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World Politics Review: The politics of nation-building

By Karoun Demirjian

After eight years of operations in Afghanistan, and the recent announcement that additional troop deployments will continue to execute a strategy that stretches the military beyond its traditional combat role for at least another 18 months, the above quotation could easily convey the commitment-fatigue prevalent in Washington these days.

But the ominous warning, delivered on the Senate floor, has nothing to do with the fear of becoming further mired in a long-term humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.

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The year? 1995. The speaker? Former Sen. John Ashcroft. And the subject? The U.S. intervention in Bosnia.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has repeatedly struggled with the question of how much is too much when it comes to foreign military operations. The debate routinely comes down to how far- reaching a military mandate presidents can chase before crossing into the political no man’s land of “nation- building.”

Nation-building — or state-building, the term some prefer to employ — has long been recognized as a tool of foreign policy. Its basic premise — that of an intervention in a way that affects the governance of a state – can be and has been applied in a variety of different circumstances: from propping up states that are failing (whether due to corruption or conflict), to establishing entirely new political orders (in the case of decolonization, secession, or other declarations of independence). Nation-building invariably involves the military, but tasks it with projects that are more accurately classified as political and economic development efforts than as combat operations. The most common undertakings include establishing local security and police forces; creating the structures necessary for rule of law, including judicial systems; installing legitimate political leadership (the U.S. prefers the stamp of approval brought by a democratic election for this purpose); and guaranteeing the basic delivery of goods and services.

In application, nation-building has, at best, a checkered past in U.S. politics, ranging from almost universally touted successes, such as the campaign to rebuild Germany following World War II, to infamous failures, such as the short-lived U.S. intervention in Somalia. It was the latter episode that effectively gave pariah status to the terminology of “nation-building,” if not the concept as a whole.

As much as “nation-building” devolved into a term of opprobrium in the post-Somalia Clinton-era ’90s, the United States has, since that period, experimented liberally and frequently with broad-based military-cum- development ventures — from government intervention measures in Haiti and Bosnia, to state-creation exercises in East Timor and Kosovo, to the newest incarnation of nation-building as part of the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That dichotomy has had an effect on the political debate in Washington. The lessons of the ’90s would seem to suggest more-or-less defined roles for Republicans and Democrats in their approach to nation-building practices, with the former vehemently opposing them and the latter being more supportive. But the reality is that politicians of both parties almost uniformly disavow and decry the label. That has resulted in a blurring of the ideological lines, and in some cases, a near-complete role reversal in who supports the policies that actually characterize nation-building.

That is not to suggest, however, that there is some underlying clarity to the debate over how, why, or if nation-building activities should be undertaken or avoided. As the current rhetoric surrounding Afghanistan shows, there is as little consensus on where “nation-building” starts as there is on how missions that engage in it can end.

The U.S. has engaged in nation-building ventures ever since it became an economic power in the late-19th century, even if politicians weren’t then using the term. But the first policy victory for a formal nation- building program didn’t come until after World War II, with the reconstruction of Germany and Japan.

The reconstruction efforts known as the Marshall Plan, which provided billions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid in the form of food, clothing, health care, and agricultural, education, and infrastructural reforms, are widely pointed to as the original U.S. model for successful nation-building. Well-funded and organized, and relatively quickly executed — the program in its entirety lasted from 1948-1952 — the plan is credited with resuscitating the decimated national infrastructure of Germany. It, along with the concomitant financial and political intervention in postwar Japan, are widely touted as proof of the power of nation- building as a tool for promoting international peace and security.

But that conclusion comes with the privilege of hindsight. The program as it unfolded was a clear example of controversial mission creep.

“The economic reconstruction came only later, as it became apparent that you weren’t likely to sustain the democratic reforms unless there was a subsequent improvement in the economic conditions,” said Amb. James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy center at the RAND Corporation and a former U.S. Special Envoy in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

America’s initial goals for Germany were almost purely political: to demobilize the military, to establish war crimes tribunals, and to establish democratic institutions. In Japan, the political goals were similarly narrow, the main differences being that political institutions were organized based on the model of pre-existing Japanese parliamentary structures, including preserving the seat of the emperor.

