America's Nation-Building Follies

The U.S. record at nation-building isn't much better at home than abroad.

One week from today, America will mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. That colossal mistake—more than 100,000 killed in a war over nonexistent WMDs—has cost America dearly: nearly 4,500 troop fatalities, and more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Sixty billion of that sum has gone to rebuild Iraq. (“You break it, you own it,” as Colin Powell famously said.) According to the final report from Stuart Bowen—the inspector general overseeing Iraqi reconstruction—much of that outlay, too, has been a colossal waste.

Hundreds of projects that were started years ago now sit unfinished and abandoned. Others that have been finished hardly seem worth the cost—e.g., a $108-million waste treatment facility in Fallujah that will serve only 9,000 homes. The voluminous report is filled with details such as those concerning Anham, a defense contractor that billed the federal government $80 for a 4-inch PVC plumbing elbow—which is “5,574 percent more than a competitor’s offer of $1.41.”

Small wonder, then, if audiences applaud at President Obama’s frequent assertion that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”—to “take the money we’re no longer spending at war” and use it “to rebuild America.”

Sounds great in theory. Just one small problem, though: America’s record at domestic nation-building isn’t much better.

Take disaster relief. Ten months after Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, The New York Times reported that reconstruction efforts had led to “one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes, and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion... in fraud and waste.” That sum represented “nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent to date.” Even worse, the GAO estimated “as much as 21 percent” of direct aid to victims “had been improperly distributed.”

“The blatant fraud, the audacity of the schemes, the scale of the waste—it is just breathtaking,” lamented Maine Sen. Susan Collins at the time. There was more to come. By 2009, the FBI reported upwards of 1,300 people had been indicted on Katrina-related offenses—and more indictments were still rolling in.

But waste, fraud and abuse are not limited to emergencies. Improper payments for Medicare alone total $60 billion a year—as much as the U.S. has shelled out in Iraqi reconstruction grants over the past decade. Even more remarkable, the $60 billion tab for improper payments is five times what the experts once predicted the entire Medicare program would cost. In 1967, forecasters expected Medicare to cost a mere $12 billion by 1990, according to Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. The real 1990 cost was $98 billion—and today it is five times that.

Such wild overruns are not at all unusual. Planners for Boston’s Big Dig anticipated it would cost $2.6 billion. Final tab: more than $20 billion. The F-22 Raptor originally was budgeted at $139 million per plane. Today’s total: more than $400 million per unit. In 2008, California’s “bullet train” was sold to voters as a $33 billion project. Within three years the bill had reached nearly $100 billion.

Doesn’t anything ever come in on time and under budget? Sure. It happens. But De Rugy cites an exhaustive, 20-nation study by Danish researchers that shows nine out of 10 public projects blow past original cost estimates.

And sometimes, all the taxpayers get for the voluminous sums is a giant goose egg. The Obama administration’s bad bet on Solyndra will cost taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars, for instance. And that’s chump change compared with the Carter administration, which sank $88 billion (almost a quarter-trillion, in today’s dollars) into the ill-fated Synthetic Fuels Corporation. (History to Carter: You didn’t build that.)

Liberals harp on the military boondoggles, holding them up as proof of the perfidy inherent in the military-industrial complex. Conservatives gloat over social-welfare fraud, treating it as proof that the entire system is a scam to rip off hard-working taxpayers. The larger truth is more sobering: Metastasis in government programs does not obey partisan boundaries.

In trying to explain what happened in Iraq, inspector-general Stuart Bowen last week said the reconstruction effort “grew to a size much larger than was ever anticipated,” and “not enough was accomplished for the size of the fund expended.” You could say the same about the federal government itself.

Bowen’s report contains excerpts from interviews with those who were involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, such as Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani: “You think if you throw money at a problem, you can fix it,” Talabani says. It also quotes Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides: “Those in Iraq who developed and implemented the rebuilding program intended well, but good intentions don’t always produce good results.”

Maybe he should put that in a memo to the president. Because the lessons learned in Iraq should lead to a greater degree of humility when Washington contemplates its next big nation-building project — whether overseas, or right here at home.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  • LTC(ret) John||

    "a war over nonexistent WMDs"

    Oh Christ on crutches, not this tired old meme...again.

    There are plenty of reasons to have opposed going into Iraq, guns and wallets a blazin', but apparently they were too hard to write down here, eh?

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Good job by the writer of not using 'the name that cannot be used' here even once.

  • John||

    Yes Shreek, liberals will never get over the fact that a Republican fought the most Wilsonian war in US history. You are only pissed because you didn't get to do it.

  • John Galt||

    Aye. It is so.

