Commentary

GOP ♥ Nation-Building

Throughout the 1990s, Republicans castigated the Clinton administration for conducting foreign policy like social work: vague, ill-defined missions in remote locales from Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo. Republicans asked forceful questions about how these missions served the U.S. national interest. In November 1995 a clear majority of Republicans in Congress voted to stop Clinton from sending American forces to Bosnia as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement (a prohibition that Clinton flatly ignored). When a second Balkan crisis erupted in Kosovo, John Bolton had to point out to Bill O’Reilly that the United States had become “involved in a conflict where it has no tangible national interest, where it has no clear objectives in mind, and where the ultimate outcome could be very risky for what our real interests are…”

Bolton was right, and he was joined by many other conservatives who saw nation-building as a dangerous and dubious misuse of American power. Although the Weekly Standard promoted the candidacy of John McCain—in part because he was one of the few Republicans who thought that Kosovo was a good idea—most on the right were encouraged when George W. Bush and his senior foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice came out strongly against such missions. Rice famously declared in 2000 that “we don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” Bush was equally blunt: during one of the presidential debates with Al Gore, Bush said “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation building. … I mean, we’re going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.”

We agree. That’s why it is so alarming that the Bush administration has created a nation-building corps from America: the State Department’s new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). President Bush and Secretary Rice’s change of heart is most often attributed to 9/11. To be sure, 9/11 proved that untraditional threats can be serious, but it did nothing to make a strategic non-entity such as Haiti into a national security concern. Further, 9/11 did not change the extremely poor track record of nation-building efforts.

The leading advocates of S/CRS claim that the office will be able to build institutional knowledge about nation building, allowing them to reverse the abysmal history of past nation-building failures. But the very rationale for the office’s creation — the notion that failed states are automatically threatening to the United States — is deeply flawed.

Stephen Krasner, the director of policy planning at State, and the Coordinator himself, Carlos Pascual, explained the rationale behind the office by asserting that the United States needs to learn to “help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy, and a market economy.” The authors went on to argue that America needs to “establish democracies that improve the lives of ordinary individuals.” Sounds more like Madeleine Albright than Ronald Reagan.

And, mind you, they weren’t talking about Iraq. The office has given no indication that it has answers to the problems in Iraq. Rather, S/CRS is currently planning for nation-building operations in strategic backwaters like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. Are those really the places where we ought to be focusing our energies while bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi are on the loose? True, we aren’t sure where any of these people are, but we’d bet the next month’s rent that they’re not in Port au Prince.

For conservatives who are willing to trust the judgment of the Bush administration on foreign policy, they might want to imagine how the office could be used by a future, say, Hillary Clinton administration. If President Clinton decides in 2010 that we really need to send U.S. personnel into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she’ll be able to do it under the auspices of S/CRS. And a standing office devoted to nation building will be a full-time advocate for the very types of missions that the GOP rightfully used to scorn.

This brings us to the next problem, which rarely gets discussed: the need for U.S. military personnel to go along on these missions. In any stabilization and reconstruction effort, there would have to be a military component. By definition, the target state will be emerging from conflict or collapse, and the American administrators will need to operate within a relatively secure environment as they initiate and implement stabilization and reconstruction programs. But based on the historical record, an absolute minimum of five foreign troops per 1,000 indigenous population would be needed to be successful. In Haiti, for example, that would mean 17,000 foreign troops. Sierra Leone? 30,000 troops. Zimbabwe? More than 60,000 troops. Nobody argues openly that we should send these kinds of numbers of troops into failed states, but if we wanted to have a serious chance of success, the above figures suggest what would be required. Sending in a few bureaucrats and soldiers was the strategy in the 1990s. We know what kind of results that strategy yielded in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.

At a time when our men and women in uniform are struggling with third and potentially fourth tours in the war on terrorism, these types of social engineering missions are even more reckless than they were under the Clinton administration. Until the Bush administration can explain why it is necessary to poke through the affairs of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti, the office should be shuttered and the State Department should go back to grown-up policy issues.

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. They are the authors of the Policy Analysis, “Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office.”