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nation-building 101 - an interview with James dobbin
James Dobbins' résumé on nation-building is perhaps unmatched in American policy circles. In the 1990s, he served as the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, supervising the peacekeeping and post-conflict operations. After Sept. 11, 2001, he served as the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan, working to form and install the new government and reopening the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Now the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, Dobbins has co-authored a book with his RAND colleagues, America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (2003), about America's nation-building record, and the lessons learned, from 1945 to today. (See Dobbins' article in the Summer 2003 issue of the RAND Review, "Nation-Building: The Inescapable Responsibility of the World's Only Superpower," which is adapted from the book.) In this Web-exclusive interview, he offers his assessment of the U.S. operation in Iraq and what past experience teaches. He spoke with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on Sept. 26, 2003.

Compared to the peacekeeping and nation-building operations that you've been involved in -- from Somalia and Haiti to the Balkans and Afghanistan -- how are things going in Iraq right now? Are there reasons to be optimistic? How is it going?

Well, I think they're going better than Somalia, but that's not much of a recommendation. Clearly, there are a lot of positive things going on in Iraq, both naturally and spontaneously, and also as the result of the efforts of Jerry Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority and, increasingly, the Iraqi governing council as well.

We have to stop making nation-building a political football, and recognize that it's a national competency we need to foster, that we're not going to be able to avoid these kinds of situations, that we don't have to do them alone.

The problem is that we haven't yet gotten the security situation in hand. And security is the prerequisite for enduring progress on the economic and social and political reforms that need to take place if Iraq is to emerge from this process as a functioning democracy.

So, all of the progress which is being made, ultimately, will be washed away like a sandcastle on a beach if we're not successful in mastering the security situation. And the security situation remains tenuous, and does not appear, at this stage, to be getting better. It clearly got worse for a while. I would say, just reading the newspapers for the last month or so, that it seems to have stabilized, but stabilized at an unacceptably low level.

And I say unacceptably not because we're taking too many casualties. I mean, that's certainly a problem. But ultimately, we're not going to win the conflict with the extremists if we don't have the Iraqi population on our side. And they're not going to be on our side unless we are providing them security.

Now they don't need security from the extremists and the terrorists at this point, they need security from car thieves, rapists, house breakers, murderers, muggers. In other words, what the population, any occupied population, looks to from its occupier is, in the first instance, basic security. They ask themselves, "Am I safer because these guys are here? Or am I more at risk because they're here? And if the answer is, "I'm safer," then they're going to say, "I'm prepared to collaborate, to take some risks to facilitate their task to keep me safe."

But if the answer is, "I'm more at risk because they're here, I'm more at risk because I could get caught in the crossfire, I'm more at risk because problems of common criminality aren't being adequately dealt with," then they're going to remain passive. They're not going to extend themselves. They're not going to take risks on our behalf. And as long as that's the case, there's no hope that we will be able to isolate the extremists in their midst and defeat them.

Are you encouraged by the effort to get Iraqis themselves more involved in security? Is that essential?

Well, it is essential. And I think some aspects of it seem to be moving ahead with all deliberate speed. Others are lagging. First of all, we have to recognize that it's not good enough to simply arm friendly Iraqis. That if we mobilize untrained and unreliable, but friendly, Iraqis, what we're going to find are people who are friendly to us, but not to each other. We're going to end up with a bunch of tribally, or ethnically, or communally, or territorially based militias who, ultimately, could tear the country apart.

So the question is, are you building units that have adequate cohesion, adequate training, adequate discipline? Are they going to engage in the kind of gross human rights abuses which previous Iraqi security forces were accustomed to employ? And that takes time. In some cases, we're moving swiftly, maybe even too swiftly, to mobilize elements.

