Monday, February 16, 2004



James Dobbins et al.

RAND Corporation, $20, 244 pages

James Dobbins’ “America’s Role in Nation-Building” must become essential reading among Washington’s bureaucrats and in all six American war colleges. The author, an experienced nation-building (or reconstruction) practitioner, and his co-authors have written a no-nonsense, spare, well-analyzed and lucid volume that illuminates the path for those engaged in this difficult and thankless, but necessary mission.

The authors cover two successes, Germany and Japan; two abject failures, Haiti and Somalia; Bosnia, a “mixed success”; Kosovo, a “modest success”; and one case too early to tell, Afghanistan. The final chapter is an application of lessons from all these case studies to the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Regarding Germany, Mr. Dobbins’ team argues: “The most important lesson from the U.S. occupation of Germany, is that military force and political capital can, at least in some circumstances, be successfully employed to underpin democratic and societal transformation, [and] such a transformation can be enduring.”

That gives some reason for optimism in Iraq. In Germany’s case (and for that matter in any case where there was some success or hope for it), the authors emphasize the indispensable requirement to get the economy moving, to get people adequately fed, clothed, housed and busy working.

The reconstruction of Japan proved (again, indicating possible optimism for Iraq): “Democracy can be transferred to non-Western societies.” Also, “how responsibility for the war is assigned can affect internal political dynamics and external relations for years to come.” In Japan, the emperor was whitewashed of war crimes and used by the occupation authorities to pacify his population and to get it to cooperate with the reconstructors.

No American occupiers in Japan (or in Germany) were killed by renegade forces. The book’s authors continually refer to the centrality of rehabilitating the Japanese economy to mollify the Japanese people.

Reconstruction in Somalia failed for numerous reasons. Certainly among the most significant was the absolute lack of unified command and control. The two American military forces in Somalia at the time of the military disaster (in which 18 soldiers were killed) were not even under the same command — in fact the control of these two units did not reside on the same continent. Security was never achieved, and, say the authors, “There can be no economic or political development without security.”

Haiti had greater unity of command, but the level of interest in Washington was deficient and the American government never planned to remain in Haiti long enough to reconstruct that sad state.

The characterization by Mr. Dobbins and his co-authors of Bosnia as a “mixed success” appears to this reviewer as a glass-half-full proposition. The authors acknowledge that the removal of the international stabilization force would cause the collapse of the fragile multi-ethnic state.

They also concede that every time the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians get the opportunity to elect leaders, they choose extreme nationalists — the type of people that provoked the slaughter in the first place. The Kosovo endeavor benefited from the mistakes the United States and others have made in the past (especially in Bosnia), but there is no hope (or plan) for reconstruction forces to leave that province any time soon.

Afghanistan is shaky, as any sensible reading of today’s newspaper will reveal. Like Iraq, the nation of Afghanistan is a fiction. It has a flag, but loyalty is to ethnic groups (usually led by warlords eager to maintain authority) and tribes within these groups. There has never been a common language, and, as pointed out by the authors, Afghanistan’s neighbors have never been helpful to that impoverished country.

Regarding Iraq, what can America learn from past reconstruction undertakings? First, plan now and create a national consensus to remain a long time. Germany and Japan took decades if one counts the years the United States remained to help economically and to provide security.

Second, America needs to prevent Iraq’s neighbors (several of whom are exceptionally hostile to the United States) from pulling Iraq apart, by using diplomatic and other tools. Third, while unity of political and economic command is great if one has the financial resources and the manpower to reconstruct(asdidthe United States in Japan), international burden-sharing and monetary support is crucial when the task appears to be overwhelming — as it does indeed in Iraq. In conclusion, there is outstanding wisdom in this book.

Alan Gropman is distinguished professor of national security policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. His views are his own.

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