America's Record on Nation Building


Jun 13, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on June 13, 2003.

Washington has long invested heavily in its armed forces' ability to fight wars, and has seen a remarkable return on that investment. Yet there has been no comparable progression in American competence at stabilizing and rebuilding societies emerging from tyranny and war.

After World War II, the United States rebuilt Germany and Japan with great success. Against this admittedly very high standard, the country's performance in the 1990s began abysmally, and improved only slowly. While it is too early to pass final judgment on the Afghanistan and Iraq missions, it would be hard to present them as improvements over their most recent predecessors, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Rebuilding a country of course requires some degree of improvisation. Still, some things are predictable in the aftermath of a regime change: rioting and looting, the emergence of extremist figures seeking to fill power vacuums, and the disintegration of police forces and other groups that maintain security. With all its recent experience in nation building, the United States should have been far more adept at handling the expected in Iraq.

Things will improve only if those now in charge pay attention to the lessons of past operations—particularly the vital roles that troop strength and an extended commitment have played. Nation-building is an inescapable responsibility for the world's leading power, and it is a mission the United States needs to learn to do well.

See the accompanying chart from The New York Times:
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James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. Seth G. Jones is an associate at RAND.

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