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Obama-Romney debate can't avoid 'nation-building'

Recent presidents campaigned against nation-building only to take it up as necessary for what defines America's ideals and strategic interests. Voters need to hear what Romney and Obama would do differently.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / August 23, 2012

Somalia's new parliamentarians pray Aug. 20 during an inauguration for members of the country's first parliament in 20 years. Once a failed state, the country is being put back together slowly with UN, US, and African support.

Stuart Price/Reuters

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In each election, America redefines itself. But over the decades, one constant remains: Presidential candidates promise to focus on building up the nation, and then once in the Oval Office, they also do “nation-building” abroad.

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In 1992, Bill Clinton put the economy first only to be forced to intervene in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo. In 2000, George W. Bush ran against nation-building and promised a “more humble” foreign policy. His secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, famously asked why US troops were walking Bosnian kids to school. After 9/11, however, Mr. Bush changed his mind, launching into nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2009, Barack Obama declared – in reaction to Bush’s actions – “The nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

But even Mr. Obama has kept up nation-building in Afghanistan, helped Somalia produce its first functioning government in 20 years, and provided billions in aid to a weak and dangerous Pakistan. His latest project is Yemen, where he promises to promote “governance and development.”

“Nation-building is the core way of thinking for Americans when we’re confronted by threats and areas [of the world] that are causing us harm,” states University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri, author of “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama.”

Or as Roberts Gates, secretary of defense for both Bush and Obama, put it: “The security of the American people will increasingly depend on our ability to head off the next insurgency or arrest the collapse of another failing state.”

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