Just Say ‘No’ to Nation Building

Jim Henley, responding to a Brian Doherty piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth and the “rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message” of his work, observes that, “The problem with the H-G fusion of militarism and limited government is that the former always ends up eating the latter.”

That’s likely right, in that even the most noble wars are incredibly expensive and require secrecy and a collective consciousness. I’m sure Jim would agree that wars are occasionally worth that sacrifice. An attack on the homeland is the most obvious case but there are others, such as World War II, when most are willing to make that trade-off.

The problem, then, is with a permanent war footing. Unfortunately, that has more-or-less been the norm the last several decades. World War II’s postwar division of Europe into zones quickly led to the Cold War with its numerous standoffs, proxy wars, and spin-offs large and small, including Vietnam and Korea. The post-Cold War peace dividend largely failed to emerge, as a dozen or more peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, warlord chasing, endeavors with optimistic code names like Uphold Democracy and Restore Hope followed.

A president who campaigned on the premise of No More Nation Building quickly became the second incarnation of Woodrow Wilson, wanting to bring terrorists to justice while simultaneously spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, thus bringing to fruition his father’s vision of a New World Order.

In the back-and-forth in the comments section of a recent post, I noted that,

[P]residents from both parties routinely see the use of force as being in the U.S. national interest despite the situation at hand often not being amenable to military solution. At some point, either the public is going to have to insist that not happen or the military is going to have to adapt to that reality.

Jim, naturally, prefers the former.

The other path leads to national ruin. It may take a long time; it may take a short time; but hubris always precedes a fall, and the assumption that the US should properly be involved in some war some where “routinely” is hubris straight up. It is immoral, imprudent and financially calamitous.

I’m inclined to agree. Indeed, with the notable exceptions of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, that’s been my position on all of our post-Desert Storm endeavors big and small. Afghanistan was never controversial, given that it was the classic case of responding to an attack on the homeland. It took months of convincing to get me on board the Iraq bandwagon, and then only for reasons unrelated to nation-building.

Unfortunately, as the rest of Jim’s post makes clear, there is a longstanding, bipartisan consensus that will seemingly lead to us continuing to get into these messes. Despite the overwhelming public disapproval of the ongoing war in Iraq and the seeming movement of a large part of the Democratic base back into a position of reflexive anti-militarism, I suspect that we’ll continue to insert ourselves on a routine basis into messes halfway around the world.

My grad school mentor, Don Snow, attributed this tendency to what he termed the “Do Something Syndrome.” Bad things are happening right there on our television screens and, by golly, we’re the richest, most powerful, most decent country in all creation. We put a man on the moon! Surely, we have to do something!

Given that we have a large standing military that can quickly be deployed by the mere command of the president, that something almost always involves troops. That militaries in general and our military in particular is not the best tool for building a nation is both not widely understood by policy makers and rendered moot by the fact that there’s nobody else to send, really.

So, while I agree that we need to change our political culture so that we aren’t sending the troops off on a routine basis, it seems to me that we have to recognize that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Thus, adapting the military to best deal with that reality strikes me as the best likely option.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Another option is to use the military for a specific strike capability. For example with Iraq, the war aims may have been 1) full inspection/removal of the country for weapons of mass destruction, 2) removal of Hussein and others from power/this world 3) destruction of Iraqi military capability and 4) strike against any known terrorist in the country (e.g. Abu Abbas).

    The US sets the goals, implements them to its satisfaction and then withdraws. Don’t care about the resulting problems for the civilians.

    The question then would be would this generate more problems than it would solve. The nation building worked for Japan and Germany, but then when we started building the nation we had a pretty clean slate to start from as far as having done huge damage first.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    We’re told the “majority” of Americans are having a problem with what we are doing now (nation-building) Would the “majority” feel better if we took a strictly punitive (bomb them back into the stone age) approach to military involvements? I somehow doubt it.

  3. James Joyner says:

    The nation building worked for Japan and Germany, but then when we started building the nation we had a pretty clean slate to start from as far as having done huge damage first.

