Scrolling down through the back-and-forth today re Charles Krauthammer and “nation-building”, I incline more to Andy than Derb, but would like to offer a slightly different angle: Even if one were in favor of “nation-building”, there is nothing to be said for half-hearted, desultory “nation-building”, which is what America has been doing, at great cost in blood and treasure, for almost a decade now. What do we have to show for a ten-year occupation in the Hindu Kush? Christians on death row for converting from Islam? Taxpayer-funded Viagra to help elderly village headmen rape their child brides?
Okay, those are tough cultural nuts to crack, so how about some less contentious transformative infrastructure upgrades? A few years ago, I read a column in The East African by Charles Onyango-Obbo, musing on the recent occupation of the Congo:
While colonialism is bad, the coloniser who arrives by plane, vehicle, or ship is better — because he will have to build an airport, road, or harbour — than the one who, like the Ugandan army, arrived and withdrew from most of eastern Congo on foot.
Where are the roads in Afghanistan? When we eventually “withdraw”, after a decade, there will be, within 20 minutes, barely any discernible trace that we were ever there. Nine years ago, Thomas Friedman, deploying his preferred pop culture analogy, put it this way:
For all the talk about the vaunted Afghan fighters, this was a war between the Jetsons and the Flintstones — and the Jetsons won and the Flintstones know it.
But, as I said a year ago, the Flintstones didn’t know it, so they went back to the cave, bided their time, and now the Jetsons can’t wait to negotiate the hell outta there – and, when we’re gone, the landscape will show no sign the Jetsons ever landed.
Before I got into the Derb/Andy discussion, I was reading an obituary in The Daily Telegraph of Anthony Brooke, former Rajah Muda of Sarawak, whose family reigned over much of the Borneo jungle for over a century until 1946, when the kingdom lost its independence and was formally incorporated into the British Empire. As often with flotsam and jetsam (Flintstone and Jetson?) from the imperial byways, you’re struck by how much London accomplished with so little. By contrast, we’ve spent a fortune in Afghanistan and have nothing to show for it.
I think the difference is this: When America goes into Afghanistan, it doesn’t think it’s prosecuting American interests. Quite the opposite: Regardless of whether it’s officially UN- or Nato-sanctioned, America goes in as the expeditionary force of “world opinion” or “the global commons”. It doesn’t believe it has a national interest in Afghanistan, and indeed assumes that it would be a kind of transnational faux pas to be seen to have one, so it’s hardly surprising that the “nation” it winds up “building” doesn’t look much like anywhere any American would want to have anything to do with. Even nation-building requires the builder to build it in what he perceives as his national interest – as the British did in India and the Americans in post-war Japan. If you have disinterested, transnational nation-building, you wind up as we have in Kabul.
To go back to Sarawak, it was ceded to His Britannic Majesty in 1946 and became independent in 1963, when it joined the new Federation of Malaysia: Seventeen years from colony to statehood – versus a decade spent presiding over Take Your Catamite To Work Day in Kandahar. And, as a New Jersey reader wrote to me the other day, “Does anybody really think we’re leaving anytime soon?” In Afghanistan and elsewhere, transnational nation-building is like a mangled Hotel California: We never seriously check in, and yet we never leave.