The problems with the U.S. occupation in Iraq have been documented and debated extensively, but primarily at a strategic level—from a bird’s-eye view. Analysts have focused on weaknesses in prewar planning and subsequent unfortunate high-order decisions: insufficient U.S. and allied troop levels, excessive de-Ba‘athification and the summary disbanding of the Iraqi army among them. While these strategic considerations have shaped—and have probably doomed—the operation, analysis so far has neglected the crippling lack of capability at the tactical and operational levels—the worm’s-eye view.
This is a mistake, because even if prewar planning had focused wisely on the right things, and even if no strategic errors had been made, the United States and its allies would still be foundering in Iraq. Getting the strategic elements right are necessary but not sufficient conditions for policy success. It’s not enough to have a blueprint if you want to build a shed or a new patio deck. You need to have the right tools, too, and know how to use them.
Coalition military forces and civilian agencies have worked at cross-purposes for most of the past four years in trying to stabilize and spur economic and social development in Iraq. Indeed, some civilian agencies have even worked at cross-purposes within their own larger organizations. In most cases, U.S. personnel have lacked basic conceptual and organizational frameworks to guide, let alone to coordinate, their well-intentioned initiatives. And Iraq is not a unique case: The fundamental lack of capability to take on what is usually called “nation-building” in Iraq is a systemic problem in U.S. foreign policy.1 We are having similar problems in Afghanistan, and we have experienced them before in the Balkans, in Somalia, and several times over in Haiti.
Despite the obvious systemic nature of the problem, successive administrations have done almost nothing about it. Recent efforts have been limited to the 2004 establishment of a new State Department Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) that, once established, was starved of both attention and funds. Other new directives, including a Secretarial order issued in November 2005 for the U.S. military to give stabilization operations a priority comparable to combat operations, may succeed in raising the priority level. So far, however, they have changed little, and may never achieve the desired outcome. No directive can by fiat create the expertise, structures and personnel necessary for the mission. The military cannot recruit and nurture the expertise in the quantities required within a system designed for totally different tasks, a system that is in many aspects antithetical to the skill sets needed for state- and nation-building.
The result of all this is that the U.S. government remains stuck in Cold War mode—really a Cold War-minus mode, considering the Administration’s reluctance to invest in diplomatic and development instruments as alternatives to force projection. We now rely by default on the U.S. military to deal with everything from humanitarian crisis intervention to large-scale reconstruction efforts in failing states and post-conflict environments.
Relying on the U.S. military to master such tasks was always a bad idea, for three basic reasons. First, the U.S. military lacks both the organizational culture and particular expertise for the governance and economic tasks involved in state- and nation-building. Second, when civilian authority makes the military do such things anyway, it causes U.S. foreign policy as a whole to project a military optic that is often counterproductive—particularly in missions that depend on partnerships with non-governmental organizations, international organizations, the private sector and civilian populations. Third, the military’s default operation of peace and stability operations tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room, demobilizing the government’s sense of urgency to put in place truly appropriate capabilities.
Historically, the U.S. military has recognized its own limitations and has resisted including these tasks within its permanent professional ambit. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is now starting to take an interest in what looks like a post-9/11 “growth industry.” If indeed the range and frequency of nation-building operations rises in the future, the continued use of the wrong tool will harm the U.S. military’s warfighting capability and abet more foreign policy disasters.
A careful worm’s-eye study of what has gone wrong in Iraq is a natural place to begin to understand what we cannot now do, but must learn to do soon, when it comes to state- and nation-building. It can be a valuable guide to developing the concepts, resources, staff, equipment and training necessary to successfully conduct stabilization and state-building operations, especially ones that must operate in non-permissive environments. Indeed, if we move carefully through this exercise, we can find not only a key source of failure in Iraq, but also see how current approaches to restructuring peace and stability operations may themselves be inadequate.
