Bush Backs Into Nation Building

"Let me tell you what else I'm worried about: I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence. See, our view of the military is for our military to be properly prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place."

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 26

Speaking to a cheering crowd in Chattanooga, Tenn., one day before the Nov. 7, 2000, election, George W. Bush repeated a line that had by then been a standard part of the stump speech for many, many months--and one that now seems, in the face of looming U.S. military action in Iraq, quite contradictory.

"Let me tell you what else I'm worried about: I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence. See, our view of the military is for our military to be properly prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place."

The line was an explicit condemnation of Clinton/Gore foreign policy--specifically that the White House had stretched the military too thin with peacekeeping mission in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans. President Clinton and Vice President Gore, his Democratic opponent, had strayed from the central mission of the military: to fight and win wars, Bush said.

That line proved to be among the most popular in the stump speech, guaranteed to evoke an eruption of applause from the conservatives who packed Bush's campaign rallies.

Bush's campaign rhetoric already rankled allies in Europe by seeming to suggest that U.S. soldiers were doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the region, and indicating that he would withdraw American forces if he became president. The Europeans noted that U.S. soldiers constituted less than one-fifth of the peacekeeping force, and argued that America, which led allied forces in Kosovo, had a significant strategic interest in the stability of the region.

Fast forward to the present. Details have begun emerging in recent days about the Bush administration's vision for postwar Iraq, and clearly the White House has abandoned its aversion to nation building, as it plans for what appears to be the biggest American-led, rebuilding project since the Marshall Plan in the early 1950s. Last week, Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung's byline topped an astonishing story with this headline Full U.S. Control Planned for Iraq.

"The Bush administration plans to take complete, unilateral control of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, with an interim administration headed by a yet-to-be named American civilian who would direct the reconstruction of the country and the creation of a 'representative' Iraqi government, according to a now-finalized blueprint described by U.S. officials and other sources," DeYoung reported.

Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. on Wednesday night, the president alluded to his postwar vision of Iraq, declaring that America had a major interest in stabilizing the country and could help create the first democracy, outside of Israel, in the Middle East.

And for the first time, the president linked removal of Hussein, and the postwar reconstruction efforts to not only the greater stability of the region, but to the first stage of the resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

"Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before -- in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home," Bush said.

Shifting Policy

The difference between Bush's rhetoric and policy goes to prove the old adage that talking about governing, and actually doing it, are two very different things.

Under grilling from reporters, administration officials, apparently not yet equipped with talking points, have struggled to maintain that Bush's views have not changed. Bush's critics have jumped on the apparent shift as proof that an inexperienced candidate had merely manufactured a foreign policy criticism that sounded good to his base of voters.

At a press briefing on Monday with deputy assistant secretary of Defense Joe Collins and National Security Council senior director Elliott Abrams, a reporter asked: "I remember a campaign pledge about nation building. Isn't that what this is. ... Isn't this nation-building?"

Collins took the question: "I've always been of the opinion that the indigenous people build their own nations. I'm not sure what the right phrase for what we are engaged in is. We speak about -- in two different phases, humanitarian relief and reconstruction. And I would prefer to leave it at that."

Abrams also took a stab at an answer: "I think that's right. The responsibility for turning Iraq into a stable, peaceful democracy falls to the people of Iraq. The most we can do is get--if this conflict occurs, is get this monstrous regime that is preventing them from doing that out of the way."

But is that all the administration is planning, getting a "monstrous regime" out of the way? DeYoung reported that "once security was established and weapons of mass destruction were located and disabled, a U.S. administrator would run the civilian government and direct reconstruction and humanitarian aid." In the event of an invasion, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, would maintain military control, and the humanitarian effort would be led by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner.

But how does that plan square with Bush's comment in a 2000 debate with Gore that "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.'"

It doesn't, says Leon Fuerth, Gore's long-time foreign policy adviser.

"This just shows that in the campaign they hyped any issue they could, first of all because they had convinced themselves that they were right," said Fuerth, now a professor at George Washington University. "Back then, they felt that they had to tear down the Clinton/Gore policy to make up for the lack of experience that their own candidate had. That was then. This is now. This is the school of hard knocks."

Tucker Eskew, former director of the White House Office of Global Communications, said that times had changed. What makes Iraq different, he said, was that nation's ability to threaten America with weapons of mass destruction.

"9/11 did awaken the president to this threat, as it did everyone," Eskew said. "The president has said it himself. ... The point I think that was being made during the campaign about nation building concerned the idea that, in the context of those times, it had not always seen in our national interest."

Some Key Differences

The debate over nation building was a significant one in the 2000 campaign. Bush took the position that the Clinton administration had failed to prioritize strategic interests, acting as if U.S. interests in Haiti, Somalia and Kosovo were as great as in the Middle East, Western Europe or Asia. Gore responded that Bush's view of the world was overly simplistic and ignored the complexities of foreign entanglements.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, Ari Fleischer said, "The president will talk in the speech about what the future may hold, not only for the people of Iraq, once liberated and allowed to become on their own democratic, but also what it means for the security of the region, because the president believes that a free Iraq will lead to a more stable Mideast."

Clinton made similar arguments about stabilizing the Balkans and promoting democracy in Haiti -- our own backyard. Bush's critics will argue that the difference is oil -- Iraq has it. Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans do not. Bush's defenders angrily deride that notion.

The president, said Eskew, will explain that nation building in Iraq is necessary, "because [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass murder, because he has used them before, because he has attacked his own people and his neighbors and because he has ties to terror."

2003 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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