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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.

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As a nation created on universal ideals, America also tends to want to implant those ideals in other lands, from the Philippines in the early 20th century to postwar Japan and Germany to today’s Yemen. Thomas Jefferson saw the need for the world to become a “society of states.”

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This American mix of altruism and self-defense embedded in nation-building makes it a difficult campaign topic, especially in economic hard times and with an overstretched military. During last spring’s GOP debates, the candidates were divided, with Ron Paul on the stay-at-home side and Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman Jr. noting America’s indispensable global role.

So far, Obama and Mitt Romney have not squared off on the issue. Obama’s liberal base remains wary of nation-building while Republicans are torn between tea party isolationists and the “realist” wing of internationalists.

One of the coming presidential debates should focus on nation building. Election campaigns must help Americans find a pragmatic middle ground that balances US domestic needs with the challenges of helping troubled nations.

Polls show a strong dislike of “foreign aid,” but when asked about specific problems, Americans tend to be more generous. They also know that events can force the US to act: the cold war, African famines, pending massacres, sea piracy, or terrorism. Who knows what climate change might bring?

Not all of America’s attempts at nation-building succeed. Iraq, for example, remains a fragile state. Knowing when to quit or when to seek the help of allies is essential.

In Afghanistan, when Afghan soldiers are killing NATO troops, sustaining that effort to build basic institutions requires a fresh look at the trade-offs.

By now, voters should know that a candidate’s promise of avoiding “foreign entanglements,” as George Washington warned against, may not always stick. It’s difficult to know when the US will again be needed as the world’s go-to repairman.

But nation-building remains a part of what defines America – for itself and others.

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