Old Folly in a New Disguise: Nation Building to Combat Terrorism

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Since September 11, 2001, there have been callsfrom various quarters to embrace nation buildingas a tool for combating terrorism. The logicbehind the idea is that "good" states do not do"bad" things, so Washington should build more"good" states. That idea, however, relies on severaldubious assumptions--for example, that embarkingon multiple nation-building missions willreduce the potential for anti-American terrorism.If anything, nation building is likely to createmore incentives, targets, and opportunities for terrorism,not fewer. The nation-building idea alsodraws on false analogies with the past. For example,some people assert that Europe's experienceunder the Marshall Plan can be readily duplicatedin a whole host of countries and that, with enougheconomic aid, trained bureaucrats, and militaryforce of arms, "bad" states anywhere can be transformedinto open, self-sustaining, peaceful states.

In reality, combating terrorism is tied to therealist perspective, which says that it increasinglymakes sense for states to use or condone violence,including terrorism, when they fall prey to the ideathat violence will succeed. A realist approach tocombating terrorism, therefore, does not hinge onnation building or making the world safe fordemocracy. It hinges on a policy of victory andcredible deterrence. And if there is no competentgovernment for the United States to deter? U.S.policymakers should understand that that is preciselywhere the terrorists are at their most vulnerable,because there is no power to protect them.

Gary Dempsey

Gary T. Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is the author of Fool's Errands: America's Recent Encounters with Nation Building (2001) and the editor of Exiting the Balkan Thicket (2002).