America’s present day difficulties in democracy building in Iraq illustrate a depressing ideological sameness. Whether we are talking about Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq, one constantly runs into the same failed philosophy. Top-down, state-building efforts imposed from outside, efforts that pay little more than lip-service to the ideal of making locals stakeholders in the process, are doomed to failure. Instead, we would do well to recall the life of the gallant British officer, T.E. Lawrence. As a historical figure, Lawrence was immortalized by Peter O’Toole’s famous portrayal in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Embellishment aside, the core of Lawrence’s brilliance is contained within what he thought and how he operated, as much as for what he actually did. Juxtaposed against Lawrence, the Bush administration’s follies in Iraq would serve as an almost comic foil, if so many lives had not been destroyed.
Lesson #1: It is critical to accurately assess the unit of politics in a failed state.
Instead of looking for Thomas Jefferson, Western elites must work with countries as they find them. In the case of modern Iraq, the unit of politics is religious and ethnic, with the three primary building blocks being the Shia (roughly 60% of the population), the formerly ruling Sunnis (20%) and the Kurds (around 20%). Early utopian efforts to ignore this reality and talk of supporting “Iraqis” rather than working with Iraq’s genuine building blocks has died down, blunted by the gloomy day-to-day political realities.
Lesson #2: To work against the grain of history is to fail at state building
To immediately and artificially impose Western standards on a failed non-Western state while disregarding its own unique culture is to court disaster. For example, naive American efforts to limit the role of Islam in the new Iraq did little more than alienate Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the key representative of the Shia.
Lesson #3: Local elites must be made stakeholders in any successful state-building process.
In disbanding the Iraqi army, Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Baghdad, unwittingly laid the groundwork for a period in which it was the American-led coalition, rather than a fusion of American and Iraqi military forces, that became responsible for the security of the country. This was perhaps America’s greatest mistake in state building in Iraq, for it meant that the West, rather than Iraqis themselves, took the lead in rebuilding the country.
Lesson #4: A Western country should engage in the arduous process of state building only when primary national security interests are at stake.
In the Great War, Lawrence became convinced that the defeat of Turkey was possible through energizing the Arab Revolt and that this would prove greatly beneficial to a hard-pressed Britain. American efforts at state building ought to be discussed in similarly hard-headed terms. The 1990s American efforts at state building display an undifferentiated quality in terms of American national interests. The Clinton Administration never met a failed state it did not want to intervene in, however peripheral to American interests (Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia).
The differentiation of when and where to engage in state building, guided by national interest calculations, will stop an overextended America from frittering away for little gain the competitive advantages that have made it the dominant power in the world. Sometimes the answer is no. As John Quincy Adams put it, “America is the well-wisher to the freedom of all. She is the guarantor of only her own.” State building is simply too complicated to be attempted more than necessary—it should be engaged in only when primary American interests are at stake.
Iraq has quieted the state-building lobby in Washington, but only for the moment. Doubtless, soon they will rise up, blandly explaining that it is the President’s incompetence, rather than their precious, top-down state-building strategy, that is to blame for the disaster in Iraq. When the moment arrives, it is up to the rest of us, guided by a rudimentary knowledge of history, to present them with a copy of Lawrence’s masterpiece, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
John C. Hulsman, PhD, is the Von Oppenheim Scholar in Residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations. He also is the President of John C. Hulsman Enterprises and a contributing editor to the National Interest.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- The New America Foundation’s Event Report: Unintended Consequences of the Iraq War
- Joseph Nye on Soft Power After Iraq