Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Next president must avoid nation-building trap

Before taking office, the next president – whoever that may be – would benefit from reading a new book titled “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.”

The book was written by Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum, who coined the phrase “Foreign Policy as Social Work” in the mid-1990s. He now argues that the U.S. foreign policy focus “changed fundamentally” over the past 25 years, from making war to remaking the countries we became entangled with into capitalist democracies that look more like us.

“The main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to … how they were organized within them,” he writes.

This shift was embraced by both political parties. “Nation-building” efforts, Mandelbaum says, began with George H.W. Bush’s establishment of a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 and continued with Bill Clinton’s interventions in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. They expanded exponentially with George W. Bush’s efforts to build democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even President Obama, who clearly sought to avoid such entanglements, got sucked into promoting the (proclaimed) efforts of Arab rebels to build democracy by overthrowing autocrats during the Arab Spring.

What nearly all these nation-building attempts had in common, Mandelbaum argues, is that they failed. This issue is critically important both for the reasons he details and for some he leaves out.

Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations “deliberately set out on missions of transformation,” he notes. The Clinton involvements could more rightly be labeled humanitarian interventions: Somalia was a U.N. operation that went awry; in Haiti, there was a need to stop massive refugee flows toward Florida; and in Bosnia, I believe, the West was belatedly shamed by the massive slaughter of civilians within Europe.

But it was in Afghanistan and Iraq that the notion of nation-building became the ultimate policy objective after the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein led to chaos and civil war.

America’s enormous power after the Gulf War, and its vast superiority in resources over other countries, lulled the Bush team into thinking such transformations were possible with minimal U.S. resources. The fundamental reason Washington attempted to transform other countries, Mandelbaum argues, “was that it could.”

Of course, that hubris (and ignorance of local conditions) quickly crashed against on-the-ground realities. As Mandelbaum points out, “the societies involved were dominated by social and political loyalties too narrow to support the institutions … that Americans sought to implant in them.” In other words, cultures based on the norms of tribes, kinship and religion can’t easily adapt to impersonal rule by constitutional law. That’s all the more true when the countries are poor and made up largely of conservative Muslims.

I’d add something that Mandelbaum doesn’t get into: U.S. efforts to build infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals in conflict zones also failed because the U.S. Agency for International Development has become mainly a subcontracting agency, hiring beltway consulting companies that threw away billions on crooked or incompetent local firms.

But simply dismissing foreign policy as social work doesn’t solve a very perplexing problem: Resisting the temptation to try to rebuild failed states may still produce the very results one wants to avoid.

Take the case of President Obama and Libya. Obama was reluctant to get involved but was under pressure from European allies who feared waves of Libyan refugees flooding across the Mediterranean. So the president got sucked into that venture, which removed Moammar Gadhafi, but Obama (and the Europeans) rejected any major involvement in rebuilding shattered Libyan institutions.

The result: a failed state that has become a major terrorism center and a conduit for refugee flows into Europe. Yes, there is a clear warning here: Except in extreme cases when a regime has engaged in aggression against America, avoid regime change.

But what is to be done about Middle Eastern states that are already in chaos, partly due to Western interventions and later mistakes, and partly due to the failure of Arab Spring revolts or the ineptitude of Arab leaders? Left to fester, Libya, Syria and Iraq – even if their civil wars end – will provide fertile ground for the Islamic State 2.0 and new waves of refugees to further destabilize Europe.

Western leaders may now yearn for the return of deposed Arab dictators, but in the post-Arab Spring era, new dictators will be ruling fractured countries. They won’t be able to restore the same repressive mechanisms that maintained stability in decades past.

None of this undercuts the importance of Mandelbaum’s arguments. However, if nation-building in failed and flailing Arab states is a stretch, then U.S. officials must devise some other strategy to help stabilize them.

It’s all well and good to argue that such states must help themselves, bolstered by Arab Gulf funds. But if this doesn’t work, as is likely, Western governments will need a Plan B. Otherwise, the next occupant of the White House will be facing the same risky Mideast disarray that tempted previous presidents into the nation-building trap.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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