Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 14, 2003
WAR: Why Nation-Building?
I really shouldn't read Michael Kinsley anymore; he just gets me mad. . . Kinsley's stock in trade -- in fact, virtually the only column he ever writes -- is the one where he charges Republicans with hypocrisy by looking at what he sees as inconsistencies in rhetoric or inconsistencies between rhetoric and action -- most often, by arguing that Republicans fail to follow some principle to its logical extreme. A Kinsley drinking game would have extra points for every time he said something like "if they really mean this," or "if they were really serious about this," . . .
Jonah Goldberg diagnosed this aspect of Kinsley's work a few years ago. This post by Kevin Drum offers some specific criticisms of one of Kinsley's pieces along these lines, including a major theme: Kinsley's tendency to leave out an obvious explanation for why people make a particular distinction.
Yesterday's column, in which he accused President Bush of not meaning what he says about our commitment to democracy, was a classic of the genre. Basically, Kinsley argued that Bush can't be serious because he campaigned against "nation-building" in 2000:
One way to show your respect for democracy is to state your beliefs when running for office and then apply those same beliefs when you're elected. . . . it can be quite noble for a politician to change his or her mind. It can demonstrate courage, integrity, open-mindedness. Has Bush changed his mind on America's role in the world? Or is it all just words—was there no mind to change?
One simple test of a change of mind is whether it is acknowledged and explained. In his eloquent speech this month, Bush made a gutsy reference to "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." . . . there is every reason to suppose that our current Bush also supported this approach for most of those 60 years, including his entire adult life until a few months ago when Iraq started going bad. What caused the scales to fall from his eyes?
A man who sincerely has changed his mind about something important ought to hold his new views with less certainty and express them with a bit of rhetorical humility. There should be room for doubt. How can your current beliefs be so transcendentally correct if you yourself recently believed something very different? How can critics of what you say now be so obviously wrong if you yourself used to be one of them? But Bush is cocksure that active, sometimes military, promotion of American values in the world is a good idea, just as he was, or appeared to be, cocksure of the opposite not long ago.
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The Comintern at the height of its powers, in the 1930s, couldn't have engineered a more impressive U-turn. If places like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page had been as enthusiastic about nation-building back in 2000 as they are now, Al Gore might be president today.
First, Kinsley's been down this road before, and I explained why he was wrong about nation-building then -- the Republican critique wasn't of nation-building per se but of interventions that sought nation-building without a connection to vital U.S. national interests.
Second, one of the dumbest things a columnist can do is to ask a rhetorical question to which there's a blindingly obvious answer. Re-read Kinsley's column and see if there's something missing (hint: an event occurring in the month of September). How can you possibly ask what changed Bush's thinking about the necessity of nation-building and its connection to vital U.S. national interests without mentioning the September 11 attacks as a watershed event? I guess for Kinsley, they weren't.
Third, as I've also pointed out before, the real problem with humanitarian peacekeeping/nation-building adventures has been our unwillingness to take sides. The problem I have isn't with going into a country to remove or eliminate evildoers and support allies; it's with going in with the idea that we're just there to help two warring factions work things out peacefully without caring which one triumphs. If you don't take sides, you've taken victory off the table; and the military should not be used when it has no hope of taking the initiative in seeking an identifiable victory.