Building three nations at once

The US is now supporting the formation of new regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestinian territories.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the commitment to create a Palestinian state by 2005, the United States finds itself in the extraordinary position of directing the building of three states at the same time.

Any one of the three - the post-Taliban reconstruction of Afghanistan, the birth of a democratic government in Iraq, and now the creation of a Palestinian state - is complex on its own. But the tasks will be particularly difficult given the time frame the Bush administration has laid out in each case.

President Bush and other leaders have cited America's great success in rebuilding Germany and Japan into prosperous democracies following World War II, with the implication that the world's sole superpower, wealthier and more militarily powerful than ever, can do at least as well today.

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But experts point out that a host of forces are at work that will make such efforts problematic at best. Among them:

• The perception that America in general - and the Bush administration in particular - doesn't have the patience or stamina for seeing through such time-consuming projects.

• A domestic political scene, including next year's presidential election, that will work against keeping the full commitment to such projects.

• Interference from local detractors of the American vision for a particular national project. (Bush was barely back on US soil, for example, before the Palestinian group Hamas exited cease-fire talks, and attacks erupted in the occupied territories.)

• The likelihood that other international crises - such as North Korea - will siphon off interest from the nation-building component of the war on terror.

"All of this seems like a great commitment, given the extent of President Bush's reluctance to get involved in foreign affairs so deeply when he first came into office," says Joseph Montville, a senior associate specializing in preventive diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and Security Studies in Washington. "But the US has a tradition of this kind of engagement," he adds, "and to some extent that appears to be what we're getting back to."

The rebuilding focus

Still, with the US standing by as a post-Taliban Afghanistan reverts to balkanized warlordism, some experts believe the US is already relegating the Central Asian nation's reconstruction to secondary status. Meanwhile, however, the focus of the administration's reconstruction efforts appears to be shifting to Iraq. And in the eyes of many officials and influential advisers to the administration, it is Iraq that will be the Bush presidency's equivalent of the post-World War II reconstruction successes.

Attention to Iraq is unlikely to wane for a variety of reasons. First, the Bush administration, after having fought and won what many considered a "war of choice" there, has a great deal of prestige riding on its postwar success. Too many key policymakers in the administration lobbied for regime change in Iraq as the key to refashioning the Middle East into a stable, threat-free region, for the US to go light on Iraq's rebuilding, experts say.

"All the signs coming out of Iraq are that they [in the administration] don't have it figured out, but the US in general and the Bush administration in particular have a huge stake in a successful outcome," says Steven Miller, director of the international security program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

At the same time, as divided as the world was over war in Iraq, its rebuilding may serve as the table over which the international community gets back together. Already European countries that opposed the war are offering rhetorical support to the reconstruction effort. And the US is preparing to test the depths of that commitment at a donors' conference on Iraq set for September.

Significant revisions in the administration's postwar timetable suggest the US is prepared for a longer occupation and governance of Iraq than originally anticipated. The initial plan for an interim Iraqi government to take over the country's daily affairs rather quickly has been largely jettisoned. Now, the US authority is expected to remain in charge until a new constitution can be drafted and elections held, perhaps in two years' time.

The initial miscalculation of the job ahead is reminiscent of a similar reassessment that took place in the cases of Germany and Japan, some people say. Ray Salvatore Jennings, an expert on peacekeeping and nation-building at the US Institute of Peace, writes in a paper on Iraq that the US remained the occupying government in Germany and Japan for seven years, "well beyond the six to 18 months originally envisioned."

But Mr. Jennings cautions that Afghanistan, where the US "shows continued reluctance to commit adequate resources to close the enduring security gap," exposes "the complex relationship the US continues to have with nation building."

One key to how long the US will remain interested in each nation-building case will be how long each is seen as crucial to US security, some experts say. Rebuilding Germany and Japan was important in the cold-war setting of a rival communist superpower. But Harvard's Mr. Miller says that with the removal of the Taliban, Afghanistan's security threat has been addressed - leaving a situation that is "not very edifying," yet is a "civil order of sorts."

Beyond security factors

Still, others see a more complex set of motivations beyond security factors. At a Monitor breakfast with reporters Monday, for example, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was struck by how, even before the Iraq war, Bush was adamant about implementing his road map for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One motivation appeared to be a desire to address the poor image of the US in Arab regions.

Another factor in nation-building could be presidential politics. Some worry that this, along with the American electorate's short attention span, will work against a long-term US commitment to such tough nuts as Palestinian statehood.

"I welcome Bush's personal involvement as crucial, but I fear that as time goes on and the inevitable setbacks mount, the less likely his political handlers will be to let him remain engaged," says Fawaz Gerges, an expert in Middle East affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

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