  • some guy||

    Good job of you to beat that dead horse... again. Seriously the thing is pretty much just a pile of hair on a blood stain.

  • grey||

    Thanks some guy, I spit my drink on the screen laughing.

  • Paul.||

    Good job by the writer of not using 'the name that cannot be used' here even once.

    I remember this nationally broadcast radio event during Clinton's second term where a bunch of lefty bands did some kind of political theater thing where they took Reagan's speeches, cut them and mashed them up to make Reagan say racist shit.

    During Clinton's second term.

  • Randian||

    Is that anything like Last Rites? Rites of Spring? Rites of Passage?

  • ||

    I'm more interested in knowing what Iraq in the middle of America is supposed to mean.

  • Randian||

    something something Messicans something something Ay-Rabs and Shureeea.

  • ||

    And he's gone, wonder how long it'll be till he makes his 4th account.

  • some guy||

  • sarcasmic||

    “Those in Iraq who developed and implemented the rebuilding program intended well, but good intentions don’t always produce good results.”

    Heresy! Blasphemy! Burn him at the stake!

  • LTC(ret) John||

    But it is different when O! or Bloomberg or Pelsoi do it!!!

  • NeonCat||

    Why can't our do-nothing Congress pass a law saying that yes, by God, good intentions DO produce good results?

  • CampingInYourPark||

    OT:

    "Senator Rand Paul ‏@SenRandPaul
    This time a week ago, I was just getting started on my 13-hour filibuster. Are they ready for round 2?"

    Anybody know what he's hinting at here?

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I am hoping more whacko birdness. Anything that ties lefties in knots, po's the old guard, statist Repubs and confusticates the press is fine by me.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    There's a whacko bird baloney vote on an ammendment to defund Obamacare in the Senate at 2 today

  • Randian||

    I dunno but this time I am going to same-day deliver him some of those marathoner gel food packets and body cream (to prevent chafing, natch)

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Don't forget the depends

  • Randian||

    He should just put in a catheter.

  • Loki||

    Or he could just get a stadium pal. Personally I rather like the idea of a US Senator walking around the chamber with a bag of urine strapped to their leg. Just for the lulz.

  • Way Of The Crane||

    Apparently, he has a sense of humor.

    “It was a joke,” said Moira Bagley, Paul’s communications director, in an email to POLITICO.
  • John||

    We don't nation build. We never have. The idea that the US rebuilt Europe or Japan after World War II is just FDR/Truman worshiping bullshit. Those countries rebuilt themselves. The US just provided a secure environment that allowed them to do so. The fact that South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan couldn't and can't get off their ass despite getting ten times the help Europe ever got says everything you need to know about those particular countries.

  • sarcasmic||

    Some cultures require dictators.

  • ||

    How grossly collectivist of you, sarcasmic.

  • sarcasmic||

    Participatory governments just don't work in some cultures. Yes, yes, I know. No government really works. But most people understand that government is inevitable and anarchy is a fantasy for sexual deviants.
    This whole notion that democracy can work for everyone is just false. Look at these Arab nations. They need a strong man. A dictator. Participatory government is tearing them apart.

  • ||

    I'm sure people thought the same thing about Korea, which had never had a democratic gov't before. People thought the same thing about Germany during and immediately after WWII (since their one attempt at modern-style participatory gov't had ended in failure). Japan was yet another example. From the shogun, to the emperor, to the military clique, they had never demonstrated an ability to have a relatively free society...until they did.

    You simply can't pass judgment on huge swathes of humanity based on history.

  • sarcasmic||

    I did not say that cultures cannot change.

  • ||

    The clear and obvious implication in your post was that "some people need a dictator", the example being that participatory gov't is currently causing havok in several countries. Yet now you say cultures can change. So how do you know this isn't part of the change? Maybe this is their transition process, meaning that no, they don't need a dictator.

    Point being, you still can't make your original claim with the evidence you used without tacitly admiting that the current goings-on are not a part of that changing.

  • sarcasmic||

    Hopefully I will be proven wrong. I'm just going by the past and the present.

  • grey||

    You're likely right, all cultures are not equal. Populations are deeply impacted by the cultures they grow up in. If a majority or even strong minority are violent and unethical enough, there seems little chance for survival of any kind of representative democracy. Sometimes a culture must change before you can have a government that will survive whose function is to protect and preserve individual rights.

    I think the US culture is heading in the opposite direction. We once had a culture that helped a democracy thrive. But now we seem to have a culture with a population that is creating an environment where a less civil liberty friendly government will thrive.

  • ||

    Blast, I need to refresh more frequently.

  • ||

    Is that really true though? I think it's pretty hard for a group to make the transition from tyranny directly to democracy, but I don't think that certain groups are predetermined to NEED a dictator. The Middle East prior to Wahhabism current ascendancy was strikingly modern.

