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Once against nation-building, Bush now involved

WASHINGTON -- The very words "nation building" were akin to an expletive when George W. Bush ran for the White House four years ago. But now, as he seeks a second term, United States intervention in Haiti is but the latest example of how nation-building has become a defining feature of his administration's foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, in Iraq, and now in Haiti, the Bush administration has found itself enmeshed in the daily workings of failed states and has taken on responsibilities as far-ranging as protecting government leaders, repairing infrastructure, and serving as a sort of police force amid a hostile citizenry. The tasks have resulted in the loss of hundreds of American lives, cost billions of dollars, and directly contradicted how candidate Bush said he would govern as president.

During a debate with then-Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Bush said: "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. . . . I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have a kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not."

But administration officials from Bush on down concede that the United States is now actively involved in nation-building. They argue that the post-Sept. 11 world, where poverty and hopelessness spawn terror and terror threatens US and world security, requires the United States to act to promote freedom and democracy.

For now, that is all administration officials say they are doing in Haiti.

"Right now, our focus remains on bringing about a democratic and constitutional resolution to the situation in Haiti and helping to bring about order and stability in the country," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. "We believe that, working with the international community, we can help bring about a more lasting democracy for Haiti's future."

But critics say that by failing to support a democratically elected president, the administration has set a bad precedent for democracy in Haiti and is well on its way to an extended period of nation-building in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With members of Congress reporting that Haiti's exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is now claiming that the Bush administration abducted him and forced him to leave his country, these critics say the United States bears an even heavier burden to make sure things improve.

Susan E. Rice, who worked in the State Department and at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said Bush's remarks during his debate with Gore and his subsequent willingness to engage in nation-building show how little he understood US interests before he took office.

"He had a serious misperception of where our interests lie," said Rice, a senior fellow for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. "He viewed [nation-building] as charity. But we do these things not because we're nice and we want to, but because it's in our interests to do so."

During that 2000 debate with Gore, Bush criticized the Clinton administration's intervention in Haiti in 1994, when Aristide was returned to power amid threats of US military action.

"I wouldn't have sent troops to Haiti," Bush said. "I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building mission. And it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple of billions of dollars, and I'm not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before."

Christopher A. Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said he was thrilled with the views Bush expressed then about nation-building.

"It's one thing to say we don't want to do nation-building and sound peevish," Preble said. "But he went beyond that. He talked about having a humble foreign policy. It's arrogant to go around the world and say we know what's best for you and what you should do."

Preble, however, said he, too, sees a difference between what President Bush has done and the comments Bush made about nation-building when he was a candidate. "He's obviously repudiated that," said Preble, who chalks the change up to influential advisers in the Bush administration.

Preble is among those who believe the Bush administration's support for Aristide's downfall raises the stakes in Haiti for the United States.

"You cross a very important threshold when you move from protecting Americans and American interests to installing a government and supporting that government, come what may," he said. "And I think that's where we're heading."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday the United States had waited for Aristide to agree to go before intervening. In a television interview, Powell said, "We either needed President Aristide to leave or an agreement between all the sides to enter into a new political dynamic."

With Aristide now gone, Rice said, Bush will have to help things improve in Haiti, whether he likes nation-building or not. "I think he's learned that these are things that need to be done," she said.


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