Expanding U.S. aid beyond those early parameters was not an easy sell. Nevertheless, Truman administration officials went about advocating for such an expansion with a full-throated endorsement of nation-building as a policy to be embraced on its merits. As Secretary of State George Marshall said at the unveiling of the plan that would bear his name in 1947, “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”

Such unfiltered praise for nation-building is rarely found in today’s debates. But the tenor of the criticism that was at the time directed against the proposed long-term economic undertaking has a similar ring to attacks leveled today. In the late-1940s, Sen. Robert A. Taft led a contingent of Republicans who criticized the program as a massive government spending program that would aggravate domestic shortages. President Harry Truman was forced to lobby Congress and travel the country to drum up support for the Economic Cooperation Act, which came in at a price tag of about $12.7 billion over four years — a significant sum considering the country’s annual GDP at the time hovered around $258 billion (compared to $14.2 trillion today).

The size and breadth of postwar reconstruction projects has, of course, never been replicated in more recent nation-building experiments. But the factional split between Republicans and Democrats over whether and when the costs of nation-building were justifiable characterized the debate over most nation-building operations in the ’90s, when the U.S. resumed the practice under President Bill Clinton through interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Rolling out their reconstruction plans on the heels of the most massive global war in history, Truman and his Democratic allies in Congress were able to accuse their Republican critics of being isolationists. But the comparative frequency and far-flung nature of the interventions that started during the Clinton years forced politicians in favor of nation-building to answer cost concerns, which often meant handicapping the potential for long-term success with an overly rosy forecast of short-term results.

It should be noted that Republicans were not always opposed to committing U.S. troops to nation-building activities. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had ordered two relatively contained and successful democracy-promotion ventures during the 1980s — one in Grenada, the other in Panama. And in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the potential use of the global governance system in the way it had first been intended — to stave off conflict through peacekeeping operations — was an option that generated enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle.

It was a bipartisan group of lawmakers — led by Paul Simon and Nancy Kestenbaum in the House, and Joe Biden and Bob Dole in the Senate — who pressed the first President Bush to deploy U.S. troops and other resources in response to reports of widespread starvation in Somalia. And it was Bush who committed U.S. troops — 25,000 of them — to the international humanitarian force (UNITAF) deployed to Somalia in 1992, promising that the engagement would be a short one. Only 1,200 were involved in the force (UNOSOM II) that, under President Clinton, remained in Somalia with a nation-building mandate to develop infrastructure, restore law and order, and establish a representative government.

But as Somalia began its descent into anarchy in 1993 and the U.S. suffered its first casualties, Republican lawmakers began to voice objections to what they now saw as an open-ended commitment in both time and scope. They demanded that the U.S. “leave [Somalia] and leave soon,” as Sen. John McCain put it, in contrast to President Clinton’s desire to stay and “do the job right.” While all U.S. troops were eventually pulled out by March 1994, the Republican opposition to nation-building coalesced during the Somalia mission, and solidified further during Clinton’s first self-generated mission in Haiti.

To intervention-minded liberals, Haiti was the perfect exercise: a nearby failing state with a growing refugee problem, in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and political stabilization in the wake of a coup. The initial efforts were successful: The U.S. avoided an all-out “invasion,” sending in troops to oversee the

restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency. But Republicans warned against a lasting quagmire as several hundred U.S. troops buckled down to the business of economic and social engineering projects, which by the end of the decade had still not fixed the fundamental problem in Haiti — continued instability.

Despite Republican objections that the U.S. could not afford to “right every wrong in the world,” as Sen. Phil Gramm declared in criticizing U.S. plans in Haiti, the Clinton administration continued to inaugurate new nation-building or peacekeeping ventures, committing U.S. troops — often under the auspices of NATO, as in both Balkan interventions — at a pace of once per year during the early years of his presidency. With the exception of Kosovo, the robustness of the missions slowed during Clinton’s second term, as the U.S. engaged in international missions in a more behind-the-scenes role. But the pace didn’t slacken much.