    Besides that, plenty of Europeans fell for dictators between WWI and WWII, and the US lurved them some FDR, a "good dictator."

  • ||

    sarcasmic:

    anarchy is a fantasy for sexual deviants.

    Well, that settles it: I'm an anarchist. It must be more fun than what everyone else is planning.

  • some guy||

    No. It's our job as Muricans to teach them a better way.

  • tarran||

    In the defense of the Iraqi's, having the U.S. Army bash the shit out of black market electricity, gasoline & food salesmen/providers didn't really help them rebuild.

    It just put the population more at the mercy of the corrupt central government.

  • John||

    Them deciding to let Al Quada in and have a civil war over religious differences even they don't understand didn't help either. The Kurds are doing all right. But gasp, the Kurds actually work and take care of what they have. What a concept.

  • tarran||

    And the US Army wasn't arresting people in the Kurdish Autonomous zone for operating electrical generators without being part of the state electricity ministry either.

    You can shout "Look! Shiites! Al Queda!" like Shriek blaming everything Obama does on Bush to your heart's content. It doesn't change the fact that the U.S. Army was frequently a destabilizing force making things worse.

    Mind you, a stable, prosperous Iraq was never the point. A Saudi king sitting with his ass secure on his throne was insisting on being paid dollars for his oil was. A fucked up Iraq actually was just as, if not more, convenient to that aim.

  • John||

    Oh please. To the extent that the Army was a destabilizing force, it is far outweighed by the fact that the Army carried their sorry asses for years and maintained some sense of civil order because they were too busy stealing and settling scores to have even a minimally functional government.

    Whatever extent Iraq is fucked up today is entirely the fault of the Iraqis. They had ten years of free defense and counter insurgency and billions of dollars worth of aid and sit on enormous oil wealth. If they can't make that work that is their fault and no one else's.

    Sorry, but arresting a few people for having generators, if that even happened, doesn't quite relieve the Iraqis of the responsibility for their own country.

  • Finrod||

    Agreed. In addition, any costs for Iraq over the last ten years needs to be balanced against the costs no longer incurred from having an insane dictator running Iraq: no-fly zones for more than a decade, money sent to prop up Hezbollah and Hamas, on average 100K Iraqi citizens killed every year by their own government, having to base our military out of Saudi Arabia bases causing serious Arab resentment, the list goes on and on. For all the trouble we have with Iraq now, before the invasion it was all at least ten times worse.

  • ||

    It's not about nation-building, it's about feeding money to cronies. That's it, plain and simple. All this hand-waving about nation-building is beside the point.

  • Lord Humungus||

    why do you hate roads and schools so much? Tyrant! ;)

  • grey||

    Can I hate government schools, but not hate schools? Suppose not.

  • Finrod||

    Why not? Most sane people hate government schools but do not hate proper education, for the simple reason that the former does a lot to prevent the latter.

  • John||

    Having dealt with USAID and the rest of State, I can say with confidence that you give them too much credit. They were not giving money to cronies. What they were doing was spending money with good intentions with no idea what they were doing. Imagine trying to be a general contractor in a country you don't understand and barely speak the language and whose entire culture is based on tribalism and ripping off the outsider. Do you really think you are going to get much for your money?

    We would have been better off dropping money out of airplanes or just giving the money away by lottery.

  • some guy||

    We would have been better off dropping money out of airplanes or just giving the money away by lottery.

    This would have bolstered their tribalism and strengthened their warlords. A different set of people would have wasted the money, but at least our troops would not have been in danger.

  • John||

    But what we did, did that too. Who do you think stole all that money? The tribes and the local leaders. These people have been stealing for thousands of years. They stereotype about the cagey sheik arose for a reason. Putting those people up against a bunch of Ivy League nitwits armed with billions of dollars and a desire to change the world was literally like taking candy from a baby.

  • $park¥||

    LITERALLY?

  • John||

    "literally like" not "literally was". You missed the weasel word.

  • $park¥||

    Also, more like giving candy to a baby.

  • John||

    True.

  • NeonCat||

    One that's in the terrible twos forever.

  • sarcasmic||

    Anyone who says "Easy as taking candy from a baby" has never tried to take candy from a baby.
    -R Hood

  • some guy||

    Agreed. We let the Ivy League nitwits waste the money while putting US citizens in harm's way. Your way would have been better because it would have cut out the middle-men (the nitwits) and only risked however many brave troops it takes to throw a platinum coin across the border.

  • John||

    A lot of the violence was unavoidable and had nothing to do with the US. The Sunis and the Shia were going to start killing each other sometime, we just made it happen a bit sooner rather than later.

