Loose Canons

Bonfire of the Neocons

"Nation building" has been a disaster. Part 1 of a two-part series.

By 8.2.10

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Announcing that Gen. David Petraeus would replace the defenestrated Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama was emphatic in saying that this was a change in people, not in policy.

That policy, which Obama described in a February 2009 interview with Jim Lehrer, was "that is that we make sure that [Afghanistan is] not a safe haven for al-Qaida, they are not able to launch attacks of the sort that happened on 9/11 against the American homeland or American interest." And that was George Bush's goal. The strategy Bush chose to accomplish it -- and the one Obama is continuing -- is nation-building, also known as "counterinsurgency" in military lingo.

By the end of August, over 100,000 U.S. troops will be engaged in the counterinsurgency campaign and in less than a year the final curtain will begin to fall on the greatest wartime mistake America has made since Lyndon Johnson put Robert McNamara in charge of the Vietnam War: the strategy of nation-building.

Though he campaigned against it, President Bush embraced nation-building in January 2003 when he chose a nation-building plan for post-war Iraq authored by Colin Powell and George Tenet over the plan for a brief invasion written by Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Myers. And, by default, nation-building was decided upon for Afghanistan as well.

We are now close to the end of the ninth year of our counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and success -- as defined by Bush and Obama -- is nowhere in sight.

In two years, nation-building will have failed conclusively in Afghanistan. The impermanence of its accomplishments in Iraq are already all too evident. The post-election stalemate between the incumbent Maliki and apparent winner Allawi has continued since March, accompanied by ever-increasing violence by a resurgent al-Qaeda.

In two years, Republicans will have to decide on a candidate to oppose Obama's attempt to win a second term.

This will necessitate an argument between conservatives and neocons, the latter's belief in nation-building being one of their defining characteristics. The outcome of that argument will determine the immediate future of conservatism and, in all likelihood, the outcome of the 2012 election.

Neocons -- according to an August 2003 Weekly Standard article by the late Irving Kristol, credited as the godfather of neoconservatism -- define themselves differently from traditional conservatives.

Kristol described a cognitive dissonance that characterizes neocons. First, he said, neoconservatives like to stimulate economic growth by cutting taxes. But their emphasis on economic growth leads them to embrace governmental spending far more than small-government conservatives do. He rejected Hayek's thesis that we are on a "road to serfdom" and said that "…sometimes we must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth." This was George Bush's "big government conservatism" and it failed comprehensively.

The neocons' belief in nation-building -- they being the most ardent advocates of it -- wasn't mentioned by Kristol though he admitted that foreign policy was (when he wrote) the media's focus on neoconservatism. He claimed that "there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience."

Nation-building is the most prominent -- and most important -- part of the neocon doctrine. And the decision to pursue it is the principal reason that we are losing in Afghanistan, Iraq is falling apart, and the real enemy -- the terror-sponsoring nations -- have grown stronger. If conservatives are going to recover from the Bush years and regain the White House, nation-building must be a focal point of the argument for the future of conservatism.

WE ARE CLOSING IN on the ninth anniversary of 9-11. U.S. combat forces are supposed to be out of Iraq altogether by summer's end, though more are being sent to Afghanistan to complete the "surge" the president ordered.

But nowhere -- in Iraq, Afghanistan or the score of other places where the war George Bush called the "global war on terror" is being fought -- are we winning.

Why? What have we gotten so wrong?

The answer to that question is that we have gotten very few things wrong. But those few are the only ones that are important.

George W. Bush made three mistakes which altered the course of American history and from which we may not recover because Barack Obama is compounding them.

First, President Bush never defined the enemy clearly and correctly: we are at war with the nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism and the religion-cum-ideology which propels them.

Second, and the inevitable consequence of the first, we have mistaken the terrorist groups as the enemy and -- despite overwhelming evidence of their responsibility for the deaths of American troops -- we have never attacked the terror-sponsors or even exacted a price for their actions.

Third, and with equally disastrous effect, Bush sunk us neck-deep in the neocons' self-imposed quagmire of nation-building.

Nine days after 9-11, addressing a joint session of Congress, Bush seemed to have it right. In his speech to a joint session of Congress he said, "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," and "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." But in that speech he sowed the seeds of mistake and drift. He added, "The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them." The cognitive dissonance in that statement led Bush astray. Our "many Arab friends," especially the Saudis, are a principal funding source for terrorist groups. The Saudis are also, through an international group called the Muslim Brotherhood, conducting an ideological insurgency in America. Other Arab states such as Syria openly sponsor terror while the rest turn a blind eye to it. And though Iran is Persian not Arab, it is the principal terrorist nation on the planet.

If Bush had meant what he said, the Saudis would have been forced to stop sponsoring terrorism and both the Iranian kakistocracy and Assad's Syria would only be bad memories. But he never took action, far less decisive action, against any of them.

Terrorists only have global reach if they are sponsored and supported -- and given safe harbor [- by nations.

Bush quailed at the idea of engaging the Islamists in the ideological half of the war they wage against us. Islam -- radical or otherwise -- is as much an ideology as a religion: an integrated system of beliefs intended to form the basis of government. To defeat the terrorist groups -- and to divorce the terror-sponsoring nations from their chosen mission -- the ideology has to be attacked and defeated just as communism and Nazism were.

Though some in his administration wanted to fight the ideological war (such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and successive Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gens. Richard Myers and Peter Pace) the president was unwilling. So that battlefield was abandoned to soft euphemisms about Islam.

Bush refused to prosecute the ideological war. And now Obama intends to surrender outright.

Our young president apparently lacks the courage of Harry Potter, the fictional young wizard who dared say the name of his ultimate enemy, "Voldemort," aloud. The "National Security Strategy" is a presidential statement to Congress required of each new administration. The terms "jihad" and "Islamic extremism" are banned from the one Obama is about to release. How can you defeat that which you lack the courage to name?

You can't. And if you won't fight the ideological war and don't fight the source of terrorism, you can't win at all. George Bush must bear much of the blame, but he wasn't the first president to fail to take action against the state sponsors of terrorism.

With agonizing consistency, almost every president since Thomas Jefferson -- who sent the navy to "chastise the Tripolitan pirates" -- has failed to act against the terror sponsoring nations. Jimmy Carter's presidency ended with that failure and Ronald Reagan, having recovered the Tehran hostages, bailed out of Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing without punishing the Iranian government for sponsoring it.

Bill Clinton's casual attitude toward the terrorist threat certainly helped al-Qaeda grow to the existential threat it proved itself to be on 9-11. But in Afghanistan from the beginning, and in Iraq dating back even before the U.S. invasion of 2003, George Bush failed to confront and destroy the terror sponsors. He accepted the neocons' way of war.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.