The results, however, were often not as immediately apparent as predicted.

“Nation-building really is a very long-term process which requires a lot of resources . . . and there is something wrong in the assumption that if we are willing to invest enough money and time that we can do it effectively,” said Marina Ottaway, a specialist on democracy and post-conflict resolution at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This is especially true when those resources are divided between several missions at the same time. While U.S. troops had entirely withdrawn from Somalia by the time ground operations began in Haiti, the United States still maintained a contingent in Haiti when NATO forces began airstrikes on Bosnia in 1995. Likewise, the military mission in Bosnia did not end until late-2004, well after the U.S. had committed more soldiers to assist in the liberation of Kosovo (where the U.S. still maintains a military presence).

“That is the dilemma,” Ottaway continued. “Kosovo is a very small country . . . but we cannot do the same in a very large country, and we cannot do the same in a lot of small countries at the same time. I think it’s quite clear that the resources, no matter the political will, are simply not there.”

In a sense, the Clinton administration avoided Congressional roadblocks to its nation-building efforts by engaging in missions that were concentrated geographically — and through the use of executive authority. In each of the campaigns of the ’90s, Clinton committed military forces without the advice and consent of Congress, exercising his authority under the War Powers Resolution to do so. That left his critics with the difficult choice of either pulling the plug on U.S. troops already deployed, or footing yet another bill for the president’s latest mission. When it came time to vote, most Republican leaders — including Sens. Dole, McCain, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich — would begrudgingly choose the latter.

The pressure to support ongoing military commitments of course took on new significance during the Bush administration — but with the party roles reversed.

In the 2000 presidential election, when George Bush and Al Gore debated the appropriateness of nation- building, Bush famously declared, “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.”

But that hard-and-fast rule did not hold in practice in the Bush administration’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. While both interventions were conceived of and pitched as wars, not nation-building ventures, officials soon learned that the “light footprint” model of military engagement was not a realistic possibility. In Iraq, it took only a few months to achieve the military’s principal war objectives – namely, to depose Saddam Hussein and defeat his army. But the challenge of re-establishing stability and governing capacity – through elections, the reconfiguration of security forces, and the resurrection of infrastructure in the country — has kept an even larger force of U.S. troops than was initially deployed engaged in nation- building activities for the last six years.

In Afghanistan, the central role of nation-building in the military mission has been even more pronounced. Compared to Iraq, Afghanistan had little in the way of pre-existing democratic governance infrastructure. The effort to stabilize the country has been a longer and harder challenge, carried out by fewer troops in the midst of a more dispersed population. But the counterinsurgency strategy employed there has demanded the same sort of multifaceted approach that characterizes nation-building.

Counterinsurgency strategy is as much about non-military efforts to win the population’s allegiance as it is about military operations to provide security. And while generals and policy architects are quick to insist that there remains a distinction, the non-military means being employed — such as road-building, construction of schools, holding national elections, and encouraging the development of agricultural alternatives to opium — are located at the same security-stability-humanitarian nexus that has been identified as nation-building in other circumstances.

“The GOP really has changed its view about how to do these sorts of missions and the viability of trying to do them. . . . They are very much endorsing notions of state-building, and they are fully behind it in both wars,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior national security fellow with the Brookings Institution. “In the 1990s, a big part of their underlying motivation was that they didn’t think countries like Bosnia were worth the trouble. Now they feel the missions are of central significance. . . . But it’s not a practice they want to generalize to other cases.”

One reason for the distinction is the motivating factors that led to the various engagements in the first place. Under Clinton, most of the nation-building activities — whether all-out wars such as Kosovo, or the commitment of funds to support peace-building operations in places like Sierra Leone — were diplomatically motivated. Though orchestrated by and involving the deployment of the U.S. military, they were driven primarily by the State Department’s desire to participate in humanitarian interventions whenever feasible.

