The United States and Nation Building

In a speech delivered on July 8, U.S. President Joe Biden, justifying the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, said, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, and it’s the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone. We went to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell” and “to eliminate al-Qaida’s capacity to deal with more attacks from that territory.”

Anyone who looks at what was said in Washington by the George W. Bush administration during the period following the 9/11 attacks — which were followed four weeks later by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — will see how far Biden has distanced himself from the facts and data. At the end of November 2001, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gathered a think tank, which included Orientalist Bernard Lewis; Mark Palmer, a specialist on dictatorships and former ambassador to Hungary; Fareed Zakaria, who is of Indian origin and writes an opinion column for Newsweek; and Fouad Ajami, a Middle East studies scholar. The following month, the group’s memo was submitted to President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The seven-page memo was entitled “Delta of Terrorism.” The term delta is used in English to refer to the mouth of a river from which everything flows. In the memo, terrorism is linked to the situation in the Middle East, which is afflicted by “MALIGNANCY,” and the 9/11 attacks were “not an isolated action” and “that was the only way to TRANSFORM the region.”

It should be noted that Wolfowitz is one of the pillars of neoconservatism; he ideologically dominated the Bush administration. He was a former Trotskyist, before turning to the right under the influence of philosopher Leo Strauss (who died in 1973), professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Many of the minds behind nation building were part of the U.S. administration at the time, including Abram Shulsky, director of the Office of Special Plans, who was instrumental in planning the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The strategy of these former Trotskyists when they turned to the right was similar to that of Leon Trotsky himself, who called for an enduring revolution to achieve socialism by exporting revolution. Similarly, Wolfowitz and Shulsky believed that pushing the world toward the American model through the use of force would lead it toward democracy and a market economy. Therefore, contrary to Biden, they wanted to build nations by building, then reshaping them.

Indeed, after the 9/11 attacks, terrorism was linked to Wahhabi Islam by the Americans, given that 15 of the 19 perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington were Saudis. This was certainly something studied by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in order to create a rift between Washington and Riyadh by linking terrorism to dictatorships. The American policy of nation building crystallized in 2005, when the U.S. welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood and used the students of Hassan al-Banna against bin Laden. The U.S. then sacrificed Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine bin Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to benefit the Brotherhood as part of its nation building plan, although Washington quickly abandoned this in the summer of 2013 and returned to backing military men such as Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

In fact, some Arab opposition movements have even bet on outside American intervention in order to bring about internal change based on this policy of nation building. I can recall many instances of nation building, such as American intervention in Germany and Japan after World War II. Then there is Riad al-Turk’s “Colonial Zero” theory, in which he explains that the American occupation of Iraq elevated the country from a level “below zero” to “zero” (a conversation with the Al-Nahar newspaper, Sept. 28, 2003). The internal wells of change have dried up.

Regardless of his sincerity or denial, Biden — and before him Barack Obama and Donald Trump — represents an American move to abandon “nation building,” which has become popular in both parties. It is avoided like the plague and remains a black mark on the Bush administration. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Biden’s words reflect not only American failure in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also mark a victory for realpolitik, a policy that dates back to the 1970s and Henry Kissinger, including his policy of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, implemented to achieve U.S. policy goals.

The author is a Syrian writer.

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About Erin Lyons 33 Articles
Erin Lyons is a professional translator (Arabic, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish) and holds a BA in Romance Languages and Literature from the University of Chicago, an MA in Translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and is completing her MA in MENA Diplomacy at SOAS University of London. Erin has divided her career between the United States, Europe and the Middle East and has a passion for languages, travel and culture. When she's not in front of her computer, you might catch her hiking with her beloved dog Tokyo and her husband, riding her bike or cooking Lebanese dishes.

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