Liberate Us and Leave?

As Iraq prepares for self-government on June 30, the tenth anniversary of Operation Uphold Democracy, which failed to lead to lasting stability or prosperity in Haiti, is a sobering reminder that there are few short-cuts in peace-building.

 As Iraq prepares for self-government on June 30, the tenth anniversary of Operation Uphold Democracy, which failed to lead to lasting stability or prosperity in Haiti, is a sobering reminder that there are few short-cuts in peace-building.

The current rush to transfer power in Iraq and stage elections in Afghanistan seems geared more to the U.S. electoral schedule than to political reality on the ground. U.S. President George W. Bush needs to demonstrate tangible achievements soon in one or both countries if he is to persuade American voters that such military ventures are worth the human and financial cost.

But nation-building takes longer than a U.S. election cycle. East Timor achieved independence in a little over two years, but it was relatively stable and has a population around one thirtieth that of Iraq. It remains desperately poor. The past week's violence in Kosovo shows that ethnic strife has not disappeared from the Balkans, and it has now been five years since NATO's intervention to protect Kosovars from the depredations of Slobodan Milosevic. Bosnia has been under international administration for over eight years, and there is still no clear exit strategy, with political life there polarized by over-frequent elections that have reinforced the position of extremist politicians. 

The desire for quick results in peace-building is understandable but dangerous.  It can lead to jerry-built administrative and political compromises that prove unsustainable, even counterproductive, over time.  It took one of the younger female delegates to Afghanistan's recent Constitutional Loya Jirga to point out that the Afghan peace process initiated at Bonn in 2001 had put warlords into power. 

In neither Afghanistan (outside Kabul) nor Iraq (outside the Kurdish territories) is security on offer.  Without security, it is hard to generate or sustain economic development, and without economic development and the jobs it provides for demobilized - but still heavily armed - soldiers, the risks of a return to violence are great, as we have seen in Haiti.  Foreign military interveners soon tire of providing security because, as in Iraq, it can involve serious risks and because soldiers do not like policing roles.  Serious disarmament is rarely pursued.  Rhetoric about disarmament in Haiti was stirring but action feeble.  In 1994, a U.S. force of nearly 14,000 declined to disarm thuggish local bands because of the risks involved.  It would be surprising if a much smaller international force now undertook serious disarmament.

What we see is a disconnect between genuinely well-intentioned policy statements by Western governments and the reality of building peace. This rhetoric, often echoed in Security Council resolutions, at times bears no relation to the actual needs of effective peace-building: security, time and serious resources spent over a period of years rather than the months in which a crisis may dominate the news media. 

Of the countries we discuss here, the medium-term prognosis for Iraq is the most positive if civil war can be avoided in months ahead (a big "if).  Iraq is oil-rich, had developed into an advanced society until Saddam took over, has experience of technological progress and higher education and was never a "failed state."  The economy is beginning to recover somewhat.  Afghanistan and Haiti, on the other hand, possess none of the rudiments of successful economic and social development or any recent experience of responsible governance that might serve as fertile soil for peace-building.

We often hear it argued that if only the UN were in charge in Iraq, the situation would be better.  We wonder.  There's no doubt that the Coalition Provisional Authority made some serious mistakes in administering Iraq.  Three of the most egregious errors - failing to provide for emergency law and order, disbanding the Iraqi army and blanket de-Baathification - ran counter to lessons from previous operations. But the greatest mistake by U.S. planners may have been the assumption that previous UN nation-building efforts achieved mixed results because of UN incompetence, rather than due to the contradictions in building democracy through foreign military intervention and because of the inherent difficulty of the tasks involved.  This knowledge inspires considerable humility in the higher reaches of the UN, where there is no desire for "lead" roles on Iraq.  (It is the US that now wants the UN more heavily involved.)

Legitimacy and success are what the U.S. has been seeking in Iraq, but its nation-building project there has been driven excessively by its national interests, by fantasies about what and how Iraqis think, and by U.S. domestically-driven timetables.  This has been rough on its international allies on the ground and has not helped its global diplomacy.   The fight against terror has lost focus, with the world's most powerful nation often also appearing the most frightened.  Achievable military objectives have sometimes been supplanted by politically ambitious ones (for example, democracy Middle East-wide), leading to policy confusion.