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Nation building may be a mission too far

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been saying for several years that the United States must develop better civilian capacity for dealing with the aftermath of war. U.S. military forces have other things to do, he argues, so the job of nation building should be handed over to civilians. Others contend that only the military is equipped to conduct such campaigns.
The real answer may be that neither camp is right, that making stable nations out of chaos is beyond even America’s power. The record suggests that as a nation we cannot muster the resources, know-how, patience and will required to accomplish this mother of all missions.
We failed in Vietnam because the South Vietnamese government we backed was weak and corrupt; a half-million-man U.S. military expeditionary force could not change its character. Our current effort in Afghanistan is floundering for the same reason. Even believers in the Iraq War now argue that things will fall apart there if we don’t stay on indefinitely. So, clearly we have yet to create a stand-alone Iraqi state despite seven plus years of war and horrendous expenditures of American blood and treasure.

The U.S. Army defines its role as “to fight and win the nation’s wars.” In short, its core function is to destroy or defeat the armed forces of other nations — not create functioning democracies from states that are poor, weak, fractured, corrupt or all of the above.  
Viable nations need more than security
Counter-insurgency is back in vogue now, as memories of our melancholy Vietnam experience fade, so ambitious military officers are studying Gen. David Patraeus’ counter-insurgency manual. Protect the people, it says, and we’ll win their hearts and minds.  Security is certainly part of what’s required, but viable nations also need much more, from reliable plumbing and electrical grids to effective civic and political institutions.  Creating and fostering those takes time and skills our military personnel do not possess. 
Nation building is not really what diplomats do either. The Agency for International Development and other civilian agencies can muster some of the technical expertise required, but creating or re-creating other societies — nation building — must start with an understanding of the society we’re attempting to change or rebuild.  That takes deep and long-term study of what makes country X tick: its history, social institutions, religion, language and political culture. 
Sustainable development, all the experts tell us, requires a long-term effort, decades rather than months or years. Unwilling to invest the time and other resources, we go for quick fixes that don’t hold. After we spent billions to help the Mujahadin throw the Russians out of Afghanistan in the ’80s, we lost interest; Congress refused funds to rebuild schools and roads, as the argument that foreign aid is just “pouring money down foreign rat holes” prevailed yet again. And now we’re back in Afghanistan paying the price in unimaginable sums in blood and treasure. 
We must ask, ‘And then what?’
Whenever we contemplate military intervention, we should also ask, “And then what?”  President John F. Kennedy asked that of those pressing him for air strikes again Russian missile bases in Cuba. Since the answer — nuclear war with the Soviet Union — was unacceptable, he kept searching and eventually found another way. George W. Bush did not ask what would happen after we defeated Saddam Hussein’s army. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to warn him by invoking the so-called Pottery Barn Rule — if you break it, you own it — but to no avail.
Bush had said in the 2000 campaign that “we don’t do nation building,” but the wars he launched inevitably led us into exactly that in both Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama was quoted recently as saying he didn’t want to get into long-term nation building in Afghanistan, but if don’t leave behind a viable state that is safe and secure and sustainable, what have we gained?                              
One lesson we should take away is to ask the tough questions before we go barreling into another country. What happens after we “win?” Who picks up the pieces and rebuilds the invaded country and its institutions? Do we have the will and wherewithal to do that job? 
If we don’t have good answers to such questions, we should cut back on our geopolitical commitments and look to alternatives to U.S.-led or unilateral military interventions. Whatever approach we take, it should include recognition that believing in our ability to swiftly and cheaply create new states in the aftermath of war is a dangerous illusion. 
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who currently serves as diplomat-in-residence at St. John’s University. He lives in Plymouth.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/04/2010 - 11:13 am.

    It will always be necessary to restrain, in the best, least destructive ways possible, those people and nations who would do what most of us can agree are “evil” things in the world and within their own boundaries.

    But beyond that, each state and nation has its own religious, cultural and political history. The societal, physical, and political infrastructures of each nation, however good or bad they might be, are built based on that history and the assumptions that history has created in the dominant societal groups within that state or nation ((in Minnesota, German, Norwegian, and Swedish Lutherans as well as Catholics of German descent in some areas (St. Cloud area) and Irish descent in others (St. Paul), not to mention a smattering of faiths and nationalities including native Americans)).

