The Bush Administration's experience in Iraq does not teach new lessons about nation-building but, rather, reinforces some old ones that have been forgotten. The first is that nation-building is a difficult, long-term enterprise with high costs in manpower, lives, and resources. The places where it has been most successful—Germany, Japan, and the Philippines—are ones where U.S. forces have remained for generations. We should not get involved to begin with if we are not willing to pay those high costs.
That being said, we are now fully committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are likely to take on other nation-building commitments in the future, simply because the failed-state problem is one that we cannot safely ignore. It therefore behooves us to draw some lessons from our recent experience.
The problems that the Administration faced in Iraq were not so much the results of specific misjudgments as the predictable by-products of the Administration's poorly thought-out institutional structure. Fixing that structure would involve at least four things.
First, the United States needs to create a central authority, backed by a permanent staff, to manage ongoing and future nation-building activities. One possibility, recommended by the Commission on Post-conflict Reconstruction of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is to appoint a director of reconstruction. The director could be located in any of a number of places in the government, though the White House would be the most logical, given the delicate interagency relationships involved. (Recognizing that it had been a mistake to grant the Pentagon primacy over the reconstruction of Iraq, the White House staff moved to take back that authority in October of 2003.) The director's office would serve as a fund of institutional memory, so that we would not have to perpetually run around teaching ourselves what we already knew.
Second, this coordinating office must be endowed with sufficient authority to bring the government's warring agencies under control when a crisis emerges. That means a civilian equivalent of the CENTCOM commander should be appointed to take charge of postwar civil planning, coincident with and on a par with military planning.
Third, any standing organization devoted to nation-building should maintain ties with similar agencies in other countries. Although the international community has—through efforts in Somalia, Bosnia, and East Timor—gotten better at nation-building, it, too, lacks the means for preserving institutional memory, and could use American help.
Finally, the reconstruction effort must remain under clear civilian control as it moves from the first stage, stabilizing the region, to the second stage, creating self-sustaining institutions that will ultimately allow the United States a graceful exit. Decisions about how rapidly to turn over authority to local actors, what the sequence for political reform should be, and when and how to reduce aid levels and presence in a country cannot be left to the Department of Defense, which will always be biased in favor of a quick exit.
This bias will be of particular importance as the reconstruction of Iraq progresses. Donald Rumsfeld has articulated a strategy of nation-building "lite," involving a rapid transition to local control and a tough-love policy that leaves locals to find their own way toward good government and democracy. This is a dubious approach, at least if one cares about the final outcome. The new Iraqi government will be administratively weak and not regarded by its citizens as fully legitimate. It will be plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and riven by internal disagreements—witness the fight between the Iraqi Governing Council's Shia and non-Shia members over how to draft a new constitution. Nation-building requires a lot more than training police and military forces to take over from the United States: unless such forces are embedded in a strong framework of political parties, a judiciary, a civilian administration, and a rule of law, they will become mere pawns in the internal struggle for power. Nation-building "lite" risks being used as an intellectual justification for getting out, regardless of the mess we leave behind.
A standing U.S. government office to manage nation-building will be a hard sell politically, because we are still unreconciled to the idea that we are in the nation-building business for the long haul. However, international relations is no longer just a game played between great powers but one in which what happens inside smaller countries can have a huge effect on the rest of the world. Our "empire" may be a transitional one grounded in democracy and human rights, but our interests dictate that we learn how better to teach other people to govern themselves.