Obama vs. Petraeus on nation-building

Barack Obama, December 1:

There are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort — one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.

David Petaeus, December 21:

[Fareed] Zakaria: In 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, you were placed in northern Iraq, in Mosul, commanding the 101st Airborne Division. And you decided that you needed to fight the war in a different way.

Petraeus: It was very clear early on that we, the military, were going to have to do the nation building. People occasionally ask, “What were the big decisions you made in Iraq?” The biggest decision I made early on in Iraq that I announced—to a little bit of stunned silence from the commanders—was that we [were] going to do nation building.

[Zakaria]: Using those words? Because the Bush administration up to that point had specifically denounced nation building. Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in Foreign Affairs saying that the 82nd Airborne should not be assisting kids to go to school.

[Petraeus:] Using those words. As a card-carrying member of the Council on Foreign Relations, with my Foreign Affairs subscription up to date, I was keenly aware of the Rice essay, but I had done a fair amount of nation building during my life in various forms: Central America, in Haiti as a chief of operations for the U.N. force there, in the Balkans.

[Zakaria:] When President Obama talked about Afghanistan in his Dec. 1 speech, he didn’t advocate “nation building.” When I and a few others had lunch with him, he specifically said, “We’re not going to do nation building.”

[Petraeus:] Certainly we are doing elements of nation building [in Afghanistan]. It’s inescapable. In a counterinsurgency campaign, even one that is more narrowly focused as a result of this process [of reviewing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan],…inevitably you are going to perform tasks that are elements of nation building.

Petraeus clearly knew what he was supposed to have said. So what’s he doing? Just making a point about counterinsurgency? Sending a message to the president? Sending a message to the troops in Afghanistan?

Personally, I think the phrase “nation-building” has become so politicized that it’s basically useless. No one knows what counts as nation-building and what doesn’t. Obama has sent 50,000 troops to fight insurgents while rebuilding the Afghan police and army. He says it isn’t nation-building. That sounds strange, but you can’t say he’s actually wrong.

What I’d really like to see is Obama use the word counterinsurgency and explain what it means. That would mean something.

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