Monday, October 17, 2005

Nation Building

It is hard not to watch the vote in Iraq unfold without mixed feelings.

The Iraqi constitution is highly flawed in both procedure and content. It establishes a religious state and is loaded with potential sources of future conflict such as oil revenue sharing between provinces.

If the constitution passes, and Iraq gains some short term stability, it will only embolden the US to engage in more nation building in the future, long before the true outcome of Iraq is know. It will also reward those who pulled us into this conflict using false evidence and arguments.

There are some positives, however. If Iraq gains some short term stability it may allow the US to pull out most, if not all, of its troops. This will be a positive on many levels including reducing likelihood of conflict with Syria and Iran and saving US lives and money.

What are the chances for success in Iraq? We won’t know for some time (unless there is a civil war, in which case we will know right away). However, a historical look at past nation building efforts in the American Conservative paints a bleak picture:

To see how nation building in general works out, I have compiled a list of all the cases since 1850 in which the United States and Great Britain employed military forces in a foreign land to cultivate democracy. I included only those cases where ground troops were deployed and clearly intervened in local politics. I have left aside the cases involving lesser types of involvement such as sending aid or military advisors or limited peacekeeping efforts or simply having military bases in the country.


The results of applying these principles to the political outcomes in the 51 cases of intervention are shown in the following table. Overall, the results indicate that military intervention succeeded in leaving behind democracies in 14 cases—27 percent of the time. The conclusion, then, is that nation building by force is generally unsuccessful.

Twenty-seven percent is better than I would have expected. Still, a one in four chance is not a very good bet on which to place half a trillion dollars and almost 2000 American lives (or 20,000 if you include injuries).

And, of course, if we wanted to perform nation building it would have been preferable for the nation to debate that reason prior to the Iraq war, rather than drum up a story about immanent threat and large scale WMD development only to switch the rational when these reasons proved to be false.

Nation Building


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