Magazine August 30, 2010, Issue

Fatal Conceit

President Obama arrives in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 10, 2010. (Jim Young/Reuters)
What’s wrong with nation building

Americans used to have a wise skepticism about nation building. As recently as the 1990s, conservatives, especially, opposed the Clinton administration’s social-engineering projects in Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans: They doubted that the U.S. military should, or could, become a tool for creating modern states where none existed. After 9/11, however, as the U.S. military drifted into nation-building operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, even previously skeptical observers found themselves endorsing the expanded missions. Today, support for Barack Obama’s nation-building project in Afghanistan is widespread, even among conservatives.

Despite this new consensus, nation building remains expensive, unnecessary, and unwise. In a literal

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