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By the Time War Starts, It's Too Late

U.S. was tardy in forming a system for rebuilding.

June 27, 2004|Francis Fukuyama

Now that the Coalition Provisional Authority is closing its doors and transferring sovereignty to Iraq, it is time to consider the many criticisms that have been made of the Bush administration's postwar reconstruction efforts and to separate out real failures from problems that no administration, no matter how well prepared, could have avoided.

Many people have asserted that the administration's problem lay in the fact that the Pentagon, which was responsible for organizing the reconstruction, failed to listen to regional experts in the State Department or the CIA on what to do. But it is a mistake to think that the regional specialists at either of those agencies understood Iraq well enough on the eve of the war to provide specific guidance for the political transition.

Iraq had changed dramatically since our embassy was shut down in 1991, and no American had a good understanding of any post-Saddam Hussein political landscape. For example, the role of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as a leader for the Shiite community -- and his relative moderation -- is something we learned only in the months after the war.

The knowledge needed for nation-building tends to be contextual: The kinds of institutions appropriate for a given society -- and the path to building them -- come not from a master nation-building template but from on-the-spot judgments about local circumstances.

The real mistake regarding Iraq was the lack of a proper institutional context for decision-making on the part of the U.S. government. We simply did not have the ability or organization prior to the war to coordinate the enormously complex interagency effort required for reconstruction, although knowledge of how to do this had been painfully learned in earlier nation-building efforts -- from Somalia and Haiti through the Balkans to Afghanistan.

But the bitter rivalry and distrust that developed between the Pentagon, on the one hand, and the State Department and the intelligence community, on the other, led the former to demand sole control over the reconstruction process. The Pentagon, we learned only later, didn't have the capacity to organize things and didn't know what it didn't know.

When Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of Central Command, gave a war-plan briefing to the president and his principal advisors that didn't include a so-called Phase IV plan for what to do after the end of hostilities, none of his civilian bosses even thought to ask him where it was.

The result was that the administration reinvented the wheel, and did so at the very last possible moment. It launched a new bureaucracy, the CPA, which spent most of the early months of the occupation building itself rather than building Iraq. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was tapped to organize the reconstruction only on Jan. 20, 2003; he went from a staff of six in January to one of 700 in the next two months just before shipping out to Iraq in March.

L. Paul Bremer III took over in May and built it from 700 to more than 3,000, many of whom were new to government and in Iraq on brief 90-day rotations.

There were rivalries between the CPA and the military, and within the CPA itself; it is not surprising that some started saying that CPA stood for "Can't Provide Anything."

If the Bush administration had done things properly, it would have created a permanent Office of Reconstruction long before the invasion. This office -- a small one -- would have been home to veterans of earlier nation-building exercises and could have served as an interagency coordinating center and mobilization base when the crisis came.

An authoritative figure like Bremer should then have been appointed to plan the reconstruction -- back in August 2002, at the latest, when the president signed the formal war planning order. This organization would then have been fully staffed and ready to ship out to the theater well in advance of the war itself. An authoritative director of reconstruction might have been able to ask some hard questions of the military planners, such as whether they had plans for dealing with looting or whether they had sufficient troops for postwar security.

It's not clear whether we will be able to recover from these mistakes in Iraq. But it is clear that we can do a lot better the next time we need to reconstruct a country.

Of course, Americans will not be eager to jump quickly into another nation-building exercise in the wake of Iraq, but based on our experiences in the post-Cold War world, it's bound to happen. We've gotten involved in one new nation-building exercise every two years since the end of the Cold War, and there are plenty of countries like Pakistan and North Korea that have the potential to become dangerous, failed states overnight.

Right now, we need to do some nation-building in Washington itself, by creating a new set of institutions to deal with such failed states over the long term. Only in this way will we be able to learn from past mistakes and to make sure we do not have to perpetually reinvent the nation-building wheel.

Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century" (Cornell, 2004).

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