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Nation Building: Historical Perspectives

Gwen Ifill looks at the history of nation-building with Gaddis Smith, professor emeritus at Yale; Margaret MacMillan of the University of Toronto and Trinity College; and Diane Kunz, a former professor of diplomatic history at Columbia and Yale universities.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Whatever happens next in Iraq, this won't be the first time the United States has stepped in to overthrow and replace a foreign power. So what does history tell us about how well that worked? We get some insight from three historians. Gaddis Smith, professor emeritus at Yale. Margaret MacMillan of the University of Toronto and Trinity College. She's the author of "Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World." And Diane Kunz, formerly a professor of diplomatic history at Columbia and Yale Universities. She's the author of "Butter and Guns: America's Cold War Economic Diplomacy."

    Welcome to all of you. Today Pres. Bush said in the Rose Garden, "Victory in Iraq is certain, but it is not complete." So the regime has been removed, reconstruction has begun. We've been here before, haven't we, Professor Smith?

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    Well, the first time the United States went to war to change a regime was in 1898, when we went to war to get the Spanish out of Cuba. And behind the scenes, the people who were planning that war said, we'll also take the Philippines, too. And we thought we'd win the hearts and minds of the Philippine people, but unfortunately, we found ourselves with another war on our hands, so that was a very bloody war against an independence movement in the Philippines, so it was a bad start in our experience in regime change and military occupation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Diane Kunz, how do you view the history of this kind of enterprise?

  • DIANE KUNZ:

    Well, I think we have a mixed record. The most useful example I think is the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany and Japan. Postwar reconstruction has three parts: The military security aspect, providing internal and external security for the newly liberated country; the economic part, providing a functioning economy and also initial relief for impoverished citizens; and structural change, providing a new government for people who have lived under tyranny. And here, the Nazi regime was very similar, I think, to the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, and the administration that the United States ran, the official military government run by the United States, is a good example, and one we must try to emulate, I believe, in Iraq.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor MacMillan, you wrote about… in your best- selling book, you wrote about the post-World War I period. How is that similar or dissimilar from what we're seeing now?

  • MARGARET MacMILLAN:

    What's different, I think, is that the goals that the United States is setting for itself is so much greater than the goals that the powers set in 1919. In 1919, particularly in the Middle East, they really just wanted to create regimes that provided a modicum of law and order, and were fairly stable and did what the outside powers told them. And today the United States, in a sense, has set the bar very high. I mean, they want to create not just a change of regime; they want to create a democratic, functioning society, and that's a very different matter.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Smith, how does the United States sidestep– or does it, or has it ever– been able to sidestep being branded the "occupier" in a case like this?

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    Well, go back to the period right after the second world war, which certainly is a great success. One tremendous asset the United States and the other occupiers of western Germany had was the Soviet Union as a greater threat to the people of western Germany and to Japan. So we were building up those countries because it was the humane thing to do, but also it was in our national interest and in their national interest. These were great walls and part of the walls of containment, and it worked extremely well. Also, you had societies that had some roots. The roots had been damaged, but some roots in a civil society not too long before 1945.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How important is it, Professor Smith, that these countries– whatever brings the United States to this role– that these countries have some history, some background in democratic behavior?

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    Well, I think it's extremely important. It's not necessarily essential, because democratic societies have grown out of non-democratic ones. Democracy is a relatively new phenomenon in the broad sweep of history. But what is also terribly important– and this would be true of Japan and Germany– is you have cohesive societies which were not likely to fall into internecine warfare after the big war. And we've had other experiences- – in the Balkans, for example– where a form of occupation had to contend with that. So there's an awful lot that we have to contend with in Iraq that does not fit the pattern of success in the past.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Diane Kunz, what is that pattern of success? What is the track record of the U.S. role in installing democracy, say, in other countries in which it has intervened?

  • DIANE KUNZ:

    Well, as we keep pointing out in Germany and Japan, these were two countries that didn't have democracy for very long periods of time prior to our postwar reconstruction. Democracy was successful there. Democracy was also successful in South Korea. Now, that's a country that was a Japanese colony before 1945. We then administer the southern half, fight a very bloody war, and slowly help it grow its own democracy, because, of course, initially after the Korean War, South Korea was not a strong, functioning democracy. But I would suggest that the very important guardian of democracy in South Korea and in Japan and in Germany was the continuing presence of American troops to provide security. And it's interesting to note that American troops still remain in all three countries.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So if that's so, Professor MacMillan, how long do you think, and how many American troops, based on what we've seen in the past in these previous efforts at building nations, how much of a presence does the United States have to maintain?

