WASHINGTON - President Bush speaks with pride about what the military has achieved in Afghanistan since ousting the Taliban: It has helped to train an army and to build roads, schools and hospitals - even start a baseball league.
Now, the White House is discussing a far more ambitious reconstruction plan for Iraq if Saddam Hussein is toppled. One idea is for the United States and its allies to occupy Iraq and lead the government until a new regime is safely in place.
Both actions amount to "nation-building" - the use of the military, and often aid organizations, to police a war-ravaged country and rebuild institutions. The theme has become central to Bush's foreign policy.
Yet as a presidential candidate, Bush derided President Bill Clinton for engaging in nation-building. Back then, he insisted that the military should fight wars, not keep peace and build schools. In the 2000 campaign, he ridiculed his Democratic rival, Al Gore, saying: "I am worried about the fact that I'm running against a man who uses the military and nation-building in the same breath."
Bush's belated support for nation-building marks a striking evolution in his foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks. Recently, the president brought a uniformed U.S. Army captain to the White House to congratulate him for helping rebuild hospitals and schools in Afghanistan.
"Our soldiers wear the uniforms of warriors," Bush said. "But they are also compassionate people."
People inside and outside his administration, Democrats and Republicans, agree that Bush was duty-bound to shift his thinking after Sept. 11, especially after using the military to oust the Taliban. Leaving a leadership vacuum, after all, could have paved the way for a brutal regime like the Taliban to return, and perhaps serve again as a terrorist breeding ground.
Some have been critical of Bush - not for pursuing nation-building but for his reluctance to fully embrace it. In Afghanistan, some critics charge, the United States has failed to play a leading role in reconstruction - something they say is needed to persuade other countries to send more troops and money.
Among Bush's more vocal critics has been Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the influential Delaware Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the United States does not become more involved in policing Afghanistan, especially outside the capital of Kabul, Biden has warned, warlords will gain more power. And the nation, he said, could "degenerate into the state of lawlessness that made way for the Taliban."
Biden's spokesman, Norm Kurz, said yesterday that the senator "feels adamantly that we should have done more, should be doing more and that if we don't lead, our allies won't have the heart to do it."
Administration officials concede that Bush's views on nation-building have shifted. But they insist that as a candidate, he never ruled out engaging in it. What he opposed, they say, was the use of the military for international peacekeeping. Still, they note that Sept. 11 altered Bush's world view.
"There is an apparent contradiction," a senior White House official acknowledged. "The administration, with its international partners, is doing something akin to nation-building. But nobody saw Sept. 11 coming. Sept. 11 changed the realities of the world."
Once the attacks exposed America's vulnerabilities, Bush took on a mission to confront global terror and governments that aid terrorists or wield weapons of mass destruction. But in ousting regimes like the Taliban, and perhaps Hussein's, analysts say, Bush is obliged to help replace them with stable governments.
Indeed, many say that rebuilding such nations as Afghanistan and Iraq is vital to U.S. efforts to eradicate terrorism. The Soviet Union's abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989, for example, led to the rise of the Taliban, which provided havens for al-Qaida terrorists.
Ivo Daalder, a former national security aide to Clinton, suggested that Bush has come to recognize the perils of leaving behind a failed state without stable leadership. "It is a welcome recognition of something Clinton was saying for eight years," Daalder said.
Still, Daalder argued, the president is pressured by conservatives who staunchly oppose nation-building. In Afghanistan, he said, Bush has made a halfhearted effort, barring U.S. forces from a direct role in peacekeeping and limiting their geographic reach.
The risk, Daalder said, is that renegade Afghan warlords will regain power in the absence of enough peacekeepers and will destabilize the country.
"In Afghanistan, [Bush] has not recognized the fundamental truism that you need to be engaged throughout the country," Daalder said. "Yes, they are basically engaged in what everyone would call nation-building. The White House has now recognized the importance of doing this. They recognize the problem. But they really don't have the answer to solve it."
Under Clinton, "nation-building" became a politically charged term, invoked by those angry that Clinton used U.S. forces as peacekeepers in places such as Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans - where, these critics suggested, vital U.S. interests were not at stake.
Administration officials and Bush supporters avoid using the term today. But they concede that Bush is carrying out essentially the same activity in Afghanistan that Clinton promoted in his foreign policy.
"The term nation-building has a lot of baggage in it," said Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. Feith added, though, that America has a strategic interest "in helping to create the conditions that will allow an Afghan government to assume responsibility for the country ... and prevent the country from reverting to a base of operations for terrorists."
Analysts say there is no single formula for nation-building that can be applied everywhere. And Bush's approach in Afghanistan still appears to be evolving. The president has not made clear, for example, how long American forces will be engaged there.
As for Iraq, administration officials are weighing options for post-war engagement, including a proposal for a U.S-led occupation similar to the one in Japan after World War II.
Conservatives have applauded Bush's approach in Afghanistan, saying he has refrained from having the U.S. military be as fully engaged as they say Clinton would have done.
Bush has allowed the army's civil affairs units to take part in rebuilding hospitals, schools and roads and in advising the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai. He has also committed $300 million for aid.
Yet Bush has drawn a line on military involvement. He ordered 8,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country - some critics have called for up to 50,000 - and forbade them from a direct role in peacekeeping.
Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that Bush has distinguished himself from his predecessor. Clinton supported nation-building, Spencer argued, even where U.S. interests were not at stake, such as in Haiti and Somalia. Bush is doing so in a country where terrorists could threaten Americans again if they re-established training grounds there.
While Clinton imposed U.S. will on some nations, Spencer said, Bush has limited American involvement so that Afghans can make their own choices.
"The Afghan people do not view us as an occupational force," Spencer said. "This is not employing the U.S. military in places around the world to impose democracy in places where there are no U.S. interests. President Bush is saying, 'If you want to change, we'll help you.' "
Yet from Bush's speeches and from signals from his aides about how the administration plans to deal with Iraq, it is not so clear that the president is committed to restraint.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell confirmed last week that Bush was considering, among other options, installing a U.S.-led occupation government if Hussein's regime is removed.
Under such a scenario, U.S. troops would likely be far more involved than they are in Afghanistan. Army analysts say it could take tens of thousands of troops, perhaps over a period of years, to occupy Iraq.
Daalder applauded the Iraq proposal and said that if it happened, it would amount to "nation-building par excellence, on a level this nation has not seen since 1951."