By contrast, the nation-building ventures that began under the Bush administration — from the all-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the non-combat military training being conducted by the newly formed Africa Command (AFRICOM) — were motivated by the war on terror and driven by defense strategists. In contrast to Clinton-era interventionists, who sought to use nation-building to preserve international peace and security, protect our allies, and benefit our global standing, the Bush administration viewed nation-building actions as vital to U.S. domestic security — the “defeat them abroad before they attack us at home” approach.

The gulf between the two motivations is so broad that there was little pass-off of strategic know-how between administrations, even if there were potential lessons to be learned that could aid in similar on-the- ground operations.

“We know how to do this work, we just haven’t figured out how to readjust our bureaucracy in ways that we need to,” said Karin von Hippel, director of the Post-Conflict Resolution project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Even on something as central as a police force . . . we’ve been doing this in Haiti, Bosnia. But the international community gets ADD with politics — everyone really wants to focus on the conflicts of today.”

Today, combat and casualty fatigue is driving much of the political discourse. While Republicans continue to warn against becoming mired in “nation-building,” it’s Democrats that are now quicker to point the finger at what they see as the current war’s overly ambitious political and economic objectives, even if outlined by a Democratic president.

“Democratic support for nation-building may prove to be a little weaker after this war,” said O’Hanlon, who suggested that the approach to foreign engagements in the aftermath of Afghanistan may revert to something more closely resembling the politics of the Clinton era. “If you think back to the ’90s, you didn’t have that many enthusiasts. . . . It’s not as if you had George Mitchell and Tom Foley campaigning for re- election on the idea that we should be doing more nation-building.”

But how the U.S. will respond in the future to potential nation-building endeavors may depend less on the specifics of what happens in Afghanistan and more on what transpires at home. President Obama emphasized this point in announcing his expanded political strategy for Afghanistan, including a 30,000- troop surge, in early December.

“We can’t afford to ignore the price of these wars. . . . Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power: It pays for our military, it underwrites our diplomacy,” Obama said. “That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended, because the nation I’m more interested in building is our own.”

But demand for assistance shows no real signs of abating, whether in areas that are considered potential safe havens for terrorism or in states whose internal problems have resonated with the international community’s conscience. This is especially true in Africa, a continent where the U.S. has paid almost no military attention, outside of training capacity, over the last several decades.

“The U.N. has been mounting a new peacekeeping operation every six months, and the U.S. has voted for every one of them, so clearly there’s a willingness, within limits, to fund these and support them politically,” said Dobbins. In order to spare the government some of the pressure that inevitably surrounds the decision to send troops, Dobbins proposed a build-up of non-military components — including the capacity to deploy aid workers through the U.S. Agency for International Development — to engage in post-conflict reconstruction in a way that supports civilian NGO efforts.

There is also the option of pooling resources with the international community under the auspices of multilateral missions. But chain-of-command concerns have always made such arrangements anathema to the U.S. military. And in recent experience, the international community has proven to be no better organized in its objectives than is the U.S. when acting alone.

“Historically, we never go in saying ‘we never intend to leave,'” said Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “The question becomes, when you take the lid off, have you in fact created a functioning nation-state, or has the presence of troops at least served to tamp down violence. We’re not very good at it — but neither is anyone else.”

With the U.S. almost certain to respond to any future engagements according to its own domestic political calculus, some experts suggest that another way to preserve interest is by refreshing the debate — and abandoning the poisonous term.

“[Nation-building] makes things sound like a bottomless pit of spending,” von Hippel said. “If you could make it [an optimistic] term — you want to democratize more states, you want states to deliver more to their people — we should be able to do the same things with less opposition.”

But short of a wildly successful turnaround in Afghanistan, the U.S. is going to have to reverse the negative perceptions of such engagements that have spread through both parties, in both rhetorical and policy terms, to reclaim that sort of optimism.

Karoun Demirjian is a freelance journalist based in Washington. She has written on local, national, and international issues for such publications as Congressional Quarterly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. 

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