Against ‘Nation-Building’

Americans are sick and tired of perpetual war: even that champion evader, Barack Obama, had to acknowledge that in his recent Afghanistan speech, in which he said it’s time to start nation-building right here at home. Of course, he’ll say anything to get reelected – except, perhaps, that it’s time to end the wars in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen and ) and bring all our troops home now.

With polls showing 70 percent-plus in favor of doing just that, the President had to make some accommodation with popular sentiment. The War Party, however, has no such political calculation to make: they don’t care about popular sentiment, at least the neoconservatives don’t. Indeed, the neocons are self-consciously elitist, disdaining the hoi polloi, who supposedly live in a world of “myth,” in favor of the alleged wisdom of the “enlightened” minority – the Philosopher-Kings – who supposedly know what’s good for the rest of us. The neocons make their appeal to Washington, and the foreign policy establishment, not the American people, and that’s who Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times, is addressing when he avers:

“The signature line of President Obama’s June 22 Afghanistan address was ‘America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.’ This no doubt resonates among an electorate sick of foreign wars and eager to focus on domestic problems, but it is a wrongheaded statement. ”Whenever America has eschewed commitments abroad and turned inward, the results have been disastrous. The most isolationist decade in the country’s history — the 1930s — was followed by World War II. The ‘Come Home, America’ isolationism of the 1970s was followed by the fall of South Vietnam, the genocide in Cambodia, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the post-Cold War desire to spend the ‘peace dividend’ led the U.S. to turn a blind eye to the rising threat from Al Qaeda.”

After all, who cares what the American people think? Senor Boot and his crew of war-lovers know what’s best for the country, what with their specialized – albeit very selective – knowledge of history. What Boot leaves out of his capsule account of American “isolationism” in the 1930s is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt – elected in 1932 – was hardly an opponent of US entry into the world war. Indeed, he spent much of his first two terms finagling and manipulating the US into entering the war. In a series of ever-escalating steps – Lend-Lease, the embargo of Japan, US intervention in China – FDR edged us toward war. Boot also leaves out World War I – an eminently avoidable conflict – which was the prelude to the second act.

Boot’s history of the 1970s is similarly myopic: the “fall” of South Vietnam could not have been prevented, no matter how many more troops were sent into that inferno. The genocide in Cambodia was the result of President Richard Nixon’s invasion of that country, which enabled the crazies of the Khmer Rouge to come to power – an example of “blowback” with a vengeance.

As for the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: the former can hardly be blamed on “isolationism,” since it was conceived as a protest against US intervention in Iran – remember the overthrow of Mossadegh? – and our fulsome efforts to put and keep the Shah in power.

I’m astonished Boot has the audacity to invoke the short-lived Soviet conquest of Afghanistan, since the complete failure of that tragic enterprise underscores the irrationality of our present project. The Soviets, too, tried to “nation-build” in that vast prehistorical enclave of rugged mountains and fierce tribesmen: the ruins of their effort litter the landscape. What’s more, their hubris helped bring down the rest of their ramshackle empire a few years later. Do we want to follow their example?

Undeterred by either history or common sense, Boot – who once called for the creation of an “American empire” – asks:

“Is isolationism really a course we want to follow today at a time when Iran is going nuclear, Pakistan is turning against the West, North Korea is trying to export its destructive technology, turmoil is spreading across the Middle East, Al Qaeda is far from defeated and China’s power is growing?”

Although Boot never defines his terms, the clear implication is that anything other than full-on “nation-building” and military occupation of targeted countries is an example of “isolationism” in action (or, rather, inaction). By this standard, Ronald Reagan, who got us out of Lebanon, was an “isolationist,” as was every American chief executive who ever chose peace over war.

As to Boot’s specific examples of looming “threats”: no informed observer is going to be quaking in their boots.

There is no credible evidence Iran is building a nuclear weapon: Israel remains the sole nuclear power in the region. If Pakistan is “turning against the West,” then the West also seems to be turning against Pakistan – and how, exactly, is a policy of “nation-building” supposed to reverse that trend? Increasing the American presence in a country that already hates us hardly seems to be solving the problem. As for North Korea: its people are on the brink of starvation, and “nation-building’ is hardly going to deter them from exporting whatever nuclear technology they have. “Nation-building” will deter neither the crazed commissars of the Hermit Kingdom nor the Islamist ideologues of al-Qaeda. As long as US intervention continues to create fresh enemies, the ranks of the terrorists will be replenished – and al-Qaeda will never be defeated.

Boot’s evoking of China as the latest bogeyman is particularly ludicrous: if we keep over-extending ourselves, sending troops and billions in taxpayer dollars abroad, the Chinese will soon be “nation-building” right here in bankrupt America, where entire cities have been foreclosed and abandoned (check out these pictures of Detroit). In any case, I hardly think the Chinese – our major creditors – are going to attack us any time soon: why would they want to destroy their own investment?

Boot blames everything but the policy for the disaster we wrought in Iraq: according to him, Iraq fell into postwar chaos because the Bush administration “refused to prepare for it.” Nor did we throw enough resources at the task: apparently the $1 trillion cost of that war wasn’t enough for Boot. Which isn’t surprising: after all, it was Boot who, in the first months of the Afghanistan war, infamously mourned the lack of American casualties.

When you’re dealing with a neocon, you’re dealing with absolute evil – but at least they’re consistent!

Americans are sick and tired of war, but that’s not all: they’re also sick unto death of the neocons, those pencil-necked laptop bombardiers who never tire of agitating for wars other men’s sons will fight. Americans have had it with the arrogant elites of Washington, D.C., and vicinity, with their grandiose visions of vast social engineering projects thousands of miles from the scene of the real disaster – which is right here at home.

That’s why a new coalition of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians is coalescing around the demand to “Come Home America.” An open letter to the Powers That Be, signed by an impressive list of activists on both sides of the political spectrum, declares:

The wars in which the United States is currently engaged–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya–are harming U.S. national and economic security, degrading the standing of the United States in the world community, fueling hatred abroad for Americans and undermining the rule of law. These unconstitutional wars have been justified on false premises, and most recently in the case of Libya there was not even the pretense of a congressional declaration of war, making it an impeachable offense. We urge you to end the current illegal wars and start a national dialogue about shifting U.S. foreign policy away from dominance through military might, and toward being a member of the community of nations.”

The signers go on to call for “a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy,” and in this they have the support of the American people in their overwhelming majority. That’s what the neocons, and their “progressive” allies in the Obama administration, fear the most: Boot’s piece is meant to reassure the Washington crowd they’ll be taking the noble and patriotic course if they don’t cave in to public sentiment.

If Joe Six-pack’s house is being foreclosed, can Max Boot tell him why he should be thrilled that we’re building a new housing project in Afghanistan? Of course, Boot doesn’t have to engage in such a dialogue: the neocons never run for office themselves, they stay undercover behind the scenes and whisper in the ear of the Prince. They attach themselves to Power – whatever Power is currently in office – and wage their wars by proxy.

Yet even Boot makes concessions to the unpopularity of these constant wars by constructing an argument that holds up “nation-building” as a means of preventing large-scale military intervention: if we just buck up “friendly regimes” by sending massive amounts of aid and “small numbers of U.S. military personnel and civilian advisers” to countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Somalia, we can avoid “necessary” military intervention later on. The cruel joke is that these “small numbers” are soon increased – and no matter how small the initial US presence, we will be setting up a tripwire that can get us involved in a major war rather quickly.

Which is precisely what the neocons are counting on.

The American people aren’t fooled by any of this hogwash: they want out, and they want out now. The first presidential candidate who credibly promises to grant them their wish will go far.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].