A Plan for Nation Building

To some fanfare, the Army has just released a new field manual, FM 3-07, Stability Operations [.pdf, 13.4 MB], which Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center, calls “a roadmap from conflict to peace, a practical guidebook” that “institutionalizes the hard-won lessons of the past while charting a path for tomorrow.”


Don’t get me wrong: it would certainly be a wonderful thing if we could figure out a way to achieve a peaceful world, but thinking that one has “a practical guidebook” to do so strikes me as naive.

I’m even more troubled by the presumptions underlying the new doctrine.  

In the foreword to FM 3-07, Gen. Caldwell writes:

America’s future abroad is unlikely to resemble Afghanistan or Iraq, where we grapple with the burden of nation-building under fire. Instead, we will work through and with the community of nations to defeat insurgency, assist fragile states, and provide vital humanitarian aid to the suffering.

I understand from a political perspective why it is important to differentiate the wars of the future from the wars of the present, especially Iraq. With 60 percent of all Americans believing the Iraq war to have been a mistake, you don’t get off to a good start by telling the public that the new doctrine will make it easier to fight future Iraq wars. Of course, FM 3-07 isn’t addressed to the public at large, or, to the extent that it is, one rationale for it is that had FM 3-07 existed in 2002, we might have avoided some of the mistakes in Iraq. Further, the public remains supportive of the mission in Afghanistan, despite our recent difficulties there, and the authors of FM 3-07 no doubt believe it will be useful there.

But how can we be so sure that future nation-building missions will not be conducted under fire? Are we so confident in the preventive measures set forth in FM 3-07 and elsewhere that we think we’ve discovered the secret to stopping wars before they begin? And with respect to working “through and with the community of nations” to fight common challenges, presumably this is the same community of nations that refuses to fight in Afghanistan, that shrinks by the day in Iraq, and that, generally speaking, has allowed its military capabilities to atrophy? (China and Russia being among the few exceptions). Count me a skeptic on all three counts.

The broader misconception underlying FM 3-07 is even more problematic. The manual asserts as a given that “the greatest threat to our national security comes not in the form of terrorism or ambitious powers, but from fragile states either unable or unwilling to provide for the most basic needs of their people.” Justin Logan and I took aim at this argument nearly three years ago, and again more recently, but the notion is now widely held across the political spectrum.

Notwithstanding the bipartisan enthusiasm for nation building, I stand by our original argument: most failed states do not represent a threat to U.S. security, and some threats emanate from perfectly healthy states. Given this, a blanket supposition that we must fix failed states in order to be more secure is badly mistaken.


If the costs of successfully administering foreign countries were low and the prospects for success high, the new strategy might make sense. However, a simple look at what it takes to “get nation building right” demonstrates that the costs of making nation building a core object of U.S. foreign policy…would greatly outweigh any benefits.

I returned to that theme last year with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky, in a paper deconstructing the inordinate faith, also expressed in FM 3-07, that better interagency coordination holds the key to success in nation-building operations. We noted “The trick in politics is not having the right plans; it is having the power to implement them. And in societies our military occupies, the power of the United States is severely circumscribed.” We continued: 

The functioning of a modern state requires the participation of millions of people who show up for work, pay taxes, and so on. People do these things because they believe in a national idea that organizes the state or because they are coerced. In attempting to build foreign nations, the United States is unable to impose a national idea and our liberalism, thankfully, limits our willingness to run foreign states through sheer terror.

If the United States occupies a country where the national identity is intact and simply assists in the management of its institutions and in security, state-building may succeed. But success requires the cooperation of the subject population or a goodly portion of it. That is not something that we can create through planning.

If we are right, first, that security is still necessary (but hardly sufficient) to achieving success in nation building, and second, that even the most well-executed plans for nation building are likely to fail, then we are in danger of merely compounding our past errors: absolving other countries of their primary obligations to provide security for their own people, and placing the burdens squarely on the shoulders of all Americans, but especially on the American military. Meanwhile, we will have signed up for an overarching strategy that will be extraordinarily costly in money and lives, time consuming on the order of decades, not years, and that ultimately depends upon the cooperation of the population within the host nation, cooperation that often will not be forthcoming.