Unity of Effort
The autopsy we need to conduct on U.S. “nation-building” efforts in Iraq is intrinsically a complex project. It requires critical self-evaluation by players in all sectors of the operation, especially from the “line officers” who actually carried out state- and nation-building at the micro-level on the ground—the military and civilian personnel who worked with local councils, grassroots organizations, small businesses, contractors, neighborhoods and schools, and those now working with ministry bureaucrats and the staffs of the national councils. My own worm’s-eye view of these operations is admittedly a narrow one, limited to the Baghdad region where I was stationed and to local governance and civil society initiatives. But if joined systematically to the perspectives of other “worms”, we could collectively move a lot of dirt.
I spent almost three years in Iraq, from April 2003 to February 2006, working on stabilization and reconstruction operations. I deployed first as an U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer with the 354 Civil Affairs (CA) Brigade, initially working out of my unit and then as a detailee to CPA’s Civil Administration office for the Baghdad region. I stayed on to work on civil society initiatives for the CPA after the rest of my unit went home. Then, when the Army demobilized me in the middle of my second tour, I switched over to head the Iraq office of the U.S. Institute of Peace. USIP was working to prevent sectarian conflict, promote the rule of law, and train and educate leaders for a democratic Iraq. I changed my combat boots for a pair of Birkenstocks, but I trod the same Iraqi soil, and nation-building was still the center of my attention.
Over these three years I watched and participated in the first attempts to engage Iraqis and improve their quality of life. I am convinced that what I saw was not the inevitable failure of a doomed undertaking, but rather a series of avoidable mistakes. We squandered the goodwill that greeted us when we first arrived, setting the stage for the meltdown to come. Just one anecdote suffices to capture the essence of the problem.
Not long after my arrival in Iraq as an Army Reserve First Lieutenant, I was assigned to the CPA office responsible for the local councils and civil society in Baghdad. At one point we met with the U.S. Army colonel who had been put in charge of Sadr City, the long-neglected Shi‘a slum within the capital. In struggling to stand up the Sadr City district council and build its authority, the colonel had hit on the idea of a street cleanup program. The idea was simple: Pay $10 per day to everyone who came out to clean up the streets. This was not rocket science; just a quick, simple, common sense way to create jobs, get money into the local economy, handle some basic services and create an opportunity for positive interchange between U.S. personnel and Iraqi citizens.
The project had been running smoothly for a while when the colonel decided to ask community members what they thought about it. The responses were enthusiastic: “We love this program”, they said, “because we have money in our pockets, we can take care of our families, the streets are cleaner, and it shows concern for our communities. We are so happy for this program and we are so very grateful to Muqtada Sadr for it!”
Naturally enough, the colonel did a double take: “Muqtada Sadr? No, no”, he explained, “this program is provided by the U.S. Army and the District Council.”
“No, this is Muqtada Sadr’s program”, they answered.
“Why do you think that?” asked the Colonel.
“Because Muqtada Sadr told us it was his program”, they answered matter-of-factly.
Unbeknownst to the U.S. Army, Sadr’s agents had been telling people that this was Sadr’s idea and Sadr’s program. Since no American disabused them of the lie—since no American had an ear close enough to the street to even know about the lie—the people believed Sadr’s agents.
The colonel was flabbergasted, realizing that all the credit for his good idea was going to the Army’s arch-nemesis. After this encounter with the locals, I suggested that we also hand out, along with the $10, a certificate saying something along the lines of “Thank you for participating in the reconstruction of Iraq. This is a small but important step toward rebuilding the country, and so on and so forth, signed, your friendly neighborhood local council. P.S.: Your neighborhood council meets every Wednesday afternoon at three, and encourages you to attend to discuss your thoughts on this program and other community priorities.”
The colonel looked at me and said, “That’s a good idea, but we don’t have the capability to print certificates.”
Now it was my turn to be flabbergasted. Even apart from using the CPA’s strategic communications division and the Army’s own resources—an entire branch devoted entirely to printing brochures and other informational material—someone from the colonel’s staff could simply have walked into one of the many print shops in Sadr City and ordered 10,000 certificates. That would have had the added bonus of being a boon for a local business.
