Shadow Government

Bush on Nation Building and Afghanistan

President Bush famously campaigned against nation building in 2000.  Critics loved to point out the inconsistency between his campaign rhetoric and the lofty ambitions of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In his new memoir, Decision Points, Bush bluntly admits “After 9/11, I changed my mind.” Bush said so as early as April 2002, in ...

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) walks with US President George W. Bush (2nd R) prior to a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on December 15, 2008. US President George W. Bush arrived in Afghanistan on December 15, after a making a farewell visit to Iraq, according to the White House. Bush's plane landed in darkness at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, a reporter traveling with him said. The US president was to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and address US troops during the visit. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Musadeq Sadeq (Photo credit should read MUSADEQ SADEQ/AFP/Getty Images)

President Bush famously campaigned against nation building in 2000.  Critics loved to point out the inconsistency between his campaign rhetoric and the lofty ambitions of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In his new memoir, Decision Points, Bush bluntly admits “After 9/11, I changed my mind.”

Bush said so as early as April 2002, in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute.  He said that “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.”  In his memoir, one chapter of which is devoted to Afghanistan, Bush writes that “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission.  We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.  We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society,” because “a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.”

Observers, including me, have almost unanimously taken Bush to task for failing to match his lofty rhetoric with the programs, policies, and budgets to implement them.  Bush, to his credit, admits as much in his memoir.  “The task turned out to be even more daunting than I anticipated,” he writes.  Part of the difficulty lay simply in the massive complexity of the task.  “Democracy is a journey that requires a nation to build governing institutions such as courts of law, security forces, an education system, a free press, and a vibrant civil society.”  It is tempting to say that this should not have been a surprise to an Administration whose National Security Advisor had a PhD in Political Science, but the truth is that academics and practitioners have been captivated by a simplistic and naïve notion of how poor, oppressive countries become rich, free ones for decades-from the “modernization theory” of the 1950s to the “Washington Consensus” of the 1990s.

But another part of the problem lay in the capacity of the U.S. government.  “Our government was not prepared for nation building,” Bush writes, which is absolutely true.  Even if Bush had directed the Departments of State and Defense to mount a massive nation building campaign right after the fall of the Taliban, it isn’t clear to me that they would have known how.  To its credit, the Bush Administration took steps in later years to increase the government’s ability to fix failed states.  It established the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) in 2004.  The next year the Department of Defense issued Directive 3000.5 making stability operations a core military mission.  And the White House issued National Security Presidential Directive 44, updating the Clinton administration’s guidance on interagency efforts in reconstruction and stabilization missions.

The lesson of Afghanistan, it seems Bush is saying, is not that democratic nation building is an impossible fool’s errand.  Bush is (rightly, in my view) unrepentant about his decision to “help the Afghan people build a free society,” and make democracy a key war aim.  Rather, the lesson is that nation building and fostering democracy are worth getting right, but that they are incredibly difficult and require far more time, patience, and effort than the bureaucracies are accustomed to spend on any single foreign policy initiative.  If anything, Bush is contrite for not working hard enough to rebuild Afghanistan.  All in all, this amounts to a surprisingly fair assessment of the Bush Administration’s record on Afghanistan and on the lessons to be drawn from the successes and failures.

Bush concludes by lauding Obama for his recommitment to Afghanistan and calling for resilience.  “Allowing the extremists to reclaim power would…betray all the gains of the past nine years.  It would also endanger our security…To forget that lesson would be a dreadful mistake.”  Amen.

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. @pauldmiller2

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