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Rigors of Nation-Building

October 09, 2002

President Bush promised Monday night that the United States and its allies would help rebuild Iraq in the event of war. Last weekend's election in Bosnia-Herzegovina showed the extraordinary difficulty of such nation-building. The U.S. and other nations would be well advised to watch what's happening there as they decide how to deal with Saddam Hussein.

From 1992 to 1995, the war in the Balkans, fueled by ethnic rivalries, killed 200,000 people; ethnic cleansing drove 1 million from their homes. In 1995, the warring factions met in Dayton, Ohio, and achieved peace accords that provided Bosnia-Herzegovina with a three-person collective presidency to reflect that troubled region's three main factions--Serb, Croat and Muslim.

Now Bosnian voters have rankled the countries that pump aid into the region by voting heavily for the same nationalist types who plunged the territory into devastating war a decade back. Western donor nations were rooting for a multiethnic party known as the Social Democrats, hoping this important part of the ruling coalition would gain power and increase the chances of economic reforms.

Instead, the Social Democrats finished fourth, with nationalists winning the Serb and Croat seats and an all-Muslim party appearing ready to win the Muslim seat. The Social Democrats could have done better had they lifted more people out of poverty; their failure to do so and continued ethnic tensions wounded them.

Donor nations have provided Bosnia with more than $5 billion in aid. They had hoped that a moderate government seeking economic reforms would make enough progress toward peaceful democracy that outsiders could start to pull back. The nationalists' rise--which reversed the move toward reform that came with state elections two years ago--makes that goal unrealistic.

Bosnia demonstrates the difficulty of building democracies on the rubble of war. Nation-building takes many billions of dollars, spent over many years. It requires economic coalitions, not just military ones.

In Bosnia, NATO intervened to stop the killing. The United States, Germany, Britain and their allies will have to keep sinking in money if the foundering government is to survive. In Afghanistan, a coalition force drove out a government that had been harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. The United States, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other nations will spend an estimated $10 billion on reconstruction over the next five years.

Setbacks aside, the alternative to pitching in to help Bosnia-Herzegovina or Afghanistan would have been bloody chaos--a far more costly outcome for the world in the long run. Still, economies across the globe are in sad shape. The United States and its allies would be wise to figure out who will pay the billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq before deciding whether to topple Saddam Hussein.

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