But at least in two areas, we're not moving as quickly as we should be, I think. The now standard pattern in dealing with a situation in which you have existing security institutions that have been largely discredited and are not reliable is that you need to pursue two simultaneous parallel paths. First, you need to begin building a new police force, completely new, from scratch. Recruit people who are clean, enthusiastic, have the right credentials, have the right educational background, put them through the police academy, and build a reliable, democratically-oriented police.

At the same time, you need to work with the existing establishment, not with the intention of making it your long-term pillar for internal security, but in order to fill the immediate gap which, otherwise, you would have to do entirely yourself.

Now, we're doing the latter of those. That is, we are taking the existing Iraqi police establishments, and trying to get them back out on the street, put them under some degree of oversight, give them some very minimal training, and throw them out on the line so that we have some assistance in dealing with the immediate needs for security.

What we haven't yet begun doing, and given that we've been there -- it's been five months since the war was over -- what we haven't begun doing is organizing and training the new police force. That's way behind where we were in Haiti and in Kosovo, for instance, where by this time we would have had a police academy established, foreign instructors brought in, thousands of people selected, classes already beginning...

This was in Kosovo?

It was done in Kosovo. This has been done repeatedly: Panama, El Salvador, Haiti, and Kosovo. And the ones that I'm most familiar with are Haiti and Kosovo. And within five months, we would have stood up a very substantial establishment to begin training, organizing, equipping, uniforming and, ultimately, deploying a completely new police force.

The interim police force that we have to work with in Iraq, because we have nothing better, is gradually being stood up. But the new force that's supposed to replace it, and provide a long-term solution, there is still talk about doing it in Hungary. And now maybe we're going to do it in Jordan. The Germans have said they are prepared to allow some training. But it hasn't started.

Is Iraq a more complex situation on the ground -- with the political and the ethnic/religious issues, and so on? Is it any more complex than some of these other places?

It's bigger.

Other than the size, what are some of the specific things, on the ground, that make Iraq different from some of our recent nation-building efforts: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia? Are there major differences here?

All of the experiences are different. The book we recently published at RAND looked at seven cases: Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. And a lot of the debate in Washington is about what is the appropriate model, which is the right analogy?

Now, the current administration tends to like either Germany and Japan, or Afghanistan, and cites these as models, as rationales. And there are, certainly, valid lessons to be learned from those experiences which are applicable in Iraq. They tend not to cite the models from the 1990s because they, of course, criticized most of those actions when they were, themselves, in opposition, and tend to have a low regard for what was accomplished during those periods. And consequently, they tend not to cite them or to use them as models for the current operation.

My own view is that Iraq, if you had to compare it to any one of these, is most like Yugoslavia. That is, Iraq, in 2003, is not much like Germany and Japan in 1945. First of all, those were both very homogeneous societies, without communal, ethnic, religious tensions. Secondly, they were highly developed economies. Thirdly, they were completely defeated, devastated. Nuclear weapons had been dropped. Cities had been firebombed. Their people were devastated. They were willing to do anything if they were just left in peace. And finally, the United States, in 1945, produced 50 percent of the world's GDP. So doing this unilaterally wasn't only possible, it was the only option. Either we were going to do it, or nobody was.

Now, Iraq, on the other hand, is like Yugoslavia, a state that was carved out of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War II. Like Yugoslavia, it unites a disparate group of ethnicities, and with religious divisions, and communal divisions, and with tensions among these groups. It's Muslim, like Bosnia and Kosovo.

But the one major difference is that it's ten times bigger. And so, it was always likely that the process of nation-building in Iraq was going to be ten times more difficult, more expensive. Not necessarily more time-consuming, but more resource-consuming, in manpower and money, than Bosnia or Kosovo.

Further, given the fact that this is a largely unilateral effort, and given that in Bosnia and Kosovo the United States provided only about 20 percent of the troops, and only about 20 percent of the money, the United States was always likely, once it chose to do this as a largely unilateral effort, to end up having to deploy and provide four or five times higher proportion of the overall external resources.

