Bush the Nation-Builder

One of the biggest promises made by George W. Bush as a candidate – no more nation-building – has turned out to be his biggest lie as president.

In the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, Bush slammed the Clinton administration for doing exactly what he’s doing now, only worse. He warned voters his opponent Al Gore would turn more U.S. soldiers into "nation-builders" and "peacekeepers." Bush pledged to exercise "judicious use of our military."

These weren’t off-the-cuff remarks. The anti-nation-building rhetoric was part of a carefully crafted campaign strategy to position Bush solidly to the right of Gore on foreign policy. Bush was the conservative candidate, and true conservatives don’t get America mixed up overseas in bleeding-heart humanitarian missions. They don’t use Marines for meals-on-wheels. What Bush vowed during the campaign regarding nation-building was delivered from hard-and-fast talking points that his political handlers had him commit to memory. And it resonated with American voters.

On Oct. 3, 2000, candidate Bush lectured Vice President Gore about his views on nation-building during their first debate.

"The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops," he snorted. "He believes in nation-building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation-builders."

So much for that promise.

"Morale in today’s military is too low," Bush added.

Nearly three in four U.S. soldiers in Iraq think the war there is unwinnable and want out, according to a February poll by Zogby International. Good thing our new commander in chief boosted morale.

"We’re having trouble meeting recruiting goals."

Yeah, not like now. That doesn’t sound familiar at all.

"Some of our troops are not well-equipped."

You mean like lacking armor?

"I believe we’re overextended in too many places."

So Bush overextended the military even more by invading and occupying two large and unruly countries.

"If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road," Bush closed. "And I’m going to prevent that."


Then on Oct. 11, in their second debate, Bush tore into Gore for deploying troops to Haiti. "I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile," he said. "It was a nation-building mission, and it – it was not very successful. It cost us billions of dollars…."

Yet the price tag for Bush’s own unsuccessful nation-building is now up to half a trillion dollars, and his foreign ventures aren’t even in our hemisphere.

"…and I’m not so sure democracy’s any better off in Haiti than it was before."

Not like in Iraq, where the Interior Ministry dispatches death squads to torture and kill political enemies just like Saddam Hussein. Or in Afghanistan, where Islamic "virtues" police terrorize women, à la the Taliban.

"I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations."

Yes, but only after we bomb the infrastructure they have – and then only after Halliburton and Bechtel get the first shot at reconstruction contracts.

The day after the presidential debate, in an interview with NBC’s Tim Russert, candidate Bush stressed that a "big difference" between him and Gore was "on the nation-building concept."

"If he means using troops all around the world to serve as social workers, or policeman, or, you know, school-walk crossing guards, I’m not for that," Bush clucked. "And I don’t think America is for that either. I think America wants judicious use of our military."

Yeah, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Bush has judiciously ordered troops to build mosques and schools; rebuild bombed highways and bridges, then patrol them like traffic cops; train and stand up police, border guards, and whole armies; and pass out soccer balls, pencils, and candy to kids.

Borrowing a page from the Clinton-Gore humanitarian playbook, which included meals-on-wheels ventures in both Haiti and Somalia, Bush has used GIs to feed, clothe, and vaccinate Iraqis and Afghans.

"We got the Taliban gone," Bush crowed in 2002 (before the Taliban came back with a vengeance). "We’d like to get disease and hunger gone, as well."

So he handed out stethoscopes and Band-Aids to soldiers and turned them into nurses. As I reported in my first book on the war on terror, Crude Politics, the president recognized a U.S. soldier who traveled around Afghanistan providing medical care. "He treated broken bones. He treated gunshot wounds. He treated cuts and disease," Bush gushed in a White House ceremony with Afghan delegates. "He treated a small child who was bitten by a donkey." How touching. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden was plotting new attacks.

Bush then judiciously used the military by attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, further blowing off bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership, which had slipped into Pakistan while Bush focused on regime change and nation-building in Afghanistan.

On Oct. 30, 2000, then-Gov. Bush threw another elbow at Gore over "nation-building" during a presidential campaign rally in Albuquerque.

"My opponent believes our military should be used for nation-building and peacekeeping," Bush carped, "instead of focusing on its primary job, which is to be able to fight and win wars."

