Stop Social Engineering Overseas

Programs that failed to lick poverty, win the war on drugs and otherwise cure what ails America won't work in Afghanistan or Iraq either.

The United States and its allies have been having great difficulty pacifying Afghanistan and suppressing opiate farming—and hence the illegal drug trade—in that faraway country. This recent news contains an important lesson conservatives should be the first to tout, but it somehow escapes them.

A major insight of the neoconservatives was that social engineering in the United States often failed. Liberals argued that if their programs were just allotted more funds—whatever their budgets already were—they would lick poverty, win the war on drugs, make homes for the homeless and otherwise cure what ails us. The neocons demonstrated that social problems were too resistant to change by civil servants and instructions from Washington.

In some cases, policy makers lacked the basic knowledge (e.g.how to effectively treat several kinds of mental illness). In others, the problems had deep roots in family structure and subcultures ( e.g. teen pregnancy). The neocons gained a great deal of intellectual heft and political capital out of these insights. Oddly, though, many neocons and traditional conservatives seem to think what did not work in LA can be made to work in Kandahar and programs that failed in the nation’s capital can succeed in Iraq.

Thus while candidate George W. Bush mocked nation building, President Bush signed off on a program to turn Iraq into a stable democratic state, one that relies on a free market—indeed, one that was supposed to set the model for other nations and “flip” the Middle East. American civil servants, with trucks carrying cash, set out to reform Iraqi schools and stock exchanges, welfare systems and oil production, courts and prisons and electrical grid, among other endeavors. Most of these projects have not been completed. By and large, the Iraqis are returning to doing things their way: a mixture of corruption with crony capitalism, tribal strife with hard work.

The failure of long-distance social engineering is greater in Afghanistan because the country is sociologically much less ready for the kind of stable, democratic, honest government the United States is trying to bring about. Illiteracy is rampant. Education levels are low. Tribalism is fierce. Religious beliefs are dominant. Corruption is endemic. Opiate cultivation is easy and much more profitable than growing the crops promoted by Americans.

Confusion of goals further hinders social engineering in these faraway places. American officials often stress that they do not plan to turn these countries into European-style polities. For example, General Petraeus testified to Congress that “We are not, of course, trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less.” But they never say which state and society is held up as a realistic model. Romania? Egypt? Kyrgyzstan? Each of these has plenty of problems of their own.

Moreover, sometimes social engineering is dressed up as a noble enterprise to bring other people the kind of good and free lifestyle Americans have; in others, to win their hearts and minds in order to lure them away from the Taliban, or at least persuade them to share intelligence with us. Hence, in some cases the United States built major roads that were supposed to help economic development, opened clinics and schools and dug wells. In other situations, though, Americans limited themselves to handing out candy and soccer balls to kids and giving gifts to the chiefs. Neither gained us much.

The fact that long-distance social engineering is not working any better overseas—indeed, it is doing even more poorly—than at home is important, as there are now voices calling for the United States and its allies to provide a Marshall Plan for at least Egypt and Libya, perhaps even for the whole Middle East. The State Department is particularly keen on promoting “development.”

Before Washington proceeds, it had better engage in a thorough review of its engineering failures overseas. It is likely to find that letting other nations follow their own paths to economic and political growth is unavoidable—and that Washington can help them best when it emphasizes trade rather than aid and focuses assistance on a few rigorously selected projects, like helping Libya and Iraq increase their oil production.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.

Image: United States Marine Corps Official Page