As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams notes, Scott Walker has been developing a solid foreign policy agenda that puts “him squarely in the internationalist wing of the [Republican] Party, wanting to do more rather than less abroad and committed to defeating ISIS.” 

But along with his commitment to do more abroad comes a predictable if ill-considered knock on nation-building designed, no doubt, to inoculate him against charges of being overly interventionist.  Walker says: “The bottom line for us, my belief is that the American military shouldn’t be involved in nation-building. We should leave that up to the people in no matter what countries or what regions we’re in.”

I think I’ve seen this DVD before. Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush proclaimed in a debate with Al Gore: “Are we going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.” Yet by the end of his second term, Bush was setting up precisely such a corps — the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization at the State Department.

What changed? Many seem to believe that in the intervening years the Bush administration was hijacked by a cabal of nefarious neocons. The actual explanation is simpler: Reality intervened. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush found that there was no alternative to nation building — not if we wanted to leave behind stable polities capable of policing their own borders. The fact that the Bush administration was so ill-prepared for nation-building, and indeed so biased against it, that it actually made the problems worse and contributed to the chaos that engulfed both Iraq and Afghanistan after the overthrow of their dictators.

But while showing the need for “nation-building,” the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan further marred this term in many minds by associating it with massive American military interventions that few are eager to repeat. In reality, while nation-building has sometimes been a necessary and important task for large numbers of American troops (e.g., in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kosovo), it is also an activity that far more often takes place without any large commitment of military personnel. Indeed throughout Africa, Latin America, and the greater Middle East small numbers of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel are taking part in nation building that usually goes by the name “capacity building” — i.e., building up the capacity of allied regimes to run their own countries and hence to prevent them from becoming staging grounds for terrorists.

In Colombia this effort has been a stunning success: Thanks to the support provided by the U.S. government’s Plan Colombia, Colombia has been able to beat back the Marxist guerrilla group known as FARC, which little more than a decade ago controlled an area the size of Switzerland. All of this was accomplished mainly by Colombians but with an important helping hand from a small number of American advisers administering a multibillion-dollar aid program.

Another ally engaged in nation-building is the United Arab Emirates. As the Wall Street Journal reports, forces from the UAE are trying to stop the takeover of Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. Reporter Yaroslav Trofimov reports from Aden:

By default, the Emiratis have to fill this governance void. Brig. Gen. Abdullah al-Dhaheri of the U.A.E. Presidential Guard carries a thick folder with all the projects that the Emirates are already funding in the impoverished country, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, from restoring the power grid to rebuilding the city’s 18 police stations to supplying hospitals with drugs.

In coming days, the U.A.E. plans to bring back to work 2,000 policemen, recruiting some resistance fighters into the ranks and paying them, he said.

Why is the UAE doing this? Not because the small Gulf nation has any desire to annex Yemen. Rather, it is because the Emiratis recognize that winning a war requires more than battlefield success — it requires building institutions that can endure.

I’m sure Scott Walker and others who bash nation-building have no problem with the Emiratis or Colombians taking on the task; and it would indeed be a great thing if allies would take on the entire burden themselves. But it’s unrealistic to expect that will be the case. The U.S. needs to increase its own nation-building capacity so as to bolster the efforts of our allies and be able to fill vacuums where we don’t have effective allies on the ground.

Paradoxically, the more nation-building we do the less likely it is that we will be forced to send large numbers of our own troops into harm’s way. Look at Iraq, where the nation-building project was progressing in 2011 even as the number of American troops was being scaled back. But when we pulled all of our troops out, the progress that had been made ended, and the lack of effective governance created an opening that ISIS was able to fill. Now we have had to send American troops back to Iraq.

That’s a cautionary tale. Instead of inveighing against nation-building, candidates such as Scott Walker would be better advised to advocate more effective nation-building tools that will enable us to win lasting victories against our enemies — rather than simply transitory tactical successes of little lasting strategic import.

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