Lessons Not Learned

 This week, a copy of the paperback version of Dana Priest's The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military (W.


This week, a copy of the paperback version of Dana Priest's The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military (W.W. Norton and Co., 2004) arrived in the office. Priest has added a postscript in which the U.S. military's experience with peace-keeping/nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq has been assessed.

The original volume - a survey of U.S. efforts to use the military to stabilize war-torn societies and engage in state and nation-building - concluded that there were real risks in having civilians hand off "their responsibility to make peace to men trained to wage war." Indeed, Priest has warned about the dangers of using the military as "the tool of default when U.S. policymakers abandoned more difficult alternatives, such as long-term economic development or political reform won through creative diplomatic sticks and carrots."

Developments in Afghanistan and Iraq validate her thesis that the current administration learned little from its predecessor. Civil reconstruction was being entrusted to military forces and without sufficient resources or personnel.  As a result, very little civil reconstruction was not taking place. Quoting General Wesley Clark, "Our level of resources doesn't match our level of national interest."

The updated version of Priest's book concludes with a warning to the president, that "using American troops to carry out his risky idealism" is not certain of success. In particular, "the idea that the U.S. military could force democracy to bloom anywhere was antithetical to the very notion of free will and liberty," she notes.

This theme - of lessons unlearned - was reiterated at a session held yesterday at The Nixon Center. Gordon N. Bardos, assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and author of the recent review essay in the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest, "Davos Man Meets Homo Balcanicus.," discussed the "five approaches" that have been utilized to deal with ethnic and regional conflicts. For the most part, they have not had the intended effects. Diplomatic recognition of governments did not preclude conflict in the Balkans.  Economic sanctions impoverished southeastern Europe (between 1992 and 1996, sanctions against Yugoslavia are estimated to have resulted in over $35 billion in lost trade) and strengthened organized crime. Complicated constitutional arrangements (from the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnia war in 1995 to the Union Treaty brokered by the European Union for Serbia and Montenegro) are either failures or "failures in the making." Too much focus was placed on "individuals" held to be the main cause of the problems in the region (e.g., remove a single leader and the situation will improve). "Diplomacy backed by force" failed to bring results; most settlements were ultimately achieved by behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The lesson of the Balkans is that grandiose reconstruction projects largely fail.  What works are targeted, limited and achievable programs. Whether targeted sanctions (e.g. against a specific list of regime personnel rather than an entire country) or focused aid (for example, to train police forces or aid journalists), discrete tasks that don't provide splashy headlines but lay the foundations for long-term change is the key to success.

What is frustrating in reading Priest's book or listening to Bardos' presentation is the sense that current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not taking place in a vacuum.  We knew from the Kosovo experience, for example, that any delay in creating a robust security framework would embolden criminal elements. In a whole host of areas - restoring infrastructure, creating police forces, drawing up constitutions, laying the base for civil society - there is a reserve of experience and lessons - of what worked and of what did not - to draw upon.

But every administration, in ignoring history, seems doomed to repeat it.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.

Mr. Bardos' talk was part of a roundtable discussion, "Finding Creative Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts in the Balkans," held February 17, 2004, at The Nixon Center. It is part of an ongoing series where authors who have written for either the magazine or the weekly are invited to discuss their work.