We've Been Down This Road Before


Jul 17, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on July 17, 2003.

Past interventions show we must share the burden of rebuilding Iraq.

Nation-building in Iraq is a massively complex and demanding task. It requires consistency of purpose and unity of command, but it also cannot succeed unless the United States shares the burdens and responsibilities of reconstruction with Iraqis and the rest of the world.

The effort in Iraq represents our most ambitious nation-building mission since World War II, and it has been tempting to look at what happened in Germany and Japan for inspiration. But the analogy doesn't fit. The Axis powers were thoroughly defeated, and the Germans and Japanese proved ready to collaborate fully with American leadership. In contrast, our victory in Iraq was incomplete and, for most Iraqis, relatively painless. Perversely, its very speed has made the process of stabilization and reconstruction more demanding.

Additionally, in 1945, the U.S. produced more than 50% of the world's wealth; there was no alternative to the U.S. tackling reconstruction more or less single-handedly. Today, we produce just 22% of global wealth—burden-sharing is not only more feasible, it's necessary.

The focus on lessons of the post-World War II experience seems to have caused more recent and relevant lessons to be overlooked. Throughout the last decade in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and most recently Afghanistan, the United States established, through an often painful process of trial and error, what works and what doesn't work when it comes to modern nation-building.

In Somalia, we confronted local warlords but failed to put in place an alternative source of power or legitimacy. In Haiti, we restored a freely elected but weak regime and then didn't stay around long enough to establish enduring democratic reforms. In Bosnia, we rushed to hold national elections, only to find that the balloting entrenched the extremists who had sparked ethnic conflict in the first place. In Kosovo, we intervened to protect Kosovar Albanians from Serbs only to find we had to protect the remaining Serbs from vengeful Albanians. And, most recently in Afghanistan, we wisely accommodated rather than confronted local warlords and successfully installed a broad-based, moderate regime in Kabul, but then moved too slowly to build its authority.

In all of these cases, we relied heavily on the rest of the international community as we worked to reestablish local control.

In Somalia and Haiti, leadership responsibility was shared chronologically. The U.S. took charge for six months, then turned over authority to the United Nations. In the Balkans, we devised a better model—a functional division of responsibility. NATO took charge of all military operations. The U.N. (in Kosovo) and an ad hoc international council (in Bosnia) assumed civil oversight. This allowed the U.S. to reduce its share of the military and economic burdens to a sustainable 22% of the global total in Bosnia and 16% in Kosovo, while maintaining adequate unity of command and leadership.

In Iraq, we have begun the crucial process of associating Iraqis with their country's transformation. The creation of the Iraqi governing council represents an important first step. Already we have advanced further in Iraq than we managed to get a decade ago in Somalia. We now need to heed the chief lesson of Haiti, that power should not be turned over fully until fundamental democratic reforms are in place; of Bosnia, that elections can come too soon as well as too late; of Kosovo, that having liberated Kurds and Shiites from Sunnis, we now must protect the latter from the former; and of Afghanistan, that a moderate, representative regime will require time to cement its authority.

But as for the equally crucial process of associating the rest of the world with Iraq's reconstruction—it has hardly begun. On Wednesday, the Bush administration said it was discussing an increased United Nations role in Iraq, but at present the U.S. is providing more than 90% of the military manpower and money required for the reconstruction. This will change only if the U.S. proves ready to share power, as we did in Kosovo, Bosnia and even Afghanistan. We must yield enough authority to NATO, the World Bank and the U.N. to give other nations a stake in the reconstruction that is commensurate with their contributions, while preserving enough American influence to keep the mission on course.

The arrangements that met these competing needs in Bosnia and Kosovo were not perfect, and they will not exactly fit the situation in Iraq, but they are the best models we have developed so far, and they merit careful consideration.

James Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He directs the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

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