Floundering Fathers

All F's on nation-building report cards


It may well be that Saddam Hussein's massive weekend data dump—the 12,000-page, multi-media "documentation" of everything related to his weapons program and, apparently, the text of the greater Baghdad telephone book—will have the effect of slowing down the timetable for a U.N., and maybe even a U.S., invasion. For obvious reasons, the Bush administration isn't fully comfortable with such a pause. Neither are its conservative pals in the press nor liberal supporters of preemptive war.

But it does give Americans a moment to consider the last few forays into what used to be tsk-tsked—especially by conservatives and their favorite presidential candidate—as "nation building." This is of no small import, as everyone agrees that an invasion of Iraq—or any other event that forces "regime change"—is only the beginning of a long, sustained, and intense involvement there.

The most recent case of nation building is, of course, Afghanistan, where it's unclear that leader Hamid Karzai controls all the bathrooms in his presidential palace, much less the countryside outside of Kabul. As Masood Farivar wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "Afghanistan lies in ruins and faces a real danger of slipping back into anarchy." A Washington Post column by Sebastian Mallaby pretty much seconds that emotion. After a late-November conversation with Maj. Gen. Akin Zorlu, commander of the international peacekeepers in Afghanistan, Mallaby noted that the Pentagon's (and NATO's) dream of building a truly national army that could police the country was "a painfully slow process," partly because the recruits go AWOL and head back to their old warlord leaders as soon as they gain useful skills. Something of an optimist, Zorlu figures it will take 10 to 15 years of international peacekeepers to get the job done.

The summer issue of WorldView, the always-interesting quarterly magazine put out by the National Peace Corps Association (a nonprofit made up of returned Peace Corps volunteers), has a piece about Afghanistan that suggests why the dream of a unified, pacific Afghanistan is going to be a long time coming. "Taliban Profits" reprints one of the last stories filed by murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl notes that in 2000, the Taliban helped facilitate the smuggling of over $1 billion worth of Western consumer merchandise into neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan. Even though the Taliban had discouraged or banned many of those same goods (e.g., televisions), the year before, they skimmed somewhere between $36 million and $75 million to let them pass through their borders. "For decades," writes Pearl, "whoever has run Afghanistan has exacted tolls on smugglers who ship foreign-made goods through the country and then illegally move the merchandise over the border to Pakistan [and Iran]." With that lucrative trade up for grabs, expect the domestic fight for power to be brutal and long—and to last until there's only one warlord standing. Until his underlings start to think that they should be in control.

Then there's Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic was deposed in 2000. "Serbia Faces Major Political Crisis" is a standing headline that could have run almost any day during the 20th century. The only question upon encountering it is: What is it this time? The latest iteration deals with the country's failure for the second time since October to elect a president. The Serbian constitution requires at least 50 percent voter turnout for an election to count, a total that neither October's contest nor this past Sunday's managed to reach. While such low voter participation rates could be hailed as a sign that U.S.-style (not to mention Swiss-style) democracy has indeed triumphed, the reality is far darker, and underscores how much work remains to be done there.

Similar tales can be told about Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, and Somalia, to name three other places where nation building has been attempted over the past decade.

None of this means that nation building necessarily can't work, only that it hasn't worked particularly well to date, particularly in places with little or no recent experience with anything approaching democracy. Nor does it necessarily mean that people living in the countries listed above are worse off than they were before intervention. (For that matter, it doesn't mean the U.S. is better off than it was, either.) However, it does mean that the U.S. needs to formulate and sell its dreams for a post-Saddam Iraq if we expect to increase support here and abroad for this latest adventure.