The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The United States is unprepared for nation-building and keeps paying the price in Iraq.

This week's Petraeus-Crocker hearings are a good illustration of why nation building is not our forte. Expanding on their National Interest piece, "Appetite for Construction,"  the authors explain why nation-building in Iraq was an afterthought and how we are now paying the price.

A few observations on this week's political theater in the wake of the Petraeus-Crocker hearings:

Our political system makes us addicted to quick fixes. Each year it is something different as governments seek only to meet the short term needs of domestic politics and political campaigns. One year it is benchmarks, the next year it is the surge. Everyone knew benchmarks could not be achieved in 12-18 months and that precise measurement was mostly spurious. But just as the Clinton administration promised troops would be in Bosnia for one year, setting benchmarks allowed Congress and the administration to find a politically palatable way to reach a decision while avoiding a life and death political confrontation. Similarly with the surge: It will likely lead to lower levels of violence, but no one knows what it will produce politically. Yet it offers another basis for avoiding bloody political confrontation and continuing to maintain the large U.S. military presence in Iraq indefinitely. We will be back discussing it next year, when the political season is even hotter and most everyone is worrying more about their short term political needs and less about how to achieve success in Iraq. Are we simply setting the stage for further humanitarian and strategic disaster?

Understanding the issue is a different matter altogether. We all look at Iraq through American eyes, not Iraqi ones. That has been apparent since this venture began. The focus of the hearings was mostly on levels of violence, troop withdrawals, the size of Iraqi forces and the Iranians. All that, of course, is important and understandable. Our people are in harm's way. Yet as everybody proclaims a political solution is necessary, the most we hear about is "creating an atmosphere" or calls for "strategic patience" so that Iraqis can work out their problems. The fact is, we don't know how to build a stable Iraq or get the warring elements to stop fighting. If you don't like Maliki how do we now go about establishing a new lasting government? And more fundamentally, how do we get Sunnis to work with Shi‘a-or, at this point, for the Shi‘a to agree among themselves?

A number of senators favor partition-"Iraq est omnis divisa in partes tres." That may look nice and neat on paper, but partitions can easily become bloody free-for-alls, particularly when it comes to dividing up the resources where deep ethnic conflicts exist. Does anyone really believe that Americans know how to successfully partition Iraq, even after four years?

And look at the public discussion: mostly political and devoid of pragmatism. Presidential candidates debate whether three or six months is the magic number for withdrawal. And then there are the experts, each with their favorite candidate to succeed Maliki and their differing analyses of the scene or the surge. The media dutifully reports on many of them but never provides the public a scorecard. The fact that the U.S. has reached this point-a wartime free-for-all on understanding, not just policy-is truly depressing.

Empty rhetoric and politics now dominate discussion of Iraq. That is the peril of starting a long term project like the Iraq War without giving the public the candor it deserved from the Bush administration. Regrettably, candor is not considered a requirement for nation-building. We are in danger of losing our ability to separate what we wish we could do from what we know we can do, and with that may go our ability to accomplish the tasks truly required by our security and our values.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Heather Hurlburt is the senior advisor to the New America Foundation's U.S. in the World project and blogs on national security at democracyarsenal.org.