Consider the following scenario: The United States overthrows the Taliban. President Bush makes good on his pledge to reconstruct Afghanistan, pouring in billions of dollars. In return, the new government helps America cleanse the country of Al Qaeda.
The initial battle of the war on terrorism has been won; Afghanistan is no longer a breeding ground for genocidal Islam. But amidst the jubilation, Americans receive word that Osama bin Laden and 200 of his followers have slipped out of the country and taken refuge in Somalia.
Absurd? Not necessarily. Somalia today has a lot in common with the Afghanistan that took in bin Laden in 1996. The Somali government is broke and could well be bought, as Afghanistan's was, by a man with millions of dollars to throw around. Central authority is extremely weak— warlords dot the country and two regions have virtually seceded. Civil society has collapsed, and hard-line Islam is filling the void. According to The Economist, 90 percent of Somali children now attend Koranic schools. Women must wear a chador. The country's courts increasingly enforce sharia law. If bin Laden showed up, he would find a sympathetic population, political factions willing to harbor him, and a central authority perhaps unwilling and almost certainly unable to do anything about it.
So the war on terrorism would move south. The Bush administration would threaten the government in Mogadishu, perhaps send in special forces, perhaps even bomb. American commentators—fresh from tut-tutting that America's post-cold-war abandonment of Afghanistan created the conditions for terrorism—would start tut-tutting that America's post-cold-war abandonment of Somalia created the conditions for terrorism. And weeks after admitting that "nation-building" was necessary in Afghanistan, President Bush might be forced to admit that, lo and behold, it was necessary in Somalia as well.
In other words, Afghanistan is not unique. And, because it is not unique, the lessons it is teaching cannot be segregated from American foreign policy more generally. Which means that President Bush's awkward admission last week that "nation-building"—which he has been trashing for close to two years—is necessary in Afghanistan constitutes a more fundamental reversal than his advisers acknowledge. If the war on terrorism requires nation-building in Afghanistan, it requires nation-building all over the world. And if the war on terrorism requires nation-building all over the world, one of the central principles of post-1994 Republican foreign policy has been proven hideously wrong.
In recent years liberals (myself included) have gleefully hurled the epithet "isolationist"—deployed so devastatingly against Democrats in the 1970s and '80s—back in the GOP's face. But the truth is a little more complicated. When it comes to great power threats (Taiwan) or clear economic interests (the Gulf), Republicans have remained willing to expend American blood and treasure. What the GOP has vehemently turned against is what Michael Mandelbaum acerbically called "foreign policy as social work." When the Gingrichites took the House in 1995, they tried to cut foreign aid by one-third. Republican leaders opposed economic assistance for Haiti after the Clinton administration restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And with the exception of John McCain and a few others, they denounced America's air war in Kosovo.
In his campaign for president, George W. Bush picked up the baton. In his October 11, 2000, debate with Al Gore, he declared his opposition to "nation-building" no fewer than five times. He announced that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Haiti, and his chief foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, declared that he would eventually withdraw them from Bosnia and Kosovo as well. As she put it, "We don't need to have the Eighty-Second Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."
Bush and the Republicans leveled several charges against nation-building. First, they said it stretched our military too thin. But when W. demanded the withdrawal of American troops from Haiti, the United States only had 75 of them on the ground. America's peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia totaled around 1 percent of the annual defense budget and involved fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. troops in Europe. Second, the GOP insisted that nation-building never works. But in the former Yugoslavia, NATO troops and Western aid have not only stopped the region's terrible wars, they have contributed to the democratization of Serbia and Croatia— virtually ensuring that those wars will not start again. Even in Haiti, widely considered a nation-building fiasco, the United States replaced a murderous junta with a chaotic and hapless democracy—a limited but genuine improvement.
Such evidence was largely beside the point, however, because the GOP's true objection to nation-building was deeper. The party simply didn't believe that the disintegration of far-off, dirt-poor countries threatened American security. And so, even if nation-building might do some good, it wasn't worth a modest expense or a single casualty.
In the case of Afghanistan, even President Bush has now implicitly admitted that this argument was disastrously wrong. But if it was wrong in Afghanistan, it is wrong in lots of other places as well. After all, the White House says there are Al Qaeda cells in roughly 68 countries. The network thrives in places beyond central government control—Pakistan's northwest frontier; remote islands in the Philippines and Indonesia; impoverished, lawless countries like Yemen, Tajikistan, and the Sudan. And we now know that even the most backward states can provide a platform for mass murder on the other side of the globe. There are large Muslim populations in Congo, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, failing states that America has essentially written off. If Al Qaeda set up shop there, local governments would be powerless to stop them.
This is not to suggest that the United States needs a Marshall Plan for every unstable country on Earth. But September 11 does go a long way toward answering the question that Republicans asked every time the Clinton administration intervened in some remote country: "Why should we care?" We should care because we are fighting another global war. During the last one, Republicans understood better than Democrats that far-off, dirt-poor countries like Angola, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan could threaten the United States if they fell prey to an enemy with global ambitions and global reach. And, more than Democrats, they were willing to send aid, expend diplomatic capital, and even deploy troops to make sure that didn't happen. That is the lesson the GOP needs to relearn today.
Eight years ago, when the United States lost 18 troops trying to reconstruct Somalia, Clinton and the Republicans agreed that the mission wasn't worth the loss of life. But imagine if America had stayed—losing 18 lives a year and spending billions of dollars—and as a result Somalia was today a functioning country under unified, responsible control. In other words, a country Al Qaeda couldn't call home. After September 11, can we really say it wouldn't have been worth the cost?