Our book does a similar analysis, and says that, in the first year, based on Bosnia as an analogy, you would need about $16 billion dollars in economic reconstruction. That's almost exactly what the administration has requested.

Well, let's talk about cost and how that plays out in the United States, for the United States. You write that "nation-building, it appears, is the inescapable responsibility of the world's only superpower." And yet, is it possible that the United States simply can't afford to engage in nation-building simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq on the scale that you're talking about? In other words, the scale necessary to do it right? Are we reaching the limits of what the world's only superpower can do?

Well, I think we may have exceeded the limits. I think, first of all, the Clinton administration had sort of an unwritten "one at a time" rule, in that it didn't launch one of these operations until it had concluded or at least largely wrapped up the hard portion of the preceding one. The Clinton administration didn't get serious about doing anything about Haiti until it was out of Somalia. It didn't get serious about addressing the Bosnia situation until it got out of Haiti. And it didn't get serious about Kosovo until the Bosnia situation had been largely mastered, and put on autopilot. It didn't mean those situations weren't acute. The Kosovo situation had been bad for several years.

So in other words, it's not that we didn't have the money or the men, it was the political capital, and the time and attention it took senior policymakers to do this well, that led them to believe that it was going to be difficult to impossible to do more than one of these at a time well.

Now, this administration, of course, came into office arguing that we shouldn't be doing this at all, that this was an inappropriate mission for American armed forces, and that nation-building, as a whole, was ineffective and an inappropriate response to the challenges. Yet whereas Clinton was launching a new operation every two years, this administration is now launching -- feels itself forced by circumstances to launch -- a new operation every 18 months.

So whether one likes it or not, it does seem to be inescapable.

I do think that trying to do Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously is going to be very difficult. Clearly, the administration has long made the decision that it's not going to apply resources in Afghanistan comparable to the needs and dimensions of the problem, that our national interest is not of the same level as in Iraq. After all, they're requesting a billion dollars for Afghanistan. They're requesting, for economic assistance, $20 billion dollars for Iraq. But Afghanistan is a country that's been devastated by 20 years of war; Iraq by three weeks.

So it's not a question of what's the scale of the damage, it's what is our determination of our national priorities. And I think that putting Iraq first is a perfectly rational national priority. I wouldn't quibble with it. I would support it. But it's important to recognize that Afghanistan is going to lag because we've had to make certain hard resource choices.

Now, you were there, you were in Afghanistan, obviously. What would be more like the right level of investment in Afghanistan?

Well, look, in terms of money, the average Kosovar got 25 times more assistance after 11 weeks of air war than Afghanistan got after 20 years. And in terms of peacekeeping, Kosovo got 50 times more on a per capita basis than Afghanistan.

What explains this? What's going on here?

I think the answer was that, in Afghanistan, our bottom line national interest is to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launch point for global terrorism. We've never talked about making Afghanistan a model for the region, a functioning democracy which would exert a benign influence throughout Central Asia. That's simply beyond our capacity.

We are saying that for Iraq, however. We have established a much higher threshold, a much higher set of objectives for Iraq. And I think you can make the argument that Iraq is more important, economically and strategically. It's in a strategically important region. It's economically more important. So, you have to make resource allocations based on priorities.

Could you make the argument, though, that Afghanistan ought to be a higher priority than it's currently being made?

Well, to go back to your original question, I think that Iraq alone -- to do Iraq properly -- may well be beyond the capacity of even the world's only superpower. That unless we do secure substantial support from our allies -- in particular our large, rich, capable allies -- it is going to be very difficult to field the level of forces and resources for the length of time that this is going to take. So Iraq, alone, requires a broadly multinational effort to succeed, in my judgment.

As to whether you could argue for a higher priority for Afghanistan, I think it's not an irrational prioritization. I do think that Afghanistan is a much more benign situation. In other words, Afghanistan, although it's as big, as populous, and even more devastated than Iraq, is not as internally conflicted. And so, I don't think that it would require the same level of resources, but it would require a higher level of resources than we have so far applied to it.

