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To Build A Nation, Build An Army First

The phrase ‘nation building’ conjures up ideas of foreign policy as social work: public health clinics, democracy workshops and so on.  Yes, but the first and foremost requirement of nation building is state building — building a strong government that can enforce the law and suppress armed opposition — and the main task of state building is army building. Get the foundations right, and the rest is decor.  Fail to build a solid foundation and it doesn’t matter how many women’s empowerment microfinance groups you launch; the country will sink into chaos and blood.

Building Libyan armed forces is the most important task facing the rebel authorities and their NATO allies — next to clearing up the remnants of Qaddafi resistance.  The clean up may not be easy; as an article in today’s WSJ describes, pro-Qaddafi militiamen have much to lose.

Residents say the pro-Gadhafi militias known as revolutionary committees have been part of the central fighting force, along with members of the leader’s elite military units, who have battled rebels in the capital over recent days.

It remains unclear how many of these Gadhafi loyalists are left and what fate awaits their members…

The…committees, who draw comparisons with the battle-hardened and disciplined militias controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon, are ideologically honed irregular forces who owe their careers, tribal ties and social positions to Col. Gadhafi.

Those tribal loyalties are a big part of the problem in countries like Libya.  Like Iraq and other post-colonial countries who have fallen under the control of psychopath dictators, Libya had a strong government but a weak state, and national institutions command little loyalty or respect.  Tribal and regional loyalties trump Libyan identity; the armed forces will have to forge a sense of national identity as they struggle to become effective.

The US is very good at building armies that can then center nations; but it is not clear that this is something we are willing to do.  Perhaps the most important question for the Libyan after-party: who will build the new army and how successful will they be?

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  • Anthony

    Very serious task…should have been part of initial Grand Strategy. Now after party reveals potential for more chaos in country. George Jonas has interesting related article in National Post (

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Our strategy has been to use the superior American culture planted in Iraq, as leverage to change the frozen and stagnate Islamic cultures, which the Arab Spring has shown is working. So before we start nation building in Libya, we have to ask if we are building an American culture in Libya, or are we just replacing one Tyrant for another. A Shariah based constitution is not what we want, and we should just let it fail.

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