One final point: we have allowed others to free ride on our stated willingness to play the role of global cop, a posture that FM 3-07 accepts as a given. The manual ultimately can’t address that deeper problem, however, because our military’s missions are driven by the policy choices of our civilian leaders. That said, the new doctrine seems to assume too much about the nature of the fights we are in, and that we are likely to be in in the future. If those within the military establishment aren’t willing to sound a cautionary note, then that cries out for dissent from outsiders.

Colleges’ Other Big Dance

Colleges and politicians love the Big Dance, but not the one you’re thinking of. No, I’m talking about the constant, nationwide tap dance around the mere possibility that super-abundant student aid might fuel rampant tuition inflation. Case in point, a lengthy article in the Boston Globe this weekend that flitted and twirled around higher-education costs but completely ignored the possibility that ballooning aid might abet mega-inflation. The closest the Globe came to tackling that very real possibility was this bit buried deep in the article:

It must be said that parents are not entirely blameless. For their money, they demand amenities like state-of-the-art gyms and dormitories in a dog-chasing-its-tail spiral.

The real problem, of course, is that much of the money parents are waving around to demand the best isn’t theirs at all: it belongs to taxpayers, a little tidbit that got nary a nod in the Globe. In the 2003-04 school year (the latest with available data), 48 percent of undergraduates received some sort of federal aid, including grants, loans, work study, or some combination thereof. Overall, inflation-adjusted aid coming through Washington rose 77 percent over just the last ten years, from $48.7 billion to $86.3 billion. Add to that $7.8 billion in state grants in the 2006-07 school year, $26.3 billion in grants from institutions, and $10.2 billion in private/employer grants, and two things are abundantly clear: there are tankers full of aid dollars out there, and they have to be playing at least some role—and probably a huge one—in driving up college costs.

So when will the media stop taking the higher education/politician party line that aid is the key to college access and has no impact on prices? I’m not sure, but I have a bad feeling that lots of the enjoyable big dances will have passed before it starts to happen.

Punish Goverments, Not People

The Washington Post implicitly calls today in an editorial for the U.S. to “punish” those Latin American governments that have been dismantling democratic institutions and attacking U.S. interests in the region. According to the newspaper, the weapon the White House and Congress could use is removal of unilateral trade preferences that Washington currently grants to countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia. The Post even mentions the benefits Nicaragua and Honduras get under CAFTA, as if these countries could be expelled from the regional agreement if their governments continue their anti-U.S. rhetoric.

The Post gets it wrong. By granting trade preferences to Latin American countries (whether through unilateral programs or trade agreements) Washington is not “subsidizing governments” as the newspaper puts it, but dismantling barriers so that Latin Americans and American companies trade products and services freely. People, not governments, trade.

If the U.S. government were to remove trade preferences to unfriendly countries in the region, it would be punishing the people whose jobs depend on exports to the U.S. market, rather than punishing their governments. The effect would be just the opposite of what the Post intents: it would leave unemployed tens of thousands of Latin Americans who would then depend more on government to subsist. It would empower the region’s populist governments by extending their popular base. And, it would arm the populists with ammunition as they will point at yet another example of American “aggression” toward their countries.

This is similar to the case of the U.S. embargo towards Cuba. Even though the Post’s editorial doesn’t go as far as proposing to cut off all trade between the U.S. and these countries, the suggestion is analogous.

With respect to CAFTA, it would be quite damaging for the U.S. reputation if it were to denounce that trade agreement in order to “punish” two of its signatories. Such a move would also harm friendly countries like Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and El Salvador and taint the U.S. as a serious and reliable commercial partner. FTAs with the U.S. would cease to be predictable and permanent tools to liberalize trade. It’d be an ominous precedent.

