Nation-Building 101

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Big Idea, Big Fight

The first phase of nation-building—post-conflict reconstruction—is extremely difficult to implement, because the necessary capabilities are widely spread out among a host of government and civilian agencies. Earlier nation-building exercises suffered from poor coordination, both within the U.S. government and within the broader international community. In Bosnia, for example, the Dayton Accords gave military authority to NATO, whereas civil authority was divided among the Office of the High Representative, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Some functions, including the creation of an international police force, fell through the cracks. Within the U.S. government the military clashed with civilian agencies over its role in noncombat missions such as demobilization and policing.

The U.S. officials involved learned some important lessons during the 1990s, which the Clinton Administration codified in Presidential Decision Directive 56, in May of 1997. PDD 56 established an interagency framework for coordinating the U.S. response to post-conflict emergencies, and was used during the reconstruction of Kosovo following the 1999 NATO intervention there. Owing in part to the better U.S. coordination, the nation-building effort in Kosovo was much better organized on an international level than the one in Bosnia, with greater unity of command and considerably quieter interagency squabbles.

At the beginning of the Bush Administration, efforts were made to replace PDD 56 with a new directive that would have put the White House's National Security Council staff in charge of coordinating any nation-building activities. By all accounts this was a sensible idea, but the President never signed the draft, apparently because of persistent objections from the Defense Department. Then came September 11, the Afghan war, and the ensuing reconstruction effort. The Bush Administration still had no agreed-upon policy framework for nation-building, and many officials regarded the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan as a fiasco.

This was the background against which the Pentagon put forth, shortly after passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, in November of 2002, its "big idea" that all postwar planning should be centralized under its own control. The delay in the appointment of a reconstruction coordinator was due to the big fight that ensued from the big idea.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had some serious reasons for wanting to retain control over the reconstruction effort. Previous nation-building exercises had always had two chains of command, one dealing with military security and the other—through the local ambassador and the State Department—with civil affairs. In Rumsfeld's view, this split authority tied down U.S. forces, because the civilian chain of command could never agree on an exit strategy and was constantly calling on the military to do things for which it was not prepared, such as police work. This problem, according to Rumsfeld, was particularly acute in Bosnia, where U.S. forces were still deployed seven years after the signing of the Dayton Accords, and it had emerged in Afghanistan after the United States ousted the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon had been fighting for months with the State Department and the intelligence community over the role of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. At the extremes were those in the Pentagon who believed that the democratization of Iraq could be delegated entirely to Chalabi, and those in the State Department and the intelligence community who thought him unfit for any role in postwar Iraq.

By late December of 2002 Rumsfeld, the consummate bureaucratic infighter, had prevailed. President Bush agreed to give control to the Pentagon because the idea of a unified command appealed to him. But this strategy had distinct disadvantages: the Pentagon, which lacked the institutional knowledge or capacity to do many of the things that need to be done in reconstruction, did not turn to the right places. The Defense Department does not have any particular expertise in writing constitutions or in producing attractive TV programs to compete with al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya for the hearts and minds of Arab viewers. It does not have good relations with the international NGOs that provide humanitarian services; nor does it have a way of coordinating activities with the UN and other multilateral institutions.

Once it became clear that the reconstruction of Iraq was going to be far costlier and longer than expected, there were immediate calls in Congress for international help. But although such help would be welcomed by American taxpayers, the international community is no better coordinated for nation-building than the U.S. government.

To begin with, no central authority exists within the international community to lead nation-building efforts. Much as other countries might like to give this responsibility to the United Nations, that is not a practical solution. The UN does not have the expertise or the resources, human and otherwise, to run nation-building programs authoritatively. For these it depends on the heavyweight funders—namely, the United States, the European Union, and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

Moreover, no one has solved the more serious problem of how to implement the second phase of nation-building—the transition to self-sustaining indigenous institutions. As the human-rights expert Michael Ignatieff memorably put it, whereas the mantra of the international community is "capacity building," the reality is often "capacity sucking-out," as well-endowed international agencies, contractors, and NGOs arrive with their cell phones, laptops, and First World salaries. In a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Gerald Knaus and Felix Martin argue that Bosnia seven years after the Dayton Accords has become a "European Raj," in which the High Representative acts as a viceroy presiding over a colonial dependency that is without either democracy or self-government. Neither there nor in Kosovo is an exit strategy evident, because the departure of the international community would leave both places with the intractable political problems that led to intervention in the first place.

None of this means that the United States should exclude the international community from future nation-building exercises. Multilateralism means the difference between the $70 billion contributed by foreign powers to pay for the Gulf War and the $13 billion they have pledged for reconstruction this time around. The international community can provide constabulary forces, water engineers, land-mine-removal experts, and other resources that the United States often cannot field quickly. What is needed is a standing U.S. government office to cooperate with this community, with an eye to the long lead times that are inevitable.

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