Will the US Nation Build again after Iraq?

>> Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The US experience in Iraq has been a horrific one. 4119 dead US soldiers with over 30435 wounded. We have gained nothing and lost so much. The war and occupation of Iraq is in many ways the culmination of post-Cold War thought. While greatly emphasis for the justification of the conflict was placed on the threat of WMD we cannot overlook the humanitarian element that accompanied the WMD case. There was always that statement that followed after talk of WMDs, “Yeah and Saddam is a really bad guy. The world would be better off without him.” Still high on the apparently quick success of Afghanistan the US wanted to continue to rid the world of its perceived Evil and Saddam made an easy target. This humanitarian impulse has led to disaster after disaster in Iraq. The question will inevitably arise whether the American people will have the will or desire to participate in future nation building or peacekeeping missions after Iraq.

The current dark mood of the American people regarding our foreign entanglements seems almost like the precursor for a return to isolationism. It would not be that surprising to see the American people demand that we pull back from the current worldwide spread of our military to lick our wounds and rebuild our treasury. I doubt we will see a return to the isolationism of the 20’s and 30’s since the post war culture and economy make it hard for a country to retreat inside its borders. Our policy of world wide assertiveness has been so ingrained that it is hard to imagine the US functioning any other way but if there is an event that could trigger a pull back Iraq is it.

Senator Obama talks about how the war in Iraq has made us lose focus on the important, read justified, conflict in Afghanistan. I am not particularly confident that the public will to fight that conflict on the scale of Iraq but that might not be needed. The conflict in Afghanistan provides an opportunity if the US chooses to take it. Afghanistan provides the opportunity to return to the right track in the minds of Americans. The reason we entered Afghanistan is clear and well understood. Due to the incompetence or inattention of the Bush administration a symbol of that cause, Osama bin Laden is still at large. Obama with his leadership skills proposes to lead the country out of the darkness that is Iraq and back to a war that is still supported by the American people. It is a simple way of putting Iraq behind us.

When I speak of nation building and Peace Keeping, I have a definite idea about what that entails. My definition of nation building is: A military intercession into a state for the purpose of democratizing that state. I view Peace Keeping as a specific subfield of nation building. Peace Keeping is a more hands off form of nation building where the military force does not actively build the institutions of the host country but holds down violence so native groups may build those institutions. The nation building that the US has attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan is far more than that. In those two countries the US has designed the Institutions, imprinting itself on the country to a degree not found in strict Peace Keeping missions.

“is there no nation wise enough, brave enough, and strong enough to restore peace in this blood smitten land?” James Creelman- New York World, May 17th 1896

The US has a long history of attempting to nation build. It should probably be something we are more recognized for, as nation building is almost a hallmark of our national identity at this point. Beginning with the Spanish American War the United States embarked on more than a century of nation building activity. The American Empire is unique because it evolves around the idea of Democratizing the world instead of the acquisition of physical territory. We prefer an ideological empire. For instance, the United States was the first imperial power in history to freely relinquish a possession when we released the Philippines in 1946. The Philippines may be considered our first great success in nation building, the result of 50 years worth of effort.

It should not come as a surprise that because of early experiences in nation building the US army actually devised a field manual entitled FM 27-5, Military Government in 1940. The establishment of The School of Military Government at the University of Virginia in April 1942 quickly followed this manual. The Army later established the Civil Affairs Training Program to train junior officers in military government. As a result, a doctrine was established for what the military would do to set up government in occupied territories.

Their first order of business was to post proclamations and ordinances which announced the occupation and established rules for the civilian population. Next, they located the Buergermeister (mayor) in order to establish a link with the population. If the Buergermeister was a Nazi, the military government team would appoint someone else. Orders were issued to surrender all prohibited items, such as weapons, ammunition and communication devices. This was followed by a house to house search for these items. Curfews were established as well as movement and assembly restrictions. In order to enforce these restrictions, all adult citizens were registered. Other typical civil affair duties included arranging for burial of the dead, establishing a police force, and, if possible, reestablishing water, electricity and other local administrative activities.- Colonel Jayne A. Carson, United States Army -Nation Building the American Way pg 11

The United States experienced success when building states in the Philippines, Japan, and Germany. This was not the case in the sates that followed the cold war. Following the Cold War the United States was dealing with failed states more in the mold of the Philippines than Germany. However, the United States had forgotten the lessons of the Philippines where it took 50 years and many lives to build a state. Instead, the US became caught up in our role as the lone Super Power left. We committed to our first post cold war nation state building exercise in the state of Somalia in December of 1992.

The experience in Somalia was a total failure. The mission for US forces in Somalia evolved to include establishing political institutions and civil administration after starting with a simple goal of establishing safe food delivery conditions. The need for military intervention in the Somali civil war was deemed a necessary part of this mission. It was the militaries attempt to capture Aidid on October 3-4 1993 that ultimately led to the withdrawal of US forces. The failed raid is dramatically portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down. The result was 18 soldiers killed and 76 wounded, two Blackhawk helicopters shot down and their crews were killed or wounded, one pilot taken prisoner. We were in the Philippines for 50 years and stayed in Somalia for less than three.

The United States followed the failure in Somalia with a relative success in Haiti. We then committed to Bosnia and then to Kosovo. In each case, the commitments were made under the expressed idea that we would be there for a shot time only. In reality, these types of missions make no sense on such a short time frame. As President Clinton pointed out when the mission in Bosnia ran longer than he originally stated it would,

“Quite frankly, rebuilding the fabric of Bosnia’s economic and political life is taking longer than anticipated.”

Nation building in failed states takes time, it takes resources, and it takes blood. None of those things are going to be very available after our exit from Iraq. Though history shows that even when we are not particularly interested in committing the resources that the mission needs we do it anyway. That “army you have, rather than army you need” attitude is a recipe for disaster that may finally be understood after Iraq.

The United States has been building nations around the world since 1898. After Iraq, that behavior may diminish. There is also the question of not only whether we will continue to nation build but also whether we should. The US needs to make a fundamental decision about the value of humanitarian intervention and nation building. To properly build a nation takes decades of military presence and sacrifice and though the American people would love to bring Democracy to all the cost always seems to be too high. Given the unwillingness to commit what is required to build a fully functioning state I do not think the US should commit to such missions in the future.


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