Interestingly, the Post doesn’t mention suspending foreign aid to these countries as a more effective way to punish their governments. Bolivia, Honduras, and Nicaragua are or have been in the payroll of USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation in recent years. Ironically, the MCC was conceived as an effective aid mechanism that would reward countries that show a “commitment to policies that promote political and economic freedom.” Just the opposite happened. What a surprise.

Let the Government Do It — and Only the Government

In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama stirringly declared that all people are connected: “It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work.” And in his appearance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, he said, “America’s greatest moral failing in my lifetime has been that we still don’t abide by that basic precept of Matthew — whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.”

And some conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh suggested that it was hypocritical of Obama to declare his belief that each of us is ”my brother’s keeper” while his own half-brother lives at subsistence level in Kenya. Shouldn’t being your brother’s keeper start with, you know, your brother?

But maybe that’s unfair. This particular half-brother, George Hussein Onyango Obama, is 20 years younger than Barack Obama, and they’ve met only twice. Why should he be responsible for his half-brother’s welfare?

But then I noticed something else. Barack and Michelle Obama gave almost nothing to charity until their income skyrocketed after his election to the Senate in 2004. Between 2000 and 2004, for instance, they made about $1,218,000 and gave $10,770 to charity, a bit less than 0.9 percent. In 2005 and 2006, Obama earned much more from his books, and his wife’s salary at the University of Chicago doubled. In those two years they made more than $2.6 million and gave just over 5 percent to charity.

And then Joe Biden released his tax returns. And as the TaxProfBlog says, “the returns show that the Bidens have been amazingly tight-fisted when it comes to their charitable giving.  Despite income ranging from $210,432 - $321,379 over the ten-year period, the Bidens have given only $120 - $995 per year to charity, which amounts to 0.06% - 0.31% of their income.” The average American in that income category gives far more.

So Obama and Biden believe strongly that we are our brother’s keeper. They believe in redistribution of income to the poor and the middle class (and the Wall Street bankers). Are they hypocrites when they don’t give much of their own money?

Maybe not. They’re not hypocrites if they believe that it’s the job of government to take care of the needy. And that it’s not the job of anyone else. The traditional American argument for welfare and other transfer programs is that government should step in to take care of needs that can’t be met through self-help, mutual aid, churches, or other charities. But there’s another view in modern America, a view that says helping people is the job of government in the first place. Advocates of that view complain that we shouldn’t expect private charity to do the job of government, that caring for the needy is rightly and appropriately a collective task that should be undertaken collectively (and coercively) by government. That would seem to undermine the notion of virtue; I might consider my personal charity a virtue, but how can I think of myself as virtuous if all I did was pay my taxes as ordered? But there are clearly people who believe that faith, hope, and charity are attributes of government, not of individuals, churches, and private charities.

If that’s what Obama and Biden believe–that personal charity is no substitute for government welfare and foreign aid–then they’re not hypocrites. They’re living by their beliefs. But those are not the beliefs and practices of most Americans, who give more money to charity than Obama and Biden and who are perhaps unsurprisingly more likely to give and to give more if they oppose government redistribution.

But if that is Obama’s position, then he should not say “I am my brother’s keeper.” He should say, “You are my brother’s keeper,” or ”Everyone is everyone’s brother’s keeper, and I as a politician will tax you to pay for his needs.”

“Before we give up on free markets, let’s actually give them a shot.”

Cato adjunct scholar Shirley Svorny has an oped in today’s Los Angeles Times.  An excerpt:

We’ve been hearing a lot about universal healthcare. But before you give up on market competition, consider that government regulation of hospitals and medical professionals makes medical care much more expensive than it need be…

One of the reasons healthcare costs are growing is that lobbyists for medical professionals and hospitals use such laws to protect their members from competition. If they keep blocking cost-saving innovations, it could backfire on them. The public will get so frustrated with the high cost of care that they will demand universal healthcare, which won’t be a picnic for the industry or the rest of us…let’s deregulate medical care so that providers can find innovative ways to deliver high-quality care cheaply.

