July 06, 2011

On Nation Building

Max Boot's provocative op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in defense of nation-building has been getting people excited and angry. Max:

If you want yet another example of how costly our aversion to nation-building has been, look no further than Iraq. The Bush administration associated nation-building with the hated policies of the Clinton administration and refused to prepare for it. The result was that Iraq fell apart after U.S. troops had toppled its existing regime.

I'm with Max half-way on this one. On the one hand, I firmly believe that when you decide to go to war, you should be prepared to use any and all means at your disposal to effect victory. If that means building institutions of the state, as we have done in both Iraq and Afghanistan, okay. You can't "win" in either place, after all, without at least creating strong police forces to take your place and keep public order so that a peaceful political process and economy can thrive. You have to create a secure environment in any post-conflict state, and unless you plan on staying forever, that means building up competent local security forces. That's a form of nation-building that I can support.

Where I diverge from Max is in two places. First, Max conflates nation-building with the willingness to intervene and engage in the first place.

Is isolationism really a course we want to follow today at a time when Iran is going nuclear, Pakistan
is turning against the West, North Korea is trying to export its
destructive technology, turmoil is spreading across the Middle East, Al
Qaeda is far from defeated and China's power is growing?

I know Max is afraid Americans of all stripes will now embrace isolationism in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But employing whatever means you need after the United States enters a conflict and deciding to intervene in the first place are two different things. I, for one, in large part because I am all too familiar with what a "resource suck" wars can become, am reluctant to intervene in places like Libya in the first place. And, had anyone asked me about Iraq in 2002 or 2003, I would have offered the same opinion there. But I whole-heartedly endorse the U.S. decision to rebuild and train Iraqi military and polices forces after the invasion. (I do not feel the same way about Libya. For any number of reasons, the United States should step aside and leave the responsibility for post-conflict Libya to others. I have a sinking feeling we will not do this, though.) 

The second place I disagree with Max concerns our ability to nation-build. For the most part, we suck at it. In Afghanistan, at least, our aid and development projects have arguably exacerbated the drivers of conflict. We have created a rentier state on steroids, and as we begin to withdraw the majority of our aid and development funds, it will take a minor miracle to avoid Afghanistan's economic collapse. The only area in which we are reasonably competent is in building military organizations, which we have a lot of experience doing, but even there, we are better at building military organizations in our own image rather than the kinds of police/gendarme forces countries like Afghanistan really need.

Why do we suck at nation-building? A lot of reasons. Here are just a few: (1) We are ignorant. We do not know enough about the cultural, political and social contexts of foreign environments to fully appreciate how our interventions will affect those environments. Thus our aid and development spending (and military operations, to be fair), meant to ameliorate drivers of conflict, often exacerbate them. (2) We do not provide enough oversight and accountability for the projects we initiate. This is boring but important. We have spent ungodly sums of money in both Iraq and Afghanistan and have not provided enough contracting officers to effectively oversee the money we have spent. How do we just give tens of millions of dollars to agencies and departments in the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan without any oversight? Lack of contracting officers. How are contracts in Afghanistan divided up between shady sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors, with tax-payer money falling into the hands of the Taliban and warlords? Lack of contracting officers. (3) We do not have any patience -- and we have limited resources. Nation-building takes time. Where we can nation-build at relatively low-cost over an extended period of time, as in Colombia, we can be successful. But asking Americans to spend massive amounts of money for an extended period of time in Iraq or Afghanistan is a recipe for ... turning your average U.S. tax-payer into an isolationist.