This isn’t the first time we’ve grappled with nation-building, of course. Almost from the start, our leaders have debated the question of intervention. On the one hand, there’s the generous spirit of democracy, which dictates a healthy respect for another sovereign nation’s self-determination. On the other hand, America has never regarded any democracy so highly as its own, and has used its defense to justify coups, assassinations, colonization—everything that we abhor domestically.
The confusion has never been clarified as foreign policy. We’ve articulated positions like those described in the Monroe Doctrine—but flipped the intent depending on whether we were opposing intervention (of other nations against our holdings) or justifying it (when we were violating other countries and their patron states). US foreign policy has been isolationist (as when Hitler was rolling through Europe), and interventionist (as when Roosevelt secretly agreed with revolutionaries in Panama to declare independence in exchange for the rights to the canal). In the end, the issue comes down to expediency.
Looking forward, this question is going to be at the heart of any plans the US might hatch for nation building. It’s reflected perfectly in the confusion of Iraq--whether to grant Iraqis the democracy they want, and possibly lose the country to anti-US forces, or exert its will and produce a puppet regime. More succinctly: if you get into the business of nation building, for whom are you building nations--the US or the citizens of the rebuilt nation?
Conservative View I think conservatives are less conflicted--and less transparent--on this point. The beneficiary of nation building is the US; whatever self-determination the vassal country achieves, so long as it’s in line with US objectives, is a fringe benefit. There are a few clear reasons for this position: where necessary, nation building can ensure stability in a region, benefiting the US; the US, owing to its history as a constitutional democracy, is the beacon of freedom in the world, and so we are the natural agent to reform dangerous regimes; to ensure US security, nation building is best handled by the US and not left to a coalition where member states have veto power over our actions.
It’s less transparent because the rhetoric doesn’t always match the realpolitik. Now that Iraq is in crisis, the administration has fallen back on the excuse that they’re merely continuing Clinton policies. They claim to have invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons. It’s a harder sell to be cold and clear-eyed about the fact that you’re using foreign nations essentially as pawns to achieve national goals. I actually believe that this was the sole reason for invading Iraq; neocons like Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld invaded Iraq as a strategic move. Unfortunately, that’s not the justification they offered the public.
Liberal View Liberals are confused on this point. They simultaneously hold both the values of offering self-determination and and trying to establish (US-friendly) democracies. There’s a strongly humanitarian impulse here: nation building puts into place the building blocks for citizens to rise out of tyranny. It’s a noble goal, but a mostly idealistic one. When the US went to war, folks like Tom Friedman jumped on the bandwagon, knowing that things would just have to be better under us than they were under Saddam.
The problem with this view emerged in the example of Iraq. In many ways it’s the worst of both worlds--the country might revert to tyranny, might become harshly anti-US in the process, and the only solution is to become an accidental occupier or lose any of the strategic advantages the conservatives would derive from occupation. Worse, if a state commits itself to a foreign policy based on humanitarianism, where does it end? Credibility quickly becomes an issue, because the US would naturally prioritize intervention based on national interest.
Thoughts It’s not possible, probably, to fully isolate policy to either the humanitarian or strategic approach to intervention, nor to craft a global policy with regard to self-determination. But ignoring the question altogether, or having PR promote one while policy actually rests on the other, is a prescription for failure on a number of levels. If liberals want to embark on a policy of intervention, they will have to admit the Machiavellian dimension. Likewise, conservatives have to be more public about their own strategic goals and prepare to offer a plan that includes humanitarian elements. In both cases, the UN provides a buffer (though the neocons don't want to hear it). The UN provides legitimacy for strategic actions and support and experience for the humanitarian aspects. If intervention is an explicit element of foreign policy, it's hard to see how excluding the UN improves the situation.