could run a health care system.

But it can’t, and neither can it build good government abroad. The 2000-era Bush had it right, and the current Bush (and Jonah Goldberg) has it just wrong.

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst and Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.They are the authors of Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office.