Nation-Building Demands Heavy Lifting

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush disavowed the goal of “nation-building” by U.S. military forces. Since then, he’s reversed himself. But instead of nation building, he’s given us nation-building lite.

Building peace in a war-torn country is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. The postwar occupations of Germany and Japan lasted seven years after 1945 and involved as many as 1.6 million U.S. troops in the European theater alone. In Kosovo since 1999, the United States and its allies have deployed 50 times more troops and 25 times more money, on a per capita basis, than in post-conflict Afghanistan. The question now is: Can we pacify Afghanistan and Iraq and build new state structures there on the cheap?

In the short run, of course, the decision to skimp on troop deployments and reconstruction funds in Afghanistan and Iraq has reduced American costs for post-conflict operations. But by cutting corners in these vital missions, the Bush administration has put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk and imperiled America’s long-term national security.

Three principles are essential for the success of peace-building operations:

First, deploy sufficient peacekeeping troops. In a study entitled “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq,” James Dobbins, the former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, notes that risk goes up when the number of troops goes down. That is, the likelihood of success in any operation designed to pacify a country is directly proportional to the size of the military force used to do so.

During the seven years after World War II, not a single U.S. soldier died in combat either in Germany or in Japan — in sharp contrast to the nearly 600 U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the end of “major combat operations” on May 1, 2003. The more recent peacekeeping operations in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, though less successful in building stable democracies, have likewise suffered no combat fatalities.

But when the Bush administration’s own Army chief of staff said in February 2003 that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to ensure security in post-conflict Iraq, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected this advice out of hand. Today there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

The second principle is to enlist the support of allies. Although the United States may sometimes need to go it alone, a multilateral approach generally reduces the costs of the occupation and increases its effectiveness, provided that the peacekeeping forces operate under a unified command. Not only does a multilateral operation allow for broader burden sharing, it also reduces the risk that the local population will view the peacekeepers as a hostile occupying force.

During the 1991 Gulf War America’s coalition allies shouldered more than 80 percent of the costs. In the Kosovo conflict, the United States paid only 15 percent of the expenses. But in Iraq today the United States is supplying 85 percent of the coalition troops and paying more than 90 percent of the costs of the entire Iraqi military operation. So far, the war and the occupation have cost the U.S. treasury at least $144 billion — roughly $1,500 from each household in the United States — a figure that will likely climb far higher in coming years.

The third principle that must be followed for peace-building operations is respect for international opinion. In postwar Germany and Japan, the people of both nations recognized that justice lay on the side of the victors. After their defeat, most German and Japanese citizens understood that the American occupiers did not seek to humiliate them but rather to help them build peaceful and democratic societies.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s atrocities, including the murders of 300,000 Iraqis whose remains are scattered in mass graves around the country, provided ample justification for his overthrow. But since removing Hussein from power, the Bush administration has squandered America’s moral advantage in this conflict.

In making the case for war, administration officials have exaggerated intelligence findings, insulted our staunchest allies and refused to make any significant compromises in the United Nations to facilitate the adoption of a second Security Council resolution authorizing the invasion. The looting after the conquest of Baghdad and the scandals at Abu Ghraib prison have further undermined the administration’s credibility in proclaiming the justice of our cause.

As George W. Bush observed during the 2000 campaign, “Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.” Since America’s national security depends on the good will of other nations, President Bush would be wise to follow his own advice.

Matthew Levinger is an associate professor of History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and a writer for the History News Service.

August, 2004