Bush Is Flunking Reconstruction 101

His team proved it knew how to defeat Iraq militarily. Too bad it appears to have not much clue about succeeding at nation-building

By Stan Crock

If the Bush Administration's performance in postwar Iraq were a pop quiz in Reconstruction 101, the White House would be flunking right now. It has failed to absorb some of the basic tenets of nation-building, and, along with the Iraqi people, it's paying a steep price. Can the Bushies still salvage this postwar scenario and pass the final exam? Perhaps. But so far, the paucity of clear thinking from the Administration is disturbing.

First, the good news -- though not all of it thanks to Team Bush's efforts. The worst fears for Iraq -- mass starvation, bloody reprisals, oil fields ablaze, a refugee crisis, and a push for independence by Kurds or Shiites -- haven't materialized. Joseph Collins, a top Pentagon official overseeing reconstruction, notes that cities such as Mosul, Irbil, and Basra have better water or electricity services than before the war, and are in far better shape than Baghdad -- though reporters tend to be in Baghdad and see the worst of it.

Still, it's far from clear that Washington can overcome the greatest stumbling block: a fundamental ambivalence inside the White House toward nation-building. Without the fortitude and discipline required to reconstruct Iraq, the U.S. could be facing a very cold peace in the Middle East.

Let's take a look at the quiz so far and the Administration's answers:

Question 1: Should an invading/liberating country deploy a large force of military police at the start of a conflict so that immediately after major combat is over, the police can fill the security vacuum and maintain order in ways that regular soldiers cannot?

The Administration's answer: No.

The correct answer: A painfully obvious yes.

This is a no-brainer. But it's clear from the near-anarchy in Baghdad that the U.S. wasn't ready with a sufficient MP force. Previous examples of nation-building -- from Germany and Japan after World War II to Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan -- all showed that a police force is needed to provide security in the wake of military action.

Calls are now coming for bringing in an international police corps, but a great deal of time, property, and goodwill have been lost because of the failure to have cops on the beat right away. Unless police, judges, and a civil administration are put in place quickly, the military occupation "creates a window of opportunity you're never able to seize," says James Dobbins, a former special envoy in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, and one of several Rand officials who recently completed a study of past U.S. reconstruction efforts.

Question 2: Should the civilian occupation leader focus on playing a low-key coordinator role or display the clout that a Douglas MacArthur or Lucius Clay showed after World War II?

The Administration answer: Low-key coordinator role.

The correct answer: Duh. Again, painfully obvious -- someone with muscle and clear authority is the right choice. In the predictably chaotic atmosphere following combat, a leader who can take charge, rather than just mediate among various agencies, is critical. The appointment of L. Paul Bremer, who is to have authority over "anybody who does anything," as one Administration official puts it, is intended to correct that flaw in the game plan.

The shift suggests that the Administration can learn. But it also may indicate that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Administration simply won't listen to people familiar with this kind of process. They insist on trying to reinvent the wheel every time -- and that creates costly mistakes.

Question 3: Should an occupying force announce an exit strategy early on?

The Administration's answer: Yes.

The correct answer: No.

You don't want people intent on undermining your efforts to wait in the weeds on the assumption you'll leave soon and give them the chance to pounce. That's the danger of saying the U.S. will stay as long as necessary, but not one day longer, as Rumsfeld puts it.

He and the rest of the Administration evidently think this is a clever formulation of policy, since it's echoed so frequently. It may assuage domestic political concerns, since voters don't want troops in Iraq forever. And it may be a sop to Islamic sensibilities about having U.S. troops in the Middle East for an extended period.

Still, Rummy, think this through: The second part of the statement -- not a day longer -- reflects an unseemly desire to cut and run. And that's sending the wrong message to a key audience: potential malefactors inside and outside Iraq. They may take from this that America hasn't changed a whit since Lebanon or Somalia, that a little terror or some combat casualties will send the U.S. packing.

"Exit strategies and departure timetables are inconsistent with success," says Dobbins. "We have done it quickly, and we have done it well. But we have never done it quickly and well." He adds that no successful U.S. postwar occupation has ever taken less than five years.

What's needed is a firm declaration that the U.S. is going to be there for the long haul to give everyone time to adjust to a new reality. Worried about the resilience of the Baath Party, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told The Washington Post that the U.S. will be in Iraq for a long time. But there are few indications whether others in the Administration, particularly political guru Karl Rove, agree. By Stan Crock Question 4: Does peacekeeping require more, about the same, or fewer ground troops than actual combat?

The Administration's answer: Fewer.

The correct answer: Don't answer that, because it's not yet clear.

In Somalia, the number of troops shrank from 20,000 to 2,000 as the mission shifted from humanitarian assistance to democratization, which Dobbins considers a broader mission. That was a disaster, as students who've read Black Hawk Down know.

Just by virtue of its size, Iraq may require a much larger presence than the two divisions -- 30,000 troops -- the Pentagon is assuming it will need. A Washington Times analysis shows that NATO put a force of more than 50,000 into Bosnia, a country of fewer than 5 million people, while Iraq is five times bigger. The per capita number of soldiers in Kosovo was even higher. Either calculation would dictate a ground force far larger than was involved in combat in the Iraq war.

Extra credit question: Which is more important in reconstructing a war-torn country, effectiveness or legitimacy?

The Administration's answer: That's up to the Iraqis.

The correct answer: Effectiveness, because it can produce a legitimacy of its own. Before any shots were fired, Administration officials struggled over whether reconstruction should be essentially unilateral (more effective, less legitimate) or multilateral (bring in the U.N., which would add legitimacy).

That tension remains, but it's cast a little differently. Now it's a question of whether the coalition should make some crucial decisions about Iraq's future (be effective) or defer to Iraqis (more legitimate -- but extended lead times could make this approach less effective over the long term).

The Bush team has to make decisions quickly about currencies, tariffs, commercial legal codes, and the structure of the Iraqi oil industry. It has to accept the status of an occupying power, so that someone has the legal authority to sign contracts, let in direct foreign investment, negotiate foreign debt payments and forgiveness, and do a host of other things that will bring tangible benefits rapidly to the Iraqi people.

It won't do to wait for the desultory U.N. Security Council process to label the U.S. an occupying power. If Washington does bring positive change and shows quite visibly that Iraqi petrodollars are benefiting the Iraqis, that will bring legitimacy.

Nor can the U.S. wait until a formal Iraqi government is created. That would take too long, especially now that Bremer has decided to delay creating an interim government. An elected government should be postponed until a free press blossoms and lays the foundation for robust debate, and until political parties have a chance to form and organize. That would enable a broad spectrum of politicians -- from Shiite clerics imported from Iran to the Iraqi Communist Party to leaders of the Iraqi National Congress -- to build grass-roots support.

It's fine in the meantime to use existing ministries and officials not tainted by their closeness to the Saddam Hussein regime. Just get key goals done.

IT'S YOUR JOB.

  My fear is that all the talk about deferring issues to the Iraqis reflects continuing ambivalence in the Administration about nation-building. It's troubling to note, for example, the scheduled closing next fall of the Army War College's peacekeeping institute, the only school of its kind in the U.S. military.

Mr. President, Mr. Rumsfeld, suck it up. You decided to go in. You now have obligations and opportunities. Accept them. The guidance from history is clear. Successful nation-building in Iraq will require a long-term commitment. It's the only chance you have to pass the final exam.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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