The case for nation building

George W Bush was first elected as an opponent of nation building. Was he wrong?

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 14 April 2003

The case for an early allied withdrawal from Iraq seems to be assumed, but rarely made. The only debate is whether the coalition should hand over control directly to Iraqis or to an interim UN-based administration which will, in turn, hand over control to Iraqis. The case for protracted nation-building remains unexamined. None of the principal parties in the coalition seems attracted by the idea, but that does not make it wrong.

We should begin by asking why neither Bush nor Blair wishes to hang around in Iraq. For Blair, the answer is simple. He believes the UN should take over. It matters little to him that the UN has no record of promoting democracy and human rights, nor that it cannot, by its very nature, promote structures and values which only a minority of its members respect. Unlike NATO or the EU it is not exclusive club: it lets anyone in, on any terms and its values, such as they are, reflect that.

For Bush, influenced as he is by the evangelistic agenda of the neo-conservatives in advocating human values of self-determination and individual liberty, the answer is more complex, and goes back to the election in 2000.

The debate on foreign affairs was the one Bush was supposed to lose; yet most observers agreed it was the one he won by the biggest margin. It contained one fundamental exchange which is very relevant today.

Bush strongly rejected the notion of using US troops for nation-building. Gore pointed out that nation-building is exactly what the US did in Germany and Japan in the years after 1945. They were both right. The occupation of Germany and Japan was indeed a process of nation-building, but Bush rightly recognised that the US had been motivated in the 1940s to invest tremendously in first defeating and then rebuilding two countries which threatened the US itself. Vietnam showed that when people do not feel directly threatened, they are not willing to make the sacrifices that war, and peace, inevitably bring. In 2000 Bush was right to reject nation-building, but 9/11 changed everything. The US does feel threatened is now prepared to do what it takes to make the world safer.

What it takes in Iraq is not replacing one dictatorship with another. It requires a real investment in a new civil society, which can provide a beacon of liberty and democracy for the whole of the Middle East. This cannot be done in just a few months.

The assumption that what Iraq needs is a new strongman is dangerous and needs to be challenged. All the evidence suggests that such a form of government is much less stable than one based on pluralism and accountability. In Germany the allies imposed a federal structure under which the police are controlled by the laender and the military by the federal government specifically to prevent the rise of a new strongman. Iraq, a diverse country with 18 provinces, could benefit from the same structure.

It would be wise to build strong provincial governments first and let the provincial governments establish a federal government, just as the original thirteen states built the United States, and not the other way round. Such provincial governments could probably be established in little more than a year; but it could be a further year before a federal government would be ready to take office.

The elections for provincial governments would undoubtedly produce a number of political parties. The Kurdish provinces already have both governments and oppositions. As in Germany provincial governments should be based on bi-cameral parliamentary systems. Everywhere except in the United States and, more arguably, France, directly elected executive presidencies have produced a spiralling decline to despotism.

Iraq needs an independent judiciary. Fortunately the three principal coalition partners, the US the UK and Australia, share a common judicial heritage and could rapidly train Iraqi judges in the principles of impartiality and the common law.

In the long run Iraq needs a vibrant business sector led by international calibre business people. To keep Iraq on the path of benign development after the troops go home will mean attracting the best and brightest Iraqis into business, not politics, religion or the military. A ten-year commitment to provide 100 full scholarships a year for MBA courses in western universities plus a larger number of partial scholarships for bachelors degrees in business would certainly have this effect. One thousand teachers of English for primary schools would establish the basis for a future entrepreneurial class. This educational commitment to Iraq would be a tiny investment when compared with the cost of maintaining military bases in Saudi Arabia over the past twelve years.

The occupation of Germany lasted three years, even though Germany had long-standing traditions of education and civic institutions. Iraq, even with the advantages of income from oil and the faster flow of information in today’s wired world could take just as long to establish democracy.


Copyright © 14 April 2003

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