"I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building," Bush told an audience at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."
A few minutes later, moderator Jim Lehrer asked whether it was time to create a civilian force to come in after military interventions and do the job. Bush replied, "I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not."
Some obvious measures of just how much things have changed in three and a half years are the 135,000 U.S. troops trying to secure and rebuild Iraq, the 13,000 additional soldiers hunting insurgents in Afghanistan, and the 2,500 keeping the peace in Haiti.
Another is that a civilian "nation-building corps from America" is exactly what Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., had in mind when they introduced the Stabilization and Reconstruction Civilian Management Act of 2004 in February.
The bill would establish a 250-member civilian "response-readiness corps" for deployment on short notice to crisis areas; an interagency committee chaired by the national security adviser; and a State Department Office of International Stabilization and Reconstruction -- in lay terms, an Office of Nation Building.
Biden and Lugar are not the first political heavyweights in Washington to propose such an institution, nor are they likely to be the last. Since 1991, the United States has undertaken six post-conflict reconstruction missions, in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Each time, experts say, the government reinvents the wheel. Suggestions are bubbling up in many quarters to institutionalize nation building. More to the point, Iraq has demonstrated the need for a coherent approach.
"It's very ad hoc now; that's part of the problem," said Bathsheba Crocker, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "There is a growing and fairly strong consensus in Washington that something needs to be done, and it spans partisan lines."
Last June, Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced the Winning the Peace Act, which would authorize the appointment of a "director of reconstruction" -- a kind of nation-building czar -- for each post-conflict situation in which the United States becomes involved. Meanwhile, later this year, a Council on Foreign Relations task force will present its findings on current reconstruction capabilities and make recommendations for improving them. The task force is co-chaired by former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Samuel Berger, with retired Army Gen. William L. Nash as project director.
Opinions vary on how to institutionalize nation building, but the idea of an office of some kind keeps resurfacing. "If you had an office set up, you would have institutional knowledge that would pass down from administration to administration," Crocker said, "so every time you faced these issues, the government wouldn't be running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to figure out 'how do we do this?' "
Both bills introduced thus far propose housing such an office within the State Department, but that idea does not meet with universal agreement. "We need an institutional home for nation building that reports directly to the White House, because failed states are the biggest threat to U.S. safety," said Larry Goodson, a U.S. Army War College professor and adviser to Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. military forces in the Middle East.
"I don't think having it under the Defense Department or State or AID or CIA or USIA is its natural home," because any department's or agency's unique mission could unduly influence what should be a holistic approach, Goodson said.
Nash, who led U.S. forces into Bosnia in 1995 and later served as civilian administrator in Kosovo, is reluctant to comment on whether the council's task force will recommend an office to coordinate reconstruction, saying the group is "intentionally trying to stay agnostic" in order not to prejudge any findings. "We've got a lot of high rollers, very serious people, that are looking at this in a very thorough manner," Nash said. "We're letting ideas flow."
Asked whether formalizing the reconstruction process would invite more-frequent and expensive nation-building enterprises, Nash responds, "Obviously, we're not going to recommend an Office of Colonial Affairs. But we are finding that much of the capacity you develop to do better-organized post-conflict reconstruction would in fact enhance your capacity to do pre-conflict development" -- in other words, the U.S. could also form task forces to help with conflict prevention.
"Whether you like it or not, the U.S. government is going to be involved in these efforts," Crocker said. "Iraq is not going to be the last one. It's bigger than most, and the next one may not look like an occupation, but it is not the last one. Sudan is coming down the line. And it would behoove us to gear up for these efforts."