    More importantly, I think, we were facing a psychologically defeated populace with no will to resist and we were willing to call ourselves “Occupiers” and act accordingly.

  4. Eric J says:

    Imagine the reaction (in the U.S.) if we had written the Iraqi constitution for them (and made it explicitly secular!)

    If we’re going to reduce our military footprint worldwide, we’re going to have to come to terms with “good-guy” non-State military actors to do things like fight piracy, end Darfur-like genocides, and perhaps even fight nuclear proliferation. (Imagine an IAEA-successor with a wing of bombers at it’s command. On the other hand, imagine the Rainbow Warrior with torpedoes going after Japanese whaling vessels.)

    We also need to get over our squeamishness about assassinations (or “targeted killings”) as a method of protecting the national interest with minimal civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    James,

    That’s what I meant by a clean slate. Burn out half of Tokyo, drop a coupe of atomic bombs that leave a landscape never before seen, sink the navy, fire bomb Dresden, kill a few million soldiers in the field, etc and you have a clean slate. I think what was also important in those cases was the basic food supply issue was there so not complying with the occupiers brought up the immediate problem of ‘what’s for dinner’.

    If the problem is nation building in general, then diplomacy while holding a big stick can be very effective if it is known you will use the big stick and that you aren’t going to worry about picking up the pieces afterwards.

  6. brainy435 says:

    Just to be contrarian:

    As the build-up to our involvement in WWII shows, the “Do nothing syndrome” can be just as devastating.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    We have a bizarre divide in our political culture right now between those who think it’s unseemly for the U. S. to use its military capability when it’s in our interest to do so and those who are over-eager to use it when it is.

    There’s something important to note, however, that happened in the Democratic presidential candidates’ “debate”. Was it the first or the second? When asked about a hypothetical attack against the United States every first-tier candidate was committed to retaliation. Barack Obama was clearly sorely tempted otherwise, his first inclination to rally civil defense resources (probably a prudent answer), but he finally meandered into muttering something about responding forcefully (no doubt as his handlers turned blue). The point in the anecdote is the universal recognition by first-tier Democratic presidential candidates that a willingness to use force in the nation’s interest is a prerequisite for the presidency at our present stage of development.

  8. NH says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    If you want to advertise Ron Paul on this site, I’m happy to quote you a price. – JHJ

  9. legion says:

    My grad school mentor, Don Snow, attributed this tendency to what he termed the “Do Something Syndrome.”

    In my time in the military, I’ve seen a continueous emphasis on getting people (at all levels) to make a decision & act on it as rapidly as the information available allows. The thinking is that people might go off half-cocked sometimes, but that it’s preferable to someone sitting around forever waiting for “the latest intel” & never doing anything until it’s too late. This is explained by saying that if one makes the “wrong” choice, or circumstances change after you’ve set off, you can usually correct course or shift to the “right” decision when you learn more – and that this is still better than making no decision at all.

    Unfortunately, it’s become clear over the last few years that Bush never gets to that evaluation phase… any decision he makes is pre-defined as the “right” one – backed up by his closest yes-man aides and a legion of right-wing pundits – and the entire concept that a course might ever need to be changed is discarded without ever being evaluated.

  10. James Joyner says:

    The thinking is that people might go off half-cocked sometimes, but that it’s preferable to someone sitting around forever waiting for “the latest intel” & never doing anything until it’s too late.

    That’s Patton’s legacy: “A good plan vigorously executed today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow” and all that.

    Bush never gets to that evaluation phase… any decision he makes is pre-defined as the “right” one

    There’s something to that, although I think it’s at least a bit unfair. The problem is that, once a stand has been taken, backing off the stand has consequences. It has long been clear that going into Iraq to begin with was a colossal mistake and even Bush would acknowledge that, private, I think. Given that we’ve gone in, though, perhaps Bush has taken Colin Powell’s “you broke it, you bought it” message to heart.