Fight and win wars? In Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush has reassigned GIs trained for combat to police neighborhoods like beat cops and resolve sectarian disputes like social workers. Their role as an occupying force is permanent, and so are the bull’s-eyes affixed to their backs. At least 20 more American GIs were ambushed and killed just this week.

Listen to the frustration of Army Sgt. Christopher Dugger, who leads patrols in Baghdad. "We’re trained as an Army to fight and destroy the enemy and then take over," he said. "But I don’t think we’re trained enough to push along a country, and that’s what we’re actually doing out here."

Added Army Spec. David Fulcher, regarding their impossible mission: "How did it become, ‘Well, now we have to rebuild this place from the ground up’?"

Then, in the final lap before the 2000 election, candidate Bush warned voters against sticking with an administration that sends the military on poorly planned, poorly equipped, and poorly defined missions.

"I’m worried about the fact that certain branches of the military are running short of parts," he said in a Nov. 3, 2000, campaign speech at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.

Of course, Bush fixed all that, most notably by making sure troops in Iraq had adequate armor to protect them from roadside IEDs – some three years after they asked for it, that is.

"I’m worried about the fact I’m running against an opponent who uses nation-building and the military in the same breath," Bush added. "I’m worried about the fact that our mission is not clear."

Unlike the mission in Iraq, which changes by the month.

The career Pentagon officials I’ve talked to are demoralized by the very mission creep Bush railed against six years ago as a candidate. Many are quitting the service because of it.

After 9/11, they say the mission was clear and simple: decapitate the al-Qaeda leadership once and for all. Strike at the head, kill the body. U.S. CentCom officials involved in talks over the initial counterattack told me, as I first reported in early 2003 in "Crude Politics," that they had argued for a narrowly defined and concentrated search-and-destroy mission against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan – go in, get bin Laden & Co., and get the hell out.

What they got instead was a broadly defined, long, complicated mission that has included proxy forces, humanitarian airlifts, regime change, nation-building, economic development, base-building, embassy-building, and endless occupation.

The plan was so comprehensive and complex that it virtually guaranteed finding bin Laden would slip down the priority list. Bush’s ambitious nation-building has only stirred up ant hills without killing the queen.

It’s a tragic irony that after two invasions and two occupations of two countries – after $500 billion spent kicking up a lot of sand – we’ve come back full circle to the original mandate of five years ago. That’s because the threat from al-Qaeda still exists, and that’s because its inner circle is still intact, still at large, and still calling the shots in the global terror arena.

That’s not my opinion. That’s the consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. Turn to the recently declassified key judgments [.pdf] in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) updating progress in the global war on terror.

There on page three it says that decapitating the al-Qaeda leadership – which has carved out new headquarters in Pakistan – is key to crushing al-Qaeda and winning the war on terror.

"The loss of key leaders, particularly Osama bin Laden [and] Ayman al-Zawahiri, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups," according to the NIE. "We assess that the resulting splinter groups would, at least for a time, pose a less serious threat to U.S. interests than does al-Qaeda."

The same report says the Iraq war has helped al-Qaeda, not hurt it.

In other words, it’s al-Qaeda, stupid. Not Iraq, not Saddam Hussein, not the Ba’athists, not Tehran, not Hezbollah, and not even the Taliban, but bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We need to go full circle back to "Osama bin Laden, dead or alive," the focus we had before the leader who made that vow freighted the war on al-Qaeda with personal vendettas, political opportunism, and the special interests of cronies and donors.

William F. Buckley, the godfather of the conservative movement, was pilloried by the neoconservative superstatists when he said Bush overreached in Iraq and did not act as a traditional conservative with regard to foreign policy.

He suggested both Bush and his war were frauds awaiting failure, and that such failure will not only be Bush’s legacy, but that of the GOP and the entire conservative movement if they continue to hitch their fortunes to him.

"Bush is not a conservative" and the invasion of Iraq was "anything but conservative," Buckley said. He added that "The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous" and "unrealistic."

Yet King George of Denial wants to reform the world once he’s done reforming the Middle East. That’s what he told Tim Russert he wanted to do if he got a second term – topple "tyrants" wherever he found them.

Founding Father John Jay had another King George in mind when he wrote Federalist No. 4:

"[A]bsolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people."

Jay sternly warned against the prosecution of mischievous and fraudulent wars. If another election goes by without invalidating the Iraq fraud and holding its architects accountable, everything Jay and the other founders of this great nation fought for will be for naught.