For a man who so consistently during his presidential campaign eschewed "nation building" as a priority of his foreign policy, President Bush is these days setting out some pretty hefty nation-building goals.
I say that not to complain. I point it out instead to remind us, when we might otherwise be distracted by a war that is turning out all by itself to be pretty substantial, of all the even bigger and sophisticated international assignments this so-called na•ve, isolationist, unilateralist cowboy president is committing us to.
The war with Iraq is, of course, partly defensive. Indeed, without those defensive aspects, it might be impossible to justify such a campaign in terms of historic just-war thinking. Nor do I mean to imply that justification has somehow been concocted or rationalized. Monstrously evil threats have been leveled against us. It is right to respond.
But the evidence grows that the administration is seeking to do far more than simply neutralizing Saddam Hussein. Silencing the threat of so evil a power is certainly part of the goal-but only a part, and just the beginning. The larger, and much more strategic, objective is to establish right in the heart of the troubled Middle East a nation state that will be an anchor of stability and balance rather than a fountain of hatred, deception, constant unrest, and violence.
And, the thinking goes, if such a nation can indeed be established, perhaps a reverse kind of "domino effect" might follow. A generation ago, that phrase represented the fear that the fall of one might lead to the collapse of a whole lineup of nations. In the Bush view, the very attractiveness of enabling one nation to throw off the shackles of dictatorship and establish democratic governance might prompt peoples in other nations to nudge their authoritarian governments to change their ways as well. One domino stands up; other prostrate dominoes might follow.
There's more. The cap piece of the Bush strategy (according to some thoughtful observers) is to create an overall context in which regional tensions will have been reduced and stabilized so that a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians might finally be structured.
The plan is outrageously audacious: First, take a single country (Iraq) with at least a little potential for running itself democratically, chop off its evil head, and give it a chance to do what's right. Second, see if that model can't be replicated several times over in the same region-although in a more peaceful manner than in the Iraqi model. Third, use the resulting stability to create a context for peace where only bitter division has reigned for centuries. Could it possibly happen?
It's not hard to be skeptical. If Mr. Bush himself came into office leery of such "nation building"-and the record is pretty clear that he did-why should anyone think now it's such a big deal? What changed over the last couple of years?
The answer, as with so many aspects of our lives, might be wrapped up in the simple term "9/11." If Mr. Bush did originally have isolationist tendencies, it's not hard to see how the sobering experiences of 9/11-which he witnessed and felt with a crushing weight almost no one else could have experienced-may well have challenged him to rethink his perspective. It's not hard to imagine a sort of conversion process all but consuming him as he considered the impossibility of just sitting there and watching evil envelop the whole world.
So grand was this emerging vision for Mr. Bush that once or twice he made the mistake of calling it a "crusade." It is indeed a crusade for him, although he had to learn that's not a word you use casually around Muslims.
But is it possible for one nation really to help build another nation?
The answer is not merely theoretic. You can find the answer in the names of real and existing and robust nations-like Germany and Japan and South Korea. You can find the answer in the names of a dozen Eastern European nations not quite so far along the path of being rebuilt after past captivity, but coming along partly through their own industry and partly through the assistance of older, more mature freedom-loving societies.
We tend in our time to be discouraged about the challenge of "nation building" because of a few notable failures. We get scared off because of the muddled end (and failure) in Vietnam. But if Vietnam has any enduring lesson, it is that we should have pursued our original goal there to the end.
Before it's all over, we may also need to remember that lesson in Iraq. Nation building is rarely a quick task. But it can be very rewarding. I'm glad for some optimists in high places who recognize it.