The problem, as I was beginning to learn, was that even relatively straightforward solutions were beyond our capacity to design, coordinate and execute. This colonel, not trained to be the de facto mayor of a Baghdad borough, was already stretched to his administrative limit trying to run Sadr City. He and his staff had the good sense to come up with the basic idea, but not the time or expertise to think it all the way through. For starters, the colonel was unable to identify and access resources outside his immediate sphere of influence, particularly within the civilian structure of the CPA (and later U.S. Embassy Baghdad). Without that civilian component close to hand, he also lacked the training and experience to integrate the program into the wider non-military goals of the mission. Most importantly, a lack of language skills, cultural expertise and awareness of Iraqi political dynamics prevented his staff from knowing how to put the program into the context of the Iraqis the colonel was trying to help.
This episode is a microcosm of the larger environment of U.S.-led state-building in Iraq. Responsible U.S. military officials have often done post-combat jobs for which they have had little training or experience. They are overloaded with requirements—some legitimate, some inane—and thus are constantly strapped for time. They have received little useful guidance from those above them in the military chain of command, and little useful help laterally from the undermanned, largely untrained and inexperienced civilian structures first in the CPA and, after June 28, 2004, in the Embassy.2 As a result, policy initiatives like the street-cleaning idea have not been integrated into broader goals, and have rarely been coordinated with other local efforts or shared and linked up to other localities. U.S. efforts, too, have been very poorly coordinated with what friendly Iraqi authorities, such as they are, have sought to do.
Underlying the failure to draw on and coordinate existing assets has been the fact that our knowledge base has been as weak as our organizational skills. These are not the same things. As often as not, we have not known the proper strategies and the best practices for what we have been trying to do. In the case of the street-cleaning program, for example, what options exist for building support for local councils and their development initiatives? What’s the best way to sequence programming to ensure that discrete projects build legitimacy for a larger agenda? What kind of informational materials are appropriate in different circumstances? We did not know. Answers to the range of questions facing CPA and military practitioners may well have been scattered throughout various disciplines and agencies, but they were not readily available to the people who needed them. To the extent that we ever did coordinate well, we often did so on behalf of decidedly half-cocked notions.
Trying to reconstitute Iraqi society on the local, regional and national levels after 35 years of Ba‘athi social terror was never going to be easy. It was and remains a tremendously complex task that requires the utmost subtlety and professional planning, a fully mobilized resource base and specialized expertise—if, indeed, it can be done at all. So even if U.S. forces had acted to stop the April-May 2003 looting, had not left the country’s borders unsecured, had not pushed de-Ba‘athification to an extreme, and had not disbanded the Iraqi Army, we would still not have known what to do next. Those strategic blunders in and of themselves do not fully explain what happened on the ground after Saddam Hussein’s statue toppled down in Firdos Square. They do not subsume the conceptual, procedural and structural deficits afflicting U.S. policy when it comes to critical stabilization operations.
The key to defining what has happened on the ground, in Iraq and in nearly every previous case, is our failure to achieve the necessary unity of effort for the mission. As the street-cleaning case illustrates, without the ability to bring all resources to bear in an integrated way, partial solutions can do more harm than good. Nation-building is not something you can do through ad hoc coordination and spur-of-the-moment planning. The mission requires a conceptual base and best practices continually refined from practical experience; an organizational culture and institutional relationships appropriate to the goals; supporting technology, equipment and materials, including weapons; and, most importantly, personnel trained in those concepts and systems in advance of an operation. Lacking a system to provide all this, the push toward any kind of unity of effort falls on the military for the simple reason that no other U.S. government agency has the trained staff or resources to “go operational” on the required scale.3 But, as already noted, the military is the wrong choice to be primus inter pares among U.S. government agencies for stabilization and state-building efforts.