One thing I find very interesting is this idea that, within the U.S. government, there is what you call a "systemic issue" -- that there is no single area of the U.S. government, either military or civilian, that really views nation-building as part of its core mission. And thus, one might say there is a lack of leadership or expertise, perhaps, to actually implement these operations.

There's a lack of continuity and expertise.

So it's almost as though we're reinventing the wheel each time.


Or does the wheel need to be reinvented each time?

No. I mean, clearly, there's a need for regional expertise and country expertise that's directed to the specific problem. But there is a good deal of generic knowledge and expertise -- how to train a police force, for example -- and so there's a lot of programmatic activities that need to be put together to make these things work that are pretty interchangeable from one situation to the next.

Does the U.S. government have anything "on the shelf" right now? Any of these interchangeable parts?

No. What happens is that, because neither Defense nor State regards these as central to their missions, it means that they are always staffed with people who are available. And they're available usually because -- with the exception of dedicated individuals who are brought in from private life who are prepared for reasons of national patriotism to make a sacrifice -- they are staffed with people who are available because they don't have another job. In other words, they're staffed with foreign service officers who are -- there's a small cadre of people who are sort of intrigued by the adventure, and go do it. But otherwise, you find people who didn't get the assignment to Paris they were hoping for. And similarly, they're staffed very heavily with people who have retired and who are, therefore, available because they have retired. They are, of course, staffed with contractors and people who come from a wide variety of -- who are attracted by the economic inducements.

And, I don't mean to suggest there aren't a lot of very capable, very patriotic people. But these people are not retained in a system which rewards them when they're finished. It's out of the mainstream. It's not advantageous to their career prospects. And, when they're finished, they are sent off to do something else, and they are not available the next time it occurs.

If you thought you were going to have to do this every two years, you would have training programs so that these people would be in a career structure in which they got promoted, in which they got rewarded, in which they were put in assignment cycles where they would be available the next time they were needed. You would have a cadre of people. And you'd have more than you needed to staff your minimum functions so that when you suddenly had a requirement for an additional number of them, you would be able to find them. And this requires that agencies make investments.

Is it politically feasible for something like that to take shape within the U.S. government?

Sure. I'm not suggesting that create a special agency. I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on this a couple of days ago. What you need is, first of all, clarity as to what each agency is going to be responsible for. You can't keep changing the missions. If an agency doesn't know what it's going to be responsible for, it's not going to invest in the capability to do it. So you need a clear delineation of State does this, Defense does this, Justice does this, AID does this, CIA does this.

You need, on the post-conflict side, the kind of delineation that legislation like Goldwater-Nichols gives you on the conflict side. In other words, we have legislation which was bought into by Congress, the administration, Democrats, Republicans, which defines how we go to war: what the local commander does, the theater commander, the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, the national security system. All of their functions are clearly delineated in legislation. So everybody knows who reports to whom, how responsibilities are divided.

When you get to the sort of "post-conflict phase," nothing is written down. So, for instance, in preparation for Iraq, the decision was made to transfer from the State Department to the Defense Department a whole host of civil responsibilities that the Defense Department hadn't exercised since 1952. And this was done like ten weeks before the war.

So, needless to say, you imposed a very substantial start-up cost on top of all of the inherent complexities, difficulties, and obstacles you were going to find anyway to the operation, because you'd taken a lot of the responsibilities from the people who may not have been doing it terribly well, but at least had been doing it for a decade, and you gave them to people who were new, and who might be great, but who had to learn sort of on-the-job.

The Clinton administration worked out a detailed "who does what" kind of blueprint. But that didn't transcend administrations because it was just a presidential directive. And presidential directives are not automatically taken up by the next administration. That's why I suggest that probably should be something in legislation, and something that Democrats and Republicans, the administration, the Congress, all feel comfortable with and are prepared to move forward with so that agencies understand that they're going to have this role. They're going to have to do it soon. They're going to have to do it often. And they're going to be evaluated on how well they do it.