  • sarcasmic||

    Assuming a smooth transition of power from Saddam to his successor, and the police state remaining in place, I think the violence could have been avoided for a while.

  • John||

    That wasn't going to happen. There was no successor to Saddam. His idiot sons were hated by everyone. As soon as Saddam died the place was going to fall apart.

  • wakeup||

    America is veering towards dictatorship, Supreme court justices and top government officials warn

  • sarcasmic||

    Well, duh. That is the logical conclusion of never repealing shitty legislation and regulation, and instead responding to the consequences with more shitty legislation and regulation.
    At some point a dictatorship is necessary to enforce all those totalitarian rules that encompass every aspect of life.

  • grey||

    Anarchist! We need regulations or we'd all be shitting in the street. Willy nilly shitting. We'd be knee deep in shat on the streets.

  • ||

    Well, duh and/or hello.

  • phandaal||

    Seriously, Woodhouse. That's like Eggs 101.

  • some guy||

    Well, duh. That's been clear since, what? The early 1800's? We've always known the party was going to end. It's human nature.

  • John Galt||

    Of course we couldn't be veering into dictatorship without the actions of the Supreme Court Justices and top government officials.

  • wakeup||

    We have a new pope.

  • John Galt||

    Well, it's most likely not Obama, since it's probably against the rules to be both Pope and Jesus at the same time.

  • NoVAHockey||

    white smoke

  • ||

    WHAT DO YOU MEAN, FORGET ABOUT THE GELGAMEKS???

  • Tim||

    Maybe it's tear gas. The old boys got a little rowdy.

  • Tim||

    As I recall I was renovating my house and plywood tripled in cost seemingly overnight, thanks to the pentagon building new bases.

  • John||

    Maybe that is why Shreek hates Bush so much. Bush drove up the price of the boards Shreek needed to construct the lean too behind the 7-11 dumpster where he lives.

  • John Galt||

    Hitler was a nation builder, why shouldn't we be nation builders, too.

  • grey||

    Have to break a few eggs (or heads as the case may be) for the greater good.

  • SiliconDoc||

    Leftylibs demanded nation building many decades ago,they whined America must share industry with the 3rd world.
    Then lefttards spread their hate on corporate industry so thick no CEO in the USA could miss it.
    Thus, the CEO's of the USA caved in and flew overseas to setup industry all over the 3rd world.
    Soon leftylibs screamed evil CEO's (fled) the USA and jobs left with them.
    I saw the time pass when the CEO's wanted to come back to the USA, but the lefylibs screamed their polluting of the world would destroy the human race soon, and there's no way they would be doing all that pollution in the leftylib backyards of the USA.

    I believe barky the tard tried to get some kind of insulting shovel ready USA building going, but as he said "it's a lot harder than I thought" and I certainly believe his very own leftylibtards blocked his every move.

    I checked the gov site for obammy spent up waste for jobs not saved and further destroyed, and 99 out of 100 dollars (it seemed from the little blue dots and stats at the nat fed gov map) went to DOT.
    Department of Transportation.

    I guess that was dollars for storing "missing" boxes of votes that are "suddenly found" in a gov wharehouse facility as the news stories go...
    Really that's all I could figure, since roads and bridges and street sign holders have massively DECREASED since this idiot usurped the crown of illegal stupidity.

  • sydneyrechard||

    my buddy's aunt makes $64/hour on the computer. She has been out of work for ten months but last month her pay check was $14072 just working on the computer for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more
    http://jump30.com

  • SiliconDoc||

    This is why I greatly appreciated Donald Trumps remark(s) on wasted war/rebuilding spending...

    He mentioned a briefcase that contained I think it was 6 million dollars, that simply disappeared. After complaining about the stark raving lunatic deal of a pile of cash in a briefcase handed over... or perhaps pointing out how nuts it is - he said he'd like to know who authorized that and I believe who handled it..
    Then he pointed out he hires auditors when he builds, and then, he hires more auditors to keep an eye on the first set of auditors, and even with that "they still steal" money.

    Thank you Mr. Donald Trump, often a very lone voice in the wild and wacky waste in the war wagging fingerers.

    I know he's no libertarian, but those lines he came up with, are good ones for libertarians, who no doubt are often business people as well.

  • ||

    before I looked at the receipt of $6587, I have faith that...my... sister could realey making money in their spare time on-line.. there dads buddy started doing this less than eighteen months and a short time ago took care of the loans on their place and bought a brand new audi. we looked here, http://www.fly38.com

  • Floyd64||

    my best friend's mom makes $60/hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for 9 months but last month her check was $20409 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this web site http://www.wow92.com

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