Of course, the U.S. military will do what is asked of it, and once it is asked it will strive in every possible way to make the policy work. That is what professionals in all branches of government do, and it is why insiders closest to the action are sometimes the slowest to see when things just aren’t working. To tell the truth, the U.S. military’s ingenuity in coming up with stopgap measures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has been impressive. But it’s simply the wrong drill. Precisely because the military has always resisted institutionalizing the lessons of its experience in non-combat operations, it has to reinvent the wheel every time it finds itself in one. That guarantees a very large error rate in the early going, and sometimes first impressions cannot be undone.
No one should expect anything different: It is conceptual confusion of the first order to think of stabilization operations as merely lesser included cases of combat. Stabilization operations require not less effort but different kinds of effort. You wouldn’t ask a highly expert engine mechanic to remove your inflamed appendix. So why ask combat arms experts to deal with electricity grids, sanitation and banking problems in a place where they not only do not understand the language, but can’t even read the script?
Unfortunately, the mandates and competencies of the State Department and of USAID are almost as poorly suited to stabilization missions as the military’s. Much expertise and many assets exist throughout the U.S. government, to be sure, but no single agency has the mandate or the insight to fit all the disparate pieces together into a coherent whole. The result is that we lack the capability to implement even genuinely brilliant state-building strategies—if we ever devise any.
A Closer Look
Let’s now take a worm’s-eye look at the U.S. approach to community development programs in Iraq to get a better sense of the systemic shortcomings in implementation capability. These programs are now particularly relevant with U.S. Central Command’s emphasis on the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ (PRTs) outreach to local institutions in the current “surge” strategy.
When military commanders in Iraq complained that the civilian community development programs were too slow to start and too bound up in red tape to get anywhere once they were begun, the military created CERP to give commanders in the field funds to do projects themselves. CERP gets a lot of credit for being flexible and having an immediate impact, but the program has encountered three major problems. The first of these concerns sustainable development.
The military, not surprisingly, has no expertise in sustainable development; that is not, after all, a typical objective in combat. So naturally enough, commanders have put a premium on identifying immediate community needs and solving them quickly. For instance, if a commander saw that a community needed basic health care, he might order a clinic built by Iraqi or international contractors. Soon there would be a shiny new clinic building, but with empty medicine cabinets and no doctors, because no one had planned for buying medicine and other equipment, or figured out how to hire doctors and pay salaries. There are several such buildings in Iraq.
Coordination with Iraqi health officials was laborious and often unproductive, and it rarely occurred to well-intentioned Americans that doing these kinds of things tended to emasculate Iraqi capabilities, at times even drawing human capital away from places where it would do the most good in the long run. Iraqi Health Ministry experts or USAID development specialists might have told them, for example, that a small community needs its own clinic a lot less than it needs reliable access to the hospital in the town nearby—or, in another case, just the reverse: that military efforts to renovate a looted hospital would be better spent on small, preventive health care facilities. U.S. commanders and their staffs cannot do even this kind of basic analysis on their own. So the quick-hit projects they championed often did not really help to solve problems.
The second problem with CERP has concerned budgeting and contracting issues. The military knows how to build a budget and it understands contracting—in Washington, at the Pentagon. Combat professionals like those running CERP in towns across Iraq, on the other hand, have little if any expertise in budgeting and contracting. A commander might draw up and sign a contract with a local Iraqi company to refurbish a school, for instance. The companies hired would provide shoddy quality goods and services even by Iraqi standards. A year later the desks would fall apart and the computers wouldn’t work. Since the community knew how much the contractors had been paid and could see what came of it, most people would conclude either that the Americans were getting kickbacks from the contractors or that they were fools to pay so much for so little. Experiences like these tended to alienate communities from the Americans instead of winning hearts and minds.
