Back to Nation Building?

03/30/2016 03:23 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2017

Hillary Clinton calls for a more "active" foreign policy. When talking about conflicts around the world, from Syria to Ukraine to Afghanistan, she says the US needs to "do more." Secretary Clinton is of course not very forthcoming on the campaign trail about what exactly a more active foreign policy entails. But there is time for more details later; we are after all still in the primary season. However, the neocons, who have long argued for nation building overseas rather than at home, are happy to fill the space. From this viewpoint, a recent column by Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt is particularly telling.

Hiatt compares Obama to Truman. He chides Obama for withdrawing (or at last trying to withdraw) from Iraq and Afghanistan and not getting more involved in Syria and Libya. Hiatt feels that the President is abandoning the Middle East, a region "the United States had long considered vital". One assumes that space limitations did not allow Hiatt a chance to address Obama and others' notion that the Middle East has become much less important to the US, which has become an energy exporting country rather than one that is dependent on imported oil.

Instead, Hiatt and other neocons focus on Obama's statement that the Middle East cannot be fixed, "not on his watch, and not for a generation to come." Hiatt points out that Truman kept U.S. troops in both Germany and Japan -- for decades -- and turned these nations into flourishing liberal democracies and new American allies. It is not unusual to compare Germany and Japan to Middle Eastern nations today, but it is highly misleading. Germany and Japan, following World War II, each had a strong sense of national unity, low levels of corruption, and popular acceptance both of their governments and the foreign occupation forces. Moreover, the US's nation-building efforts did not commence until after the cessation of all hostilities. None of these conditions are in place or can be put in place in Syria, Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.

Hiatt briefly acknowledges the differences, writing, "Germany is not Korea is not Iraq." He adds, though, that continued, massive US intervention could not make things worse. This is the question the next President will have to address and candidates for the office should be asked about now. Take Afghanistan. If the US would extend its involvement there as it did during the years between 2003 and 2014, we would suffer many more thousands of casualties (which are now down to single digits); kill or cause to be killed many more Afghans; and sink many more hundreds of billions into a government that is ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world. We would continue to stand in the way of the Afghan government working out its differences with the Taliban and Pakistan, because we believe we know that the Afghan people prefer a liberal secular democracy (or would, if they would just listen to us). In short, things could get much worse, especially for our young men and women.

Ask the candidates about nation building in the Middle East. If they dream of it, plead with them to think again.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age, was recently published by Palgrave. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail with the subject line "Subscribe" to