Universal coverage sounds appealing, but it means government will be running the trains. Here and abroad, government does not have a good record when it comes to access, oversight, or innovation.

Svorny’s oped draws from her recently released Cato study, “Medical Licensing: An Obstacle to Affordable, Quality Care.”

I’m inducting Svorny into the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Existential Threats

The 2008 presidential election, scheduled to be a fight over differing visions of foreign policy and domestic spending priorities, has changed significantly. The two campaigns have been focused for weeks on figuring out how much money to take from taxpayers to insulate those same taxpayers from the costs of the decisions of a variety of parties, including the Senate to which both of them belong.

But the commonality between John McCain and Barack Obama on the giant bailout is, in some ways, similar to their overstated differences in the realm of foreign policy. Real differences exist, but in football terms, this been a boring struggle back and forth between the 45-yard lines of foreign policy thought.

Although the two candidates disagree vehemently about who said what when on Iraq policy and whether to negotiate with Iran, they agree with each other on a range of issues, including humanitarian intervention, the supposed need to make Georgia and Ukraine security protectorates, and the divine mission of America to promote democracy throughout the world. In a paper posted today [.pdf], I discuss some of these similarities and differences.

One issue where there is a clear difference, at least of degree, is on the subject of Iran. McCain repeated his view during the first debate, stating flatly that “if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region.” McCain went on to note that “we cannot have a second Holocaust” and to describe how his “League of Democracies” [.pdf] would hold the key to unlocking the Iran problem. Not to be outdone, Obama chimed in to agree that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.”

Governor Palin cranked things up a bit further, telling Katie Couric that we should “never second-guess” an Israeli attack on Iran, because doing so would “send a message that we would allow a second Holocaust,” and because “it’s obvious” to Palin who would be “the good guys in this one” and who would be “the bad guys.”

I have argued elsewhere that the United States, with a $13 trillion economy and a defense budget the size of all other nations combined, certainly could “live with” a nuclear Iran. But since all of the candidates respond first to questions about Iran by referencing Israel, perhaps it is worth examining that country’s thoughts on the issue, since it is much smaller, weaker, and closer to Iran than the United States.

What one finds is quite interesting. It was Tzipi Livni, then foreign minister of Israel and now a candidate for PM, who noted in an interview with Haaretz last October, that she believed that Iranian nuclear weapons would not pose any “existential” threat to Israel, and that she believed that then-PM Olmert was “attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.”

McCain, in particular, has been at the forefront of ringing the alarm bell in the United States (and abroad) that Iran does present such an existential threat, and that the prospect of an Iranian nuclear capability would necessitate U.S. military action, and all the attendant consequences.

Question for McCain: Why are you busily promoting alarmism about what a nuclear Iran would mean to Israel? Why are you more alarmed even than those charged by Israeli citizens with protecting their well-being? Does this in any way represent responsible statesmanship?

It’s a question that’s more important, though almost certainly less entertaining, than the scheduled programming of McCain implying Obama is a terrorist and Obama shooting back that McCain is a crazy old man.

A Sullivan Reader on Terrorism Strategy

A provocative post by Andrew Sullivan highlights how the strategy of terrorism is to bleed its victims, and how it might be working. Sullivan quotes a reader at length:

Seven years after 9/11, we are seeing Al Qaeda’s long-term goal being realized: the destabilization and economic collapse of the United States. Even as it’s happening, the people who supported it all along want to continue facilitating our own long-term disintegration by clinging to simplistic concepts of traditional military victory and defeat. In this sense, they are possibly the most myopic, least strategic thinkers in the history of this nation.

It’s exaggeration to say that the United States is destabilized and in economic collapse, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that our leaders are that simplistic. But we’re quite a bit worse off economically than we could have been had we responded strategically to terrorism rather than just reacting. And many national leaders still do need to take the strategic logic of terrorism - goading us into overreaction - to heart, and act (or refrain from acting) accordingly.