Ochenski: Promises, promises 

Can W. keep his pledge of no new nation-building?

Politicians love to make campaign promises, and who can blame them? You’re on the campaign trail, caught up in the frenzy of an election, meeting with hundreds of people every day who all want you to tell them what they want to hear in exchange for their vote. Without their votes, you may not win. So you make the promises. The problem with campaign promises is that people expect you to keep them—at least if you’re the one who wins. Who can forget those famous lines by the first President Bush when he told the nation to “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Oh, how we laughed a short time later when he broke that campaign promise and raised taxes, sending his Republican backers into a rage and giving Democrats a finger to point in his direction on “tax and spend.” Shortly thereafter, the one-term Bush presidency came to an end, and many say it was because he broke that promise. In spite of the fact that he claims to have learned from his father’s mistakes, the second President Bush seems to have a similar problem with those lips—only instead of taxes, his broken campaign promise revolves around something called “nation-building.”

During the campaign, one of Bush’s primary accusations against the Clinton administration—and by inference, his opponent Al Gore—was that it got involved in too many conflicts around the globe and used the American military for what W. called “nation-building.” What he was referring to, of course, were the actions such as those the United States took in Serbia and Bosnia while trying to bring an end to the horrendous violence that resulted in rape, murder, pillage and wholesale destruction on a daily basis. Using an international peace-keeping force, the United States and its NATO allies first sought to reduce the armed conflict, then tried to stabilize the region, negotiate a lasting peace, and provide for democratic elections. While these are all noble goals, George W. Bush pointed to them as examples of the misuse of American military powers and derided the effort as “nation-building.” He then went on to promise the American people that, under his presidency, “nation-building” would never happen. Quite frankly, it sounded pretty good at the time. Being the “cops of the world” devours a huge chunk of American resources every year, often with dubious returns. One year later, much to his dismay, Bush finds himself eating those words... and they taste like crow, not chicken.

As everyone knows, it is much easier to tear something down than to build it. This is just as valid for governments as it is for anything else. While our military is pretty danged good at using air power and superior technology to destroy those we deem our enemies, it is a lot tougher to bomb your way to a new government. In Afghanistan, where tribal warfare and resistance to outside invaders is a time-honored way of life, it is even tougher. And so, like it or not, campaign promises or not, Bush must face the harsh reality that having destroyed the Taliban government, he must now build—or at the very least offer massive support to—some new government in its place. This will not be easy.

While Americans tend to lump Muslims together (if they lump them at all), there are real divisions within the practitioners of Islam. In Afghanistan, the considerable enmity between Muslim factions provides a huge hurdle for efforts to stabilize the country, establish a judicial system, and begin to rebuild the ravaged country. How bad is it? Consider this: At the recently concluded talks in Bonn, the United Nations insisted that the various factions expecting to share power in leading post-Taliban Afghanistan agree to set up an independent judicial system. As part of the agreement, this language was included: “Rebuild the domestic justice system in accordance with Islamic principles, international standards, the rule of law and Afghan legal traditions.” To westerners, it sounds pretty good, right? But to those familiar with the traditional chasms between the various factions of Islam, there are big problems. Take the Sunnis and Shiites, for instance. Before the ink was dry on the Bonn accord, Shiite religious leaders were calling for a dual justice system—one for Shiites, one for Sunnis. They fear the Sunnis, widely held to be in a position of power in the new government, will not honor the “Islamic principles” of the Shiites. And no surprise, one political wag commented at the outset of the war that if Sunnis and Shiites were vowing to fight together against the Taliban, it was probably so they could get close enough to shoot at each other.

To make matters worse, remember that many of the Taliban’s former fighters, and perhaps most of those who came from other Islamic nations to fight for the Taliban, remain at large. Following classic guerrilla war tactics, when confronted with a massive force, they simply took their weapons and faded into the countryside. It is impossible for America, or any foreign power, to have stopped them. For the time being, they are merely invisible. But one day, when they deem the time is right and their opposition is weak, they will take those weapons up and go to battle once more.

George Bush, who has never exhibited a proclivity toward long-range thinking, is now caught in this particularly nasty dilemma. If he dumps billions of tax dollars and keeps a sizeable U.S. military force in Afghanistan in an attempt to substitute justice for the traditional vengeance, he will be breaking his campaign promise and engaging in the very “nation-building” of which he accused Clinton. If he doesn’t, he runs the risk of being held responsible by the rest of the world for whatever comes next—however ugly that may be. While the dogs of war howl for expanding the military action to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it might be best to reflect just for a moment on W’s campaign promise and ask ourselves just how many nations we can afford to destroy—or rebuild.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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