In one case, the director of a women’s center in the Mansur district of Baghdad sponsored by the CPA and USAID called our CPA Baghdad Central office to report threats to the center and asked for help in building a security wall. The civilian officials responded that their decision-making and contracting procedures would take months to address such a modification. So the director called the local military unit instead. The commander answered, “Ma’am, I understand exactly; we’ll start building your wall tomorrow.” Indeed, the commander arranged a local contract based on advice from his Iraqi staff. Within days the wall was under construction. Halfway through the project, however, the wall collapsed under its own weight, with the contractor beyond accountability for his poor workmanship thanks to the lack of any standards or enforcement mechanisms written into the contract. The very advantages of CERP—flexibility, minimal bureaucracy, streamlined procedures—have also proved its undoing.
The third problem is that CERP efforts have never been integrated with other projects to build a sense of momentum. Iraqis saw a few improvements here and there, but had no sense of how the U.S. development effort was contributing to long-term change. How could they, when the Americans had no sense of that either? Nor did the projects encourage local decision-making processes, so communities were recipients of the projects rather than participants in selecting and prioritizing them. This piecemeal approach fed a “what have you done for us lately” mentality instead of a sense of ownership and pride.
One might expect such a result from the U.S. military, because community development, as I have pointed out, is not what it does best. But we have had similar issues in the community development programs run by USAID and other civilian agencies.
USAID has run three major programs for community development in Iraq. The first is the Local Governance Program, which was designed to create local councils in all communities of Iraq to serve as local government. The second is the Community Action Program (CAP) for small infrastructure development projects. And the third is the Civil Society Capacity-building program to help new grassroots organizations develop and implement projects of their own.
The Local Governance Program came under tremendous pressure to create councils quickly. In Baghdad, USAID and the Army cooperated in holding town hall-like caucuses to select the lowest level of councils, and then almost immediately had those neighborhood councils elect representatives to the higher-level district and city councils. Since the representatives had no time to work with each other to determine who was a good leader or implement local projects that would create a connection to their constituency, we usually ended up with people with little legitimacy and no administrative experience at all. Most council members were committed to rebuilding their society and eager to participate in the democratic process, but had little idea of how to build the institutions, processes and relationships necessary to make it work.
Some natural talents did manage to connect with their constituents, but they usually had no institutional support to help them carry through their initiatives. One issue that could have supplied a natural base of legitimacy was the effort to determine the status of Iraqis detained by Coalition forces. Family members begged Baghdad City Council members to use their access to the U.S. military to determine where their loved ones were, when they would be released and, as sectarian and criminal violence escalated, to confirm that they were actually in U.S. custody, as opposed to the far worse scenario of capture by militias or kidnappers. I vividly remember one council member who had a new list of names every week we met, and tirelessly demanded answers on the last lists he had provided. A system that responded to those inquiries efficiently and even used the councils to provide community guarantees for “paroles” would have gone a long way to proving their worth to Iraqi citizens. But instead, a flawed system of outdated spreadsheets filled with incorrect spelling of names and irrelevant personal data made it impossible to provide reliable information. So each week, that council member returned empty-handed to the families he represented.
Another recurring problem involved assigning former Ba‘ath Party buildings to community purposes. Council members could help organizations in their communities obtain use of such a building for a youth center, women’s vocational training, documentation of human rights abuses or some other noble purpose, thereby contributing to the reconstruction of their society as well as building constituent loyalty. Council members would be overjoyed to receive the “official use” papers from the CPA, but then were stymied by their inability to remove the squatters—usually armed—who had swarmed to occupy any unguarded buildings in Baghdad. When systematic help from the Coalition Forces on eviction was not forthcoming, communities gave up on their plans and council members were again seen as unable to deliver.
Despite these disadvantages, we invested vast time and effort to build up the capacity of the council members, but the training was not methodical. Nor were the councils given the budgets or authority they needed to have a real impact on either their own constituents or those who led the reconstituted national ministries. We actually exacerbated the problem by widely advertising the councils to communities and encouraging citizens to take problems to their council members—problems that we had not empowered the councils to solve.
At the end of the experiment we ended up with a lot of organizations, but organizations with little operational capacity or political efficacy. With no respect from above or below, these council members had no chance of being re-elected. We poured time and resources into organizations that offered the mirage of democracy, not the real working thing. We first raised, then doused, the democratic expectations of hopeful Iraqis.
