Nation-Building 101

The chief threats to us and to world order come from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Learning how to fix such states—and building necessary political support at home—will be a defining issue for America in the century ahead

"I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."

—George W. Bush, October 11, 2000

"We meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation, and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us ... Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more." (italics added)

—George W. Bush, February 26, 2003

The transformation of George W. Bush from a presidential candidate opposed to nation-building into a President committed to writing the history of an entire troubled part of the world is one of the most dramatic illustrations we have of how the September 11 terrorist attacks changed American politics. Under Bush's presidency the United States has taken responsibility for the stability and political development of two Muslim countries—Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot now rides on our ability not just to win wars but to help create self-sustaining democratic political institutions and robust market-oriented economies, and not only in these two countries but throughout the Middle East.

The fact is that the chief threats to us and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Weak or absent government institutions in developing countries form the thread linking terrorism, refugees, AIDS, and global poverty. Before 9/11 the United States felt it could safely ignore chaos in a far-off place like Afghanistan; but the intersection of religious terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has meant that formerly peripheral areas are now of central concern.

Conservatives never approved of the so-called "humanitarian interventions" undertaken during the 1990s, including those in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Liberals, for their part, remain unconvinced by the Bush Administration's rationale for its invasion of Iraq. But whether for reasons of human rights or of security, the United States has done a lot of intervening over the past fifteen years, and has taken on roughly one new nation-building commitment every other year since the end of the Cold War. We have been in denial about it, but we are in this business for the long haul. We'd better get used to it, and learn how to do it—because there will almost certainly be a next time.

Critics of nation-building point out that outsiders can never build nations, if that means creating or repairing all the cultural, social, and historical ties that bind people together as a nation. What we are really talking about is state-building—that is, creating or strengthening such government institutions as armies, police forces, judiciaries, central banks, tax-collection agencies, health and education systems, and the like.

This process has two very separate phases, both of them critical. The first involves stabilizing the country, offering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, rebuilding the infrastructure, and jump-starting the economy. The second phase begins after stability has been achieved, and consists of creating self-sustaining political and economic institutions that will ultimately permit competent democratic governance and economic growth.

The first of these phases is well understood, and although difficult, it lies within the capability of both the United States and the broader international community. (The United States Agency for International Development has a very spotty record in promoting long-term economic growth but is actually pretty good at delivering humanitarian assistance.) The second phase, the transition to self-sustaining development, is far more challenging; and it is even more important in the long run. The key word is "self-sustaining": unless outside powers are able to leave behind stable, legitimate, relatively uncorrupt indigenous state institutions, they have no hope of a graceful exit.

Failure to Anticipate

What long-term lessons can we draw from the American experience so far in the reconstruction of Iraq? The Bush Administration has been heavily criticized for its failure to plan adequately for the postwar period; but we must remember that nation-building is inherently difficult. If an unexpected problem arises, that does not necessarily mean there was a planning failure, because it is not possible to anticipate every contingency.

Administration officials argue that they did considerable planning for which they don't get credit, because it had to do with contingencies that never arose. Chemical and biological weapons, and also oil-field sabotage and fires, were much discussed before the war. But the Iraqis evidently had no such weapons; and, largely because the country was occupied so fast (the result of a war plan that emphasized lightness and speed over numbers and redundancy), the oil fields were not sabotaged. Before the war some 60 percent of the Iraqi population lived on food donated by the UN World Food Programme, and the Administration worked quietly with that agency to ensure that food would flow to the whole Iraqi population during the war. Extensive plans were made to deal with a major humanitarian or refugee crisis like the one that followed the Gulf War of 1991—but none emerged.

For what, then, can the Administration justly be held accountable? By far the most important oversight was its failure to develop contingency plans against the possibility that the Iraqi state would almost completely collapse. The Administration hoped to decapitate the country's Baathist leadership and allow new leaders to take over quickly. Instead there was a severe breakdown of order, as the army melted away, the police stopped patrolling the streets, and government ministries stopped functioning. The consequences of this disorder were significant: the government's physical infrastructure disappeared, as ministries were stripped of doors, toilets, and wiring and then torched; the search for weapons of mass destruction was compromised by the looting of weapons sites; and many Iraqis' first impression of their "liberation" was one of crime and chaos.

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