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.