Then, of course, they have to get the money from Congress. In other words, they have to put requests in their budget to maintain these capabilities, which are mostly personnel costs. I mean it's not equipment, it's personnel.

When I asked if it's politically feasible, what I really meant was, wouldn't this mean that an administration -- or the government, if it's Congress -- is acknowledging that nation-building is a core policy of the United States?

Well, it has to. We have to stop making nation-building a political football, recognize that it's a national competency we need to foster, that we're not going to be able to avoid these kinds of situations, that we don't have to do them alone. We should be simultaneously trying to shore up the capacity of other countries and institutions to do these so we don't have to.

We're the world's leading nation. And no matter how multinational it is, ultimately, if we don't contribute, nobody will. So, if we don't learn to do this well, no one will learn to do it well.

Your RAND study observes that "Nation-building is not principally about economic reconstruction, but rather about political transformation." And, of course, a major debate at the moment is the timing, or pace, of the political transition to Iraqi sovereignty and democracy. In your opinion, is a six-month deadline for an Iraqi constitution, followed by elections sometime that same year, is that too fast? Is it a good idea to think of holding elections a year or 18 months after the fall of the regime?

Well, I think there are a number of considerations to be taken into account. Ideally, if one's only desiderata was fostering a transition to enduring democracy, then a slower process would be in order. Because once you've transferred power, your leverage to introduce further reforms, and to ensure that the reforms that you've introduced are carried through, will be significantly reduced.

And free elections doesn't just mean one person, one vote, it means that there has been a free debate. It means that there is a civil society, a free press, political parties, and that people feel secure enough to stand up and challenge the common wisdom. It means not just that Shias argue with Sunnis, but that people stand up in the Shia community and argue against a religious role in public life, that people challenge the established ideas within their own communities. And they have to feel safe enough to do that. They have to feel secure in doing that. That's means that you have to have established a reasonable level of security if you're going to have a free debate leading to an election in which the choices are meaningful.

Now, maybe you can't do that the first time around. And that's describing a perfect world. We don't live in a perfect world. We are under resource constraints. The Iraqi people are impatient. And the international community is impatient. So we may be compelled, as the result of circumstances, including pressures within our country, pressures from outside our country, and pressures within Iraq, to move this process along more quickly than historical lessons would suggest is ideal. And I think that's likely to be the case, that we will feel compelled to hurry this process.

And, as the result, we'll take some chances that the transition won't be as thorough, as democratic, or as enduring. But life is a series of choices. And we may take the chance that our mission won't be as successful as we'd like because of these resource and other pressures we're under.

I'm curious, what's the response been to your RAND study in policy circles?

Well, a lot of interest. I mean, we get a lot of requests for it. It gets mentioned on the Hill. And as I mentioned, I testified before the Senate last week. I've been up briefing people in the House. A lot of interest in the Congress. I briefed the State Department at quite senior levels, and briefed the Pentagon a number of times, although at sort of medium levels. So, I think quite respectable interest.

Anything from the White House?

I think they've read it. And you know, the back cover has a very nice blurb from Jerry Bremer. Very positive. So I think it's been well received -- which doesn't mean everybody agrees with it. You'd certainly get some pushback from people in the Pentagon. But the response has really, even from people who have differences with it, has been quite good. In other words, they've read it, they've absorbed it, they've debated it. They haven't just dismissed it.

President Bush, as you mentioned earlier, came into office rather skeptical of nation-building. Do you think the president is a "born again" nation-builder, so to speak? Has he had a conversion experience on nation-building?

Well, there are certainly difficulties with the term "nation-building." The definition we use is "the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin a transition to democracy." And that perfectly captures what the administration has defined as its mission in Iraq. So, as a practical matter, I think they have embraced it. They might not use the term, but they've certainly embraced its essentials.


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posted october 9, 2003

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