Thu, 26 Jun 2003

U.S. cannot write history alone: Reminder for Bush

Francis Fukuyama, The Daily Yomiuri, Asia News Network, Tokyo

The United States is in the process of acquiring an empire. U.S. President George W. Bush as much as admitted so when, in a speech given on Feb. 26, he laid out an ambitious agenda for democratizing Iraq and remaking the political map of the Middle East.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. administration has taken on responsibility for reconstructing the political systems of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, sought fundamental changes in the way that Syria and Iran are governed, and is plunging back into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sources close to the administration have suggested that a successful rebuilding of Iraq could trigger a democratic domino effect in the Muslim world.

This empire is, of course, hoped to be much more benign than previous empires because it is based on principles of democracy and self-government. The U.S. does not intend to rule anyone against their will, but only to facilitate other peoples' efforts to govern themselves. Yet the politics of this region cannot be remade along the ambitious lines laid out by Bush without the U.S. acting much more imperialistically, in the old sense, than it has been willing to do.

This failure to be a committed imperialist power has already undermined its early efforts at nation-building in Iraq and threatens to stymie the whole activist thrust of recent U.S. foreign policy. This should give some comfort to those who were opposed to U.S. intervention in Iraq since it will put natural limits on the U.S.' power and imperial reach.

The contradictions of current U.S. policy were already evident in Bush's February speech, when he pledged to "remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more." The "as long as necessary" part acknowledged the immense difficulties that lay ahead in reconstructing Iraq as a democracy, but the "not a day more" line spoke to a contradictory impulse to leave as soon as possible.

The latter was addressed to two audiences: The Iraqi people, whom the administration wanted to reassure about its long-term intentions, but more importantly, the American people, who had not up to that point bought into a long-term nation-building effort. Indeed, as a candidate Bush told them the opposite when he campaigned against nation-building and the humanitarian commitments around the world taken on by the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The early weeks of the U.S. occupation of Iraq were thus marked by a remarkable reluctance of U.S. forces to exert any authority whatsoever. The result was a continuing orgy of looting, lawlessness and violence throughout Iraq, which U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed initially with the words, "stuff happens."

Behind this casual attitude to the postwar reconstruction was a deeper institutional failure in Washington. The U.S. is supremely well set up to do war planning, as its recent successes in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have shown. But it is totally disorganized with respect to nation-building.

Its soldiers train to be warriors, not peacekeepers, and thus do not know how to patrol streets or control civilian mobs. The White House failed to establish any overall occupation authority like Gen. Douglas MacArthur's position of supreme commander of the Allied Powers in postwar Japan, and instead let the defense and state departments squabble over turf well past the end of the war. The agency that should have taken the lead in this process, the U.S. Agency for International Development, is one of the most highly dysfunctional in Washington.

There is an art to nation-building, one that has been painfully learned in places such as Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor over the past decade. A great deal of expertise exists, both in the U.S. and the international community, on how to reconnect electricity, rebuild roads, establish financial systems, provide domestic order and on how best to sequences these different activities.

But the Pentagon, having spearheaded the bitter fight to go to war, was determined to keep control over the rebuilding process away from not just the United Nations and the various multinational nongovernmental organizations with expertise in nation-building, but from the State Department and other U.S. agencies as well.

It tried to reinvent the nation-building wheel on its own, not understanding the depth of its own inexperience. Nor was the international community inclined to help the U.S. out; because of the unilateral way that the U.S. went into the war, Washington has received only a fraction of the pledges of financial support and peacekeeping forces that it received after the first Gulf War and Afghanistan.

The White House has finally woken up to the seriousness of the situation in Iraq by appointing veteran diplomat Paul Bremer to replace Garner as viceroy in Baghdad. Bremer has reversed course rapidly, ordering U.S. forces out into the streets to keep order, threatening to shoot looters and telling the Iraqis that the transition to Iraqi rule would not happen anytime soon. All of these changes are welcome and necessary, but the longterm success of nation-building effort in Iraq remains in doubt.

There are several reasons for this. There is, of course, the central question of whether Iraq is capable of sustaining a liberal democracy over the long run. Those who profess to know the answer to this, positive or negative, are arrogating to themselves a foresight that no one has at present.

Iraq is a deeply dysfunctional and wounded society, but if the road to full democracy may seem long and hard, the possibility of a reasonable, legitimate and effective government is by no means out of the question.

The deeper uncertainty has to do with the U.S. There is no question that the U.S. could, if it wanted to, exert a strong hand to shape the new Iraqi state. But the American people were sold only on a short war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Since no weapons have been found, the American public has decided in retrospect that the war was justified on moral grounds as a fight to topple former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's tyranny. But they have not bought into a prolonged and costly nation-building exercise.

When U.S. troops continue to be attacked six months or a year down the road, when Iraqis increasingly see the U.S. as occupiers rather than liberators and when the cost of the war comes to exceed the size of the tax cut just approved by the U.S. Congress, what will be the attitude of the American people, or of the Bush administration seeking reelection? Iraq and postwar Japan were utterly different in this respect, since in the latter case Americans felt they had an absolute right to remake Japan as they saw fit.

The U.S. record in sticking to its imperial commitments over the years shows much more hesitation and unease. Perhaps this is an inherent contradiction of the task of trying to create a democratic empire, or an empire of democracies. In any event, it suggests that Bush may soon come to regret his prediction that the U.S. alone would be rewriting the history of this difficult part of the world.

Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).