The Community Action Program, on the other hand, was very successful starting off. USAID’s implementing partners trained Iraqi mobilizers who then led communities through a process of identifying and prioritizing community needs through consensus. They then participated in the implementation of projects to address the highest priorities. USAID provided the resources, but the community itself took the lead in implementing the projects. Unlike the CERP projects, there was a very intense process of developing community buy-in and ownership. Genuine community leaders emerged as a result—people who took a major role in organizing the project, gained experience in addressing consensus building and project implementation, and earned the respect of their community.
One would think such people ideal candidates for the local councils, and they were. But the local councils had already been filled through the military’s selection process, so there was now no room for these genuine leaders. They would have to wait a few years for the next election; meanwhile, the initial membership, lacking legitimacy and efficacy, frittered away the councils’ credibility. This suggests, among other things, that the rushed election schedule in post-Ba‘athi Iraq, though useful for international public relations purposes to a point, was not sequenced in a way that allowed stabilizing and representative social forces to sort themselves out.
At the same time, the Community Action Program often resulted in the development of other small groups organized around the project: parents so excited about a CAP refurbishment of one Baghdad school that they begin pitching in on other school projects; participants in the restoration of a hospital in Baghdad’s Ibn Zuher neighborhood so inspired that they decided to form an NGO to help the handicapped; and so on. Again, individuals in such organic civil society groups were ideal candidates for the third USAID program, the Civil Society Capacity-building program. They had far more community development experience than the typical new Iraqi NGOs that had sprung up all over the place, some as vehicles designed mainly to extract money, most with good intentions but no practical capability whatsoever. The Civil Society program could have built on the practical experience of the CAP groups to help their members move to the next level of organization—for example, to apply for donor funds to tackle the next highest priorities identified in the CAP process by their communities. But that program didn’t get off the ground for another year or two, and even then the Civil Society program managers preferred to start fresh with new, inexperienced Iraqi NGOs instead of cooperating with CAP.
So despite the fact that all three programs were run by USAID, with headquarters in the Green Zone and dedicated help staff in Washington, they did not communicate or coordinate with each other effectively. Even if they were successful to some degree in their own right, they missed opportunities to build momentum through mutually reinforcing programming. Sometimes they actually undermined each other.
In addition to military and USAID development programs were programs run by the big contractors. These were plagued by what we learned to call the thousand-year bridge mentality, which goes something like this: CPA needs a bridge built, and turns to the nearest group that knows how to build bridges, almost invariably a big American contractor. (Of course there were Iraqi companies that could have built the bridge, but the CPA didn’t know how to find them or whom to trust.) The American contractor then says, “Don’t worry, we know bridges, we’ll build you the best bridge. We’ll bring in the best architects and engineers, an experienced labor force, we’ll import the best materials, and we will build you a bridge that will last for a thousand years.”
That is very nice, and all advanced with the best of intentions. The problem is that six months down the road, someone blows up the bridge because no local labor participated in its construction, no materials were purchased from local businesses, and no Iraqi universities were asked to send their architects and engineers to participate in building Iraq’s future. Diyala Bridge in Baghdad, along with any number of U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, met such a fate. In short, we didn’t understand that it wasn’t really about the bridge, but rather about the people who would use, maintain and take pride in the bridge. The bridge didn’t need to last a thousand years, only maybe twenty, as long as Iraqis had a stake in the process. Some contractors did try to enlist Iraqi contributions: Bechtel and others regularly stressed their intent to give priority to Iraqi subcontractors. But the widespread opinion among the Iraqi population and its businesses alike is that they were left out of their own reconstruction.
In watching the meltdown of U.S. nation-building efforts in Iraq over a three-year period, some basic themes come through loud and clear even well short of a methodical study. The first is that there is a constant trade-off between doing a job well and doing it quickly, and doing it well loses most of the time. This is the wrong way to decide that particular trade-off. Reconstruction missions require time for people to adjust to new incentive structures, to become familiar with the cycles of a democratic process, to build relationships and trust. You can build a clinic, school or town hall virtually overnight, but not the dynamics necessary for a community to use them.
