Retooling nation building

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Iraq's predictable passive resistance to United Nations weapons inspections is causing the US to edge closer to war. This scenario raises a looming fundamental question: how to fix Iraq after a successful military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Unless this problem is confronted now, and new capacities are built, a US victory on the battlefield could be nullified, and the peace lost.

There is great uncertainty about how to rebuild Iraq. Would the US military occupy Iraq, as was done in Japan after World War II? This kind of nation building is largely a lost art, as illustrated by the US deployment in Haiti in 1994, which no one now would dare call a success. Instead, would the UN be asked to administer Iraq, as it has in Kosovo or East Timor? Or would the UN and donor governments provide assistance to a fledgling government, as in Afghanistan? Whatever the approach, it is increasingly clear that decisionmakers currently have too few tools for such audacious endeavors.

If state building is to be a serious option in post-Hussein Iraq, then new capacities are needed urgently, within and among governments as well as in international organizations, to fashion approaches that are astutely realistic. In addition to establishing security, Iraq will need a justice system compatible with human rights standards and sensitive to local traditions, a governance structure in which all religious and ethnic groups can participate, and a viable economic system based upon the country's potential oil revenues. Specific plans to achieve these ends will depend on the nature of military action taken, and have to be refined as the peace evolves.

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Over the past decade, there have been several efforts to reconstruct societies riven by crisis. These attempts include Cambodia, which in 1992 began hosting a UN peacekeeping operation with unprecedented powers. A more recent occasion occurred in East Timor, where, after a 1999 rampage by Indonesian militias, the UN sought to ensure security, establish a justice system, achieve a minimum provision of public services, create a sustainable civil administration, and manage a transition to democratic governance.

Iraq after Hussein will present familiar challenges and questions. As in Afghanistan, where humanitarian assistance, nation building, and war fighting are occurring simultaneously, close coordination between occupying military forces and civilian aid workers will be crucial.

And what is the appropriate measure of success for an international peace-building operation in Iraq? Is stability a sufficient criterion, like the authoritarian result in Cambodia, or merely a necessary precondition to achieving a more ambitious outcome of a society imbued with tolerance and enriched by economic development?

The NATO effort in Bosnia represents the most ambitious effort by the US and its allies to cobble together a new state over the past decade. But Bosnia is still very much a work in progress and remains a dangerous caldron of ethnic tensions as international attention wanes.

In Iraq, ethnic and religious rivalries will have to be managed to avoid armed conflict and bloodshed in the power vacuum that would follow the ouster of Hussein. But, as shown by the decidedly mixed results in the Balkans, achieving an optimal outcome may be beyond the capacity of foreign interveners.

Nor has the effort in East Timor, which represents the high-water mark of UN-sponsored nation building, fared much better. Despite the best efforts of the UN, the challenge for East Timor and its international donors remains governance and the need to reconstitute a legal system, issues critical to a functioning state. Though conflict has abated, the newly independent microstate of East Timor is now the poorest country in Asia, propped up by $440 million in international aid pledges over the next three years. Iraq's reconstruction would require many billions of dollars to fund.

Modesty in expectation is the primary lesson to be drawn from international peace-building efforts over the past decade. They've proven messy, complicated, and difficult to quit. While such operations can achieve basic security relatively quickly, sustained engagement is necessary if they are to contribute usefully to broader political and economic transitions. If we are to do more than simply muddle along once again, we must invest the resources now to answer how to rebuild Iraq and who will be responsible for undertaking the many different and difficult tasks necessary to win the peace.

Arthur C. Helton is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is 'The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century.'

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