Lessons from Iraq: In nation building we trust

Nation building is an all-American activity. We should remember what we did right in Iraq and what we did wrong, because we'll inevitably do it again. Photo: U.S. Troops leave Iraq/Associated Press

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2011 — Nine years after the first American troops entered Iraq, President Obama welcomed home some of the last combat troops to serve there. He went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina last Wednesday, to officially close a persistently controversial chapter in America’s history.

But make no mistake. America has been militarily engaged with Iraq since the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq War is not the last time we will be involved there. More importantly, America has been nation-building for quite some time, and it will continue to do so into the distant future.  

Nation-building in Iraq, for all the vituperation it has attracted, is a mixed story.

Corruption still roils the government; human capital is still horribly deficient; fear in the current political system pervades society; and there is a real possibility of a civil war or dictatorship in Iraq derailing the country’s future.

But acknowledging the gains Iraq has made is just as important.

Iraq has the 12th fastest growing economy in the world; inflation has fallen steeply to single digits; a basic political structure has emerged; and there are now 400,000 Iraqi police officers and 200,000 Iraqi soldiers, with their day-to-day performance capacity improving.

American development efforts, in short, have helped to substantially improve economic growth, political development, and basic security.   

Nation-building has meant many things to many people, but what it fundamentally refers to is the efforts of more developed nations to support a failing state or establish a new state in an attempt to restore order to the lawlessness that devastates the failed state.

Much of the American public and the foreign policy gentry have railed against nation-building, arguing that the idealism associated with it has squandered American blood and treasure at the expense of America’s domestic interests and its future. Maybe so. But if history is any indication, America will engage in nation-building again. And again. And again.

This is why American leaders, more than anything else, need to internalize the lessons from Iraq and commit them to the country’s collective memory rather than assume that such a venture will never be tried again.

Contrary to popular perception, nation-building has been a staple of American foreign policy since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not the Civil War, whose resulting Reconstruction could technically be considered America’s first exercise in nation-building.

America is undoubtedly the most prolific nation-building state in history, having done so in countries in virtually every region of the world, including the Philippines, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, West Germany, Japan, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and of course, Iraq.

The Bush administration did not merely conceive of this foreign policy strategy from thin air as a way to imperialize the world and expend America’s capital.

Nation-building, both as a foreign policy strategy and as an intellectual tradition, has a foundation in American history—one forged from the American people’s having established a unified nation with democratic institutions despite the challenges of class, creed, and culture.

From the increasing calls for retreat and nation-building at home from public officials and the American people, one would be tempted to conclude that America has only engaged in nation-building in the recent past. But America has long looked to it as a way to engender a favorable international security environment and promote democracy throughout the world.

Yes, America has failed in many of those instances.

And Americans are right in expressing disgust at nation-building—at least the way it has been implemented in most cases. The United States has blundered multiple times in carrying out the policy, from a disastrous exit in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s, which produced violent and oppressive dictatorial regimes, to the disaster in Somalia in 1992 that concluded—or crumbled—in a humiliating fashion with Black Hawk Down and allowed for the consolidation of a failing state.

But if America genuinely desires to confront the failed state problem, then it must—it has, half-heartedly—come to terms with nation-building.

America’s experience in Iraq reveals a basic but extraordinarily important lesson that seems to have been consigned to oblivion: Nation-building is an arduous, long-term undertaking with high costs in human lives and resources—higher than what the public may be willing to accept. In Germany and Japan, for instance, where it was most successful, American forces remained for more than a generation to preserve the progress they had made. These two cases show that we should not throw ourselves into such a large scale venture to begin with if we do not possess the willingness to incur those high costs. 

Iraq is more stable now, but the country could very well be mired in a more troublesome quagmire were it not for the Bush administration’s overcoming a wave of public opposition to carrying out something as controversial as “nation-building.” After meandering for years, President Bush finally committed the requisite manpower and resources to develop the country’s security, national democratic institutions, and infrastructure.

But America should not launch into another dithering venture. It is in the interest of American leaders to remember Iraq clearly—successes exalted and failures scrutinized—rather than hastily cast it aside as a brazen enterprise to be forgotten.    

America’s history shows that nation-building is not a once-in-a-lifetime foreign policy strategy. Sooner or later, we will use it again. Rather than cast it aside, President Obama and future presidents, as well as the Defense and State Departments, should attempt to improve it.


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Raj Kannappan

Raj Kannappan is a junior at Cornell University pursuing a B.A. in Government and Asian Studies. Currently, he is Chairman of the Cornell University College Republicans and a regular opinion columnist for the Cornell Review, recently voted by peers as the top conservative campus newspaper in the country, and TheCollegeConservative, a national online publication that includes conservative commentary from college students. 

He has interned at the Hudson Institute, providing research assistance for Senior Fellow Tevi Troy, former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Bush, and Senior Fellow Richard Weitz, an expert on regional security issues and WMD nonproliferation policies. He has also conducted health economics and international security research at Cornell, studying the effects of tobacco tax differences on inter-state purchasing and the implications of cost-benefit analyses in democratic military interventions.

Having been born in India and having lived in India, Singapore, Thailand, and now, America, Raj has come to recognize the importance of American leadership, small government, personal responsibility, and most importantly, family. His interests include politics, international affairs, military history, and cricket. 

Contact Raj Kannappan


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