The second concerns the unavoidably political—not technical—character of the development process. How you do it is as important as what you do—indeed, more so. Quick employment programs need to be tied to building up the legitimacy of local institutions. Development projects need to create not just new and refurbished buildings and a consistent output of electricity and clean water, but processes for decision-making in the community so that Iraqis themselves can sustain the programs. Infrastructure contracts need to address vocational skills training and the development of business associations; grants to local NGOs need to incorporate standards and capacity building, and so on and on. The idea is not for us to give things to Iraqis, but to let Iraqis choose what they need from us. The irony is that the importance of a participative, empowering process is a long-standing and well-known axiom of sustainable development. Yet somehow it got lost in the hubris that characterized the American project to reshape Iraq in its own image—and on its own schedule.
The third theme gets back to our lack of expertise. We have witnessed a four-year-and-counting amateur hour in Iraq, and over-reliance on the military remains the key to this problem. Even impressive ad hoc learning by military and non-military personnel alike has been hampered by short rotations. I watched over three years as three greenhorns had to learn the same job, one after the other after the other. Nor is the lack of expertise related directly to the shortfall in troop numbers. It has never been about how many people we had in Iraq when it came to “nation-building”, it has been about what kinds of people, with what kinds of skills, we have had there. We could have had 100,000 more troops doing this work, but if they’re doing it wrong, we won’t get the results we seek.
We just have not been taking these tasks seriously enough. It’s not just a matter of supplying heaps of money and heaps of goodwill. It’s about training, doctrine, equipment, organizational culture and well-balanced institutional relationships. We need an integrated system to build, transfer and use knowledge, and to get all that, we need an organization dedicated to the purpose. The right skill sets and organizational requirements are not even in place among traditional international development agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the various regional development banks and the rest. The U.S. government certainly doesn’t have such a system, and it is not, so far as I know, contemplating acquiring one.4 We continue to rely instead on interagency coordination to draw on capabilities scattered across Executive departments and agencies, an approach that is almost guaranteed to fail in creating and empowering coherent strategies.
I hate to say this, but I think it’s already too late for Iraq. Despite the new CERP programs and PRT outreach to local councils, we are not suddenly going to start doing development aid and community reconstruction a lot better. Furthermore, I believe in path dependency, and we created the wrong paths back in 2003. Quite likely, the U.S. government will do even worse in Iraq during the months ahead, if we try to do much at all, because we are likely to inherit a nasty combination of fewer resources, more security constraints, burned credibility and an eviscerated political will. The window of opportunity for “nation-building” in Iraq has slammed shut on our fingers.
My three years in Iraq were largely frustrating ones. I went to Iraq with high hopes of what we could achieve there. I had not understood how completely unprepared we were to do what we had promised. Many argue that failure was inevitable, that the task itself was impossible. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. However harsh my worm’s-eye observations of our capabilities are, they imply that we can learn and organize to do nation-building better. On one point at least, the bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views converge: We can’t afford to do it this badly, ever again.
“Nation-building” should mean building a nation—a demos, a group of people who wish to define themselves as a political community. Building an apparatus to govern a nation is “state-building.” Iraq is a place where the former needs to be done to set the preconditions for doing the latter. It therefore qualifies as a “hard case.”
The general inability of military and civilian U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq to cooperate should form a major part of any after-action report on U.S. stabilization and “nation-building” efforts in Iraq. Anecdotal evidence from my experience alone could fill a short book.
See Nadia Schadlow, “Root’s Rules”, The American Interest (January/February 2007).
There is a proposal to create a cabinet-level agency like the one the British have set up. See Stewart Patrick, “Making Foreign Aid Reform Work”, The American Interest (May/June 2007). But this is not a mainstream idea in the United States, and the construct mooted thus far does not go far enough in pulling together the vast range of capabilities required for the mission.