    Since Bush is the Commander in Chief and not a philosopher, going forward means doubling down on the original premise. He can’t very well, in his position, say that “Well, we’re screwed now so we’ve got to slog on.”

  11. albee says:

    I spent a career in the Army. So many of us thought what we were doing was the right thing. Keeping people free. What in the hell is so wrong with freeing people from oppression.

    In 1951, I was drafted and sent to South Korea. Today, the world and those of us who went or were sent can look back at a prosperous and FREE country. In contrast look on the other side of the 38th and there is a totalitarian government composed of rich overlords and a starving, desparate and dying population.

    What side are you on? South Korea or North Korea. A goodly number of Democrats would side with North Korea. Just look at Albright.

    Americans in the 21st century could not have comprehended South Korea in 1951. The old tag from Vietnam, “you wouldn’t know, cuz you weren’t there” was so very never more true.

    In Iraq, Vietnam or Korea you always heard. ” what did the opponents do to the U.S”? Nothing, so why bother? At the same time, those bitching about Iraq want to charge into Darfur to save the blacks!! What the devil is the difference. Your devils are worse than my devils? Sometimes I get so disgusted with my country, I just want to quit.

  12. Derrick says:

    James,

    I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see the slightest evidence that Bush thinks that going to war with Iraq was a mistake. In fact, everything that he or any of his former advisers have said, would lead you to conclude that he’s just about more sure than ever about his decision.

    I understand the point that you are making but I just don’t think it applies to this particular President. W can’t even conclude that “Fredo” was a bad choice for AG. If you read that article from a week ago about Bush and historians, he seems much more willing to rationalize his decisions than he is to actually question them in any profound way.

  13. NH says:

    Evidence that the tide is turning:

    Senators Lugar, Domenici and Hagel.

  14. another matt says:

    At the same time, those bitching about Iraq want to charge into Darfur to save the blacks!!

    I’m not so sure…I’m bitching about Iraq and have no desire to charge into Darfur…

    I think blanket statements about 1 group or another do very little to advance any sort of reasonable debate.

  15. legion says:

    It has long been clear that going into Iraq to begin with was a colossal mistake and even Bush would acknowledge that, private, I think. Given that we’ve gone in, though, perhaps Bush has taken Colin Powell’s “you broke it, you bought it” message to heart.

    James, I figure you’re simply trying to be respectful to the President here, but I have never seen a single shred of evidence – not even a simple anonymously-sourced anecdote – that would even vaguely support either of those statements. Indeed, even his own PR machine has repeatedly spun Bush’s inability to reconsider past decisions, regardless of later evidence, as ‘iron resolve’ or steadfastness in the face of opposition.

  16. Tano says:

    “A president who campaigned on the premise of No More Nation Building quickly became the second incarnation of Woodrow Wilson”

    Y’know, I am getting pretty sick and tired of this lazy thinking, and repeating trite cliches spun out by spinners.

    Woodrow Wilson was, more than anything else, a passionate believer in international organizations, and coordinating policy with other countries in a manner calculated to avoid war.

    How anyone can sustain an analogy between the founder of the League of Nations, and George Bush and his ilk, who have distanced themselves as far as they could from the post-WWII consensus about internationalism, is beyond me.

  17. Barry says:

    James: “There’s something to that, although I think it’s at least a bit unfair. The problem is that, once a stand has been taken, backing off the stand has consequences. It has long been clear that going into Iraq to begin with was a colossal mistake and even Bush would acknowledge that, private, I think. Given that we’ve gone in, though, perhaps Bush has taken Colin Powell’s “you broke it, you bought it” message to heart. ”

    James, if Bush had seriously taken that message to heart, then he would have made sure to do it right in the first place, and/or worked like a dog to get it right, once it was clear that it was going wrong (i.e., summer 2003). There is no evidence of either of those – not counting cheap talk, and much evidence to the contrary.

    Bush’s whole pre-presidential life was spent screwing up and screwing off, and his administration has followed that theme closely.