America’s costly efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq came under intense scrutiny this month in critical reports and a gloomy Senate hearing that prompted a memorable assertion. “If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States.”
That came from a Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, who continued: “When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here.”
Webb spoke at the confirmation hearing of the veteran diplomat President Barack Obama nominated to be his next ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, who faced questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that left no doubt over the growing impatience of U.S. lawmakers with a military and financial commitment that is producing limited progress.
Webb’s juxtaposition of spending on Afghanistan and the state of things in the United States – a stalled economy, stubborn unemployment, an aging infrastructure – is made more often in online debates and private conversations than in official hearings. But it is a subtext for a debate likely to grow in the campaign for the 2012 elections and feature both Afghanistan and Iraq as money pits, object lessons for ill-conceived development projects, and lack of foresighted planning.
A report by the bi-partisan Commission on Wartime Contracting issued early in June set the tone. “U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan are scheduled to begin in July 2011, and the U.S. military presence in Iraq is scheduled to end by December 31, 2011. But America will leave many legacies in both countries carrying large sustainment costs long into the future.”