  • MARGARET MacMILLLAN:

    Well, I think what both Professor Smith and Professor Kunz has said is absolutely crucial. I mean, to begin with, the United States is not dealing with a country that has a strong democratic tradition, a society which has been atomized by the regime of Saddam Hussein and by even earlier history. And the question is, it seems to me, is how long is the United States will to stay there? There is not the real pressing threat that there was after 1945 with the Soviet Union. The United States stayed in both West Germany and South Korea and in Japan for a number of years, and at the moment Washington seems to be talking about getting in and out in 18 months, and that seems to me hardly enough time to get the water running again, much less start to build a functioning democracy and a functioning civil society.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Smith, are there examples that we can name of how you draw the line between colonialism and nation building?

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    Well, it's very difficult. I think after, say, the fall of France in Indochina, colonialism was really, in the old-fashioned sense, you know, completely discredited, so no one will claim we're trying to build a colonial empire. But to go back to your earlier question about how long, there's a real dilemma here, because time is necessary, as Professor MacMillan said. On the other hand, occupation is like fresh fish. It's a wasting asset. And as time goes on with military occupation, difficulties are likely to increase. So my own preference would be a relatively short, more or less unilateral American control over the developments in Iraq, and then bringing international groups, other countries, in fairly rapidly within a few months perhaps…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Kunz…

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    …To kind of… go ahead.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Go ahead. I'm sorry. Finish.

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    That's all right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay, Professor Kunz, to pick up on what professor smith was just saying about the potential of the smell of rotting fish in this enterprise, exactly what does the United States have to do to sidestep this? And what is it about Iraq in particular, the history of Iraq, its formation, which makes it a different enterprise than what we have… what has gone before?

  • DIANE KUNZ:

    If I first may just say something to what Professor MacMillan said.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Please.

  • DIANE KUNZ:

    Which is that I think just as we took the soviet threat very seriously, we must take very seriously the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And these weapons are in the Middle East. We are hearing more and more reports about Syria and about how much of the Iraqi know-how and materiel has gone to Syria. I think facts like that give us an impetus to remain in the Middle East as long as necessary. In terms of Iraq, I think the good news is, you have a society that was not implicated in the choosing of this ghastly leader. We were able to bring democracy to Germany, which actually had voted democratically for Adolf Hitler. The country changed.

    Iraqi people have sacrificed and suffered for a leader that they are ready to get rid of and ready to disavow. The difficulty is — Iraq has no democratic track record at all. It was formed in the 1920s by the British. It had an imported king who had no local roots, and then had a series of dictators, one worse than the one before, since 1958. To create this new civil society where none existed is very difficult. But there's one piece of great news, is Iraq is the first such country that we've taken on ourselves that's rich. This is a country with lots of economic potential. It has oil wealth which, if used properly, can provide the lucre that will create a new and functioning civil society.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But Professor MacMillan, what I was curious about is whether the differences, the ethnic differences that we see, that exist in Iraq, make this different– make this more like Kosovo and Bosnia than like Germany and Japan.

  • MARGARET MacMILLAN:

    That's always the danger. And it's very, very difficult to see. I mean, I do think that when Iraq was created, it was very much an artificial state with different ethnicities and religions thrown together, for the sake, really, of the British, not for the people who lived there. But what did happen over the years– and it does happen; it's happened in Africa– you draw a line around a bit of territory, and people, at least significant parts of the population, begin to buy into the sense that there is a nation there, and you begin to get elites buying into it. You begin to get institutions growing. And Professor Kunz, I think, perhaps… I mean, I agree with much of what she says, but I think there were some roots– and perhaps not very deep roots– but there were some roots of democracy in Iraq. There were some political parties founded. There were a number of Iraqis who began to talk and hope in democratic terms.

    So I think there is perhaps some hope in Iraq's own past. And there is this huge, mostly educated Iraqi Diaspora, over a million people living and many of them in democratic countries, who have had direct experience of democracy. And I hope and am convinced that they will play a part in rebuilding the country. So I think it's to be hoped that Iraq may be able to pull itself together, that there will be enough people there who see the advantages of democracy. The danger, of course, at the present is that you'll get so many people wanting to take revenge on so many other people, and I think we've seen some of this already happening. And that's…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, I just wanted to finish with Professor Smith. When we talk about democracy, are we talking about elections? Are we talking about the American ideal of what a democracy is?

  • GADDIS SMITH:

    Well, elections do not bring democracy by themselves. You've got to have a civil society with many aspects of respect for law, an independent judiciary. This is all familiar to us. We're not going to have American-style democracy maybe ever in Iraq. What we do need in the short term is to find leadership which is simultaneously friendly to the United States and independent, and also marked by integrity. So if you have corruption, the thing is going to fail. If you have hostility, there will be violence. If you have too much friendliness toward the United States, you won't have independence, and the regime will be discredited by appearing to be a puppet of the United States. It's a very, very difficult dilemma. And I do think the American government is quite aware of this. And I'm fairly encouraged at the remarks that are coming out of Washington in the last few days about how we're proceeding.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. Professors, thank you all very much for joining us.

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