    Considering that a large subgroup of American citizens have been trying, since the days of FDR, to falsely redefine the nature of the founders of our nation and the nature of the events by which it was founded, to match their own psychological needs, seeking to convince their fellow Americans that the “better angels of our nature” are made up, not of a healthy mix of wisdom, education, independent effort, compassion and skepticism but rather, of fear of anyone not like themselves, knee-jerk reactions to even the most complex situations, ignorance, and rejection – to the point of being unable to consider – any opinions they don’t already hold, with the underlying idea that the only thing that matters in all things is maximizing the immediate benefits to “I, me and mine,”…

    America can’t even seem to catch it’s own societal and psychological bearings, right now, let alone “rebuild” any other society by forcing them to adhere to what we, ourselves, value.

    The dangerous desire in seeking to rebuild other nations is that, far too often, our approach is based on an unhealthy coupling of psychological projection with a complete lack of empathy and compassion.

    In other words, it is often the most dysfunctional (left and right wing) among us that wish to rebuild other nations, but we, far too often, tend to do that based, not on who those nations are and what they really need, but rather, based on our projections of the problems in our own nation and our own lives, problems which make us so uncomfortable that even considering them creeps us out.

    Thus do we seek to force other nations to become what we unconsciously believe our own nation should be, but which we can’t acknowledge or accomplish here, at home.

    This, coupled with our lack of empathy and compassion, creates nation “building” which has little or nothing to do with the nations where we’re trying to accomplish it and EVERYTHING to do with our own, internal and largely unacknowledged problems.

    Any attempt at nation building which does not start with a grass roots effort to discover what local people need and want, then seeks to help them discover, in the context of their own societal history and current circumstances, from the ground up, how they can meet some of those needs and wants (while, at the same time, helping them come to the appropriate realization when their needs and wants are inherently unhealthy or destructive – a real challenge since we are so bad at it ourselves), is doomed to do more damage than if we did nothing, both in what the effort costs us and in the anger and resentment it engenders in local populations as we try to force them to become all the things we, ourselves, think we and our fellow American citizens should be but that we can’t manage to get each other to become, here at home.

    IMHO, the only successful approaches to nation building, though they may suffer from many of the same issues I’ve already stated, must be far more gentle, far more patient (I’m talking multiple decades) and use persuasion and education rather than coercion in all its various forms. Only by offering ideas and ideals which work better in real life and thus make better sense to local folks can we hope to change the nature of the societies and structures of other nations. When we are successful doing so, they will rebuild their OWN nations (perhaps with SOME financial help from us and others) by their own designs, which should be, in the end, their right and their responsibility.

    After they have done so, its quite likely that those other nations will be able to teach us some things we had not previously known to the benefit of all.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/04/2010 - 12:28 pm.

    Nation building is maddeningly hard to do. We should not nation build at will, anywhere and everywhere the fancy strikes us. But neither is it impossible, naive, or hopelessly Utopian. The fiasco in Iraq demonstrated even to the ideologues that you couldn’t win the war unless you won the postwar as well; and the postwar required civilian capacity.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/04/2010 - 04:08 pm.

    The final, bloody, disgraceful chapters of our venture into Iraq, Afghanastan, and Pakistan has not yet even been written; and none look like happy endings.

    Iraq is still unstable, leaderless, and has the Durds yet to deal with. Afghanastan has NO reliable government, and a nebulous exit strategy. And Pakastan is slowly morphing into an adversary rather than ally as collateral damage increases.

    We may win some battles with Al Quida and the Taliban; but the larger questions remain: will we really improve our standing in the region…add stability and governance to these countries…realistically protect our homeland from further harm…and win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world as we continuously inflict damage on their lands?

  4. Submitted by Satish Chandra on 10/05/2010 - 04:30 am.

    I am India’s expert in strategic defence and the father of India’s strategic program, including the Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program. I have shown in my blog titled ‘Nuclear Supremacy For India Over U.S.’, which can be found by a Yahoo search with the title, that all terrorism and insurgencies in the Indian subcontinent and in much of the rest of the world is sponsored by the C.I.A. Both Pakistan’s ISI and India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) function as branches of the C.I.A. and participate in terrorism and insurgencies throughout the Subcontinent, under direction of the C.I.A. Yes, the ISI secretly supports the Taliban but it does so under direction from the C.I.A. whose modus operandi is support for ALL sides of a conflict to control the course of the conflict in service of its own goals. The goal of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and partial occupation of Pakistan is eventual occupation and overt colonial rule over the Subcontinent as a whole. This will not be permitted and all those participating in this enterprise, including the U.K., will be duly punished; see my blog. The document leak currently in the news has been made in preparation for abandonment of this goal and withdrawal from Afghanistan because of steps I have already taken for the nuclear destruction of New Delhi and then the coast-to-coast destruction of the United States by India with 5,000 thermonuclear warheads and extermination of its population; see my blog.

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