Nation-building has always been like the weather: Entertaining to discuss but nothing most people do anything about.
Until now. President Bush has announced the formation of an Iraq Stabilization Group, a new leadership team under National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice and drawing from more than a half-dozen Cabinet agencies.
To the casual reader – or the casual reporter – this could look like just another bureaucratic re-shuffling of the deck. It's much more than that. It's an attempt to make history. It's an attempt to create a structure and a system that can actually help bring freedom and democracy to the Muslim Middle East for the very first time.
The consequences of success will be enormous; so, too, the consequences of failure. Before we talk about that, a little background:
After World War II, the US did succeed in nation-building in Germany, Italy and Japan, but that effort took many years to accomplish and required an enormous infusion of funds. That Germany and Italy had some history of democratic governance to draw upon clearly helped. It also was lucky that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was put in charge of post-war Japan, understood that society.
After World War II, the Europeans tried to make modern nations of their former colonies in Africa. They haven't succeeded yet.
The British left reasonably durable democratic institutions behind in India. Not so in Pakistan.
To his credit, President Clinton attempted to nation-build in Haiti. To his shame, the attempt failed and no more was heard about it.
It's no secret that George W. Bush – before he became president – was not enthusiastic about nation-building. Along with most Republicans, he was skeptical of anything that seemed to mix foreign policy with social work.
So-called paleo-conservatives continue to hold this view. Neo-conservatives disagree – perhaps because many neo-cons are former Democrats who haven't given up their Wilsonian ideals. Or it may simply be that, like President Bush, they believe that one lesson of 9/11 is that failed states are easily transformed into terrorist havens and that represents an unacceptable threat to the security of the United States.
Some people are arguing that President Bush should have had nation-building teams ready to go before toppling Saddam. Maybe, but this would be a difficult project to set up prospectively.
Others are making the case that the Iraq Stabilization Group is an implicit criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who has been in charge up till now. That's unfair for three reasons: (1) Nation-building goes way beyond the initial “stabilization and reconstruction” effort; (2) the Pentagon has its hands full trying to figure out how to win a low-intensity guerrilla/terrorist conflict, a form of warfare in which Americans do not yet excel; and (3) it never made sense to give the military the mission of democratic institution-building. Our fighting men and women are the world's best at doing what they have been trained to do – killing bad guys. They are not trained to teach ordinary citizens how to create an independent judiciary, a free press, contract law, minority rights, a multi-party system and the rest of the building blocks of a democratic society.
Shouldn't the State Department have this capability? Maybe, but it doesn't. Among other things, the folks at State are predisposed to favor stability over freedom. Give the career types at State a choice between installing a friendly dictator and trying to nurture the growth of an unruly democracy it's obvious which they'll choose.
Europe and the Arab world (both the monarchies such as Qatar and the authoritarian states such as Egypt) also prefer stability. And, truth be told, most Europeans don't really believe that Iraqis are equipped to handle such modern, Western ideas as universal suffrage, women's rights and separation of religion and state. That's one reason why entrusting the job of nation-building to the UN would only ensure that it fails. The other is this: The UN is an organization comprised of dictatorships and democracies, and the UN is not so judgmental as to endorse one form of government over the other.
As for the rulers of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran – they, too, hope to see a stable and friendly dictator in Baghdad. They last thing they want is a free, prosperous democracy on their doorstep – and they are doing everything in their power to prevent such a state from emerging.
All of which points to the reason why the nation-building effort in Iraq is so consequential. We talk a lot these days about “public diplomacy,” about communicating who Americans are and what we stand for. But nothing we can say or write will be as persuasive as what we do in Iraq. If we succeed in helping the people of Iraq to build a decent society, that will be the most powerful advertisement for the American Way that anyone could devise.
By the same token, if we fail, if we don't have the know-how or the staying power, if our effort looks less than serious, that too, will tell speak volumes about us.