Amateur Hour in Iraq


Feb 10, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on February 10, 2006.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) — The American occupation of Iraq was marked by what can only be called heroic amateurism. Although the intervention was in fact the sixth American led nation building operation in little more than a decade, the Bush administration failed to apply most of the lessons learned so painfully in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

In his recently published memoirs, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the proconsul who oversaw the occupation, highlights its improvised nature as hundreds of well meaning, dedicated Americans were dispatched to fill jobs for which they had little experience and no preparation. The costs to the Iraqi population and the American taxpayer are only beginning to be tallied.

In a recently released audit, the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction documents the immense waste associated with America's early efforts at rebuilding that country. A forthcoming report from the same source will reveal how much of the planned reconstruction has never taken place.

To its credit, the Bush administration has recognized and even in mild form acknowledged some of its early failures in Iraq. It is certainly determined not to repeat them. More than a year ago, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell created an Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction at the State Department to handle future such missions. Last month, the Defense Department issued a directive making post conflict stabilization, the administration's preferred term for nation building, a core function of the American armed forces.

Coincidentally, President George W. Bush finally issued a replacement for the long defunct Clinton era directive setting out an interagency structure for the management of such operations. And in just the last few days Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has embraced the concept of "transformational diplomacy," and begun realigning her department to better handle responsibilities of this sort in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Washington's new emphasis on nation building is by no means unique. Over the past 18 months the British, German and Canadian governments have each established new offices of their own to plan for and conduct post conflict stabilization and reconstruction operations. Last September, President Bush joined other world leaders in agreement to establish a Peace Building Commission that would bring together under U.N. leadership all of the organizations and nations currently working on post conflict reconstruction in more than 20 nations around the globe. These initiatives reflect a growing consensus that missions of this sort, however unwelcome, are also inescapable.

Despite early American and United Nation failures in Somalia and Haiti, the overall record for interventions that combine military force with civil expertise to turn war torn states into peaceful democracies is much better than generally recognized.

Bosnia, Kosovo, Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Cambodia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Liberia are all at peace today because American, NATO, or United Nations peacekeeping troops and civilian experts intervened to separate combatants, enforce ceasefires, and help build democratic systems.

In most cases, these democratic systems have continued to function even after the peacekeepers left. As a result, over the past decade the number of civil wars being waged around the world has been cut in half. The number of refugees, displaced persons and innocent casualties has been cut by an even greater proportion. Contrary to the impression left by daily bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world as a whole is a lot safer place today than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The new American consensus in favor of nation building remains a fragile one. There are many who would not want to see the United States involved in further preventive wars, on the Iraq model, and others who would oppose new humanitarian interventions, a la Bosnia. Further setbacks in Iraq could well shift the dominant American view from "we must do better next time" to "never again". If this happens, there is a real danger that everything America has learned about how to conduct such operations will once again be forgotten.

Congress long ago cast in legislation the arrangements by which America goes to war, defining the respective responsibilities of the military services, the theater commanders, the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of defense and the president. These roles and missions are not up for renegotiation every time the United States finds itself in a new conflict.

The same is not the true for the stabilization and reconstruction phase, where the roles of the State Department, Agency for International Development, and the Defense Department have shifted radically from one operation to the next, leaving each agency uncertain what contingencies to plan for and what capabilities to develop. It is nice that President Bush has finally issued a successor to President Clinton's 1997 directive on the subject. But five years has been too long to wait for such guidance.

It is time that Congress provides an enduring blueprint for the way America comes out of war and consolidates the peace. A number of bipartisan pieces of legislation have already been offered on this subject, including one by Senators Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Aspects of Secretary Rice's new program for “transformational diplomacy” will eventually need legislation to be fully realized. This offers the Congress the opportunity to lock in the current bipartisan consensus in favor of improving America's capabilities in the field of post combat reconstruction, so the next administration does not have learn all over again how to do it right.

James Dobbins was President Clinton's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He is currently director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

© 2006 United Press International

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