James Dobbins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Nation Building: Conversation with Ambassador James Dobbins; Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, Rand Corporation; February 28, 2005
by Harry Kreisler

Page 4 of 8

Nation Building and Democratization

Of the two volumes that Rand has produced, the first volume looks at U.S. interventions, some of the cases we've talked about, even those going far back, Germany and Japan. The second volume, which was just published, focuses on UN intervention. Your aim, I gather, was to compare the two, to look at success and failure and to look at whether there was a way to find mutual goals, and which organization, an international organization or the United States, works best under what circumstances. Let's talk a little about that. Let's first help people understand what we mean when we're talking about nation building and democratization. What do we mean by that?

We define nation-building as the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to promote a transition to democracy. There are three elements. One is that you are using armed force, there's an element of compulsion involved. It's not just democratization; there's a military component to it. Secondly, it is in the aftermath of a conflict. Now, we've seen in Afghanistan and Iraq that some conflicts are more "over" than others. But in principle, this is a process that begins after the war is over. And thirdly, your objective is both to ensure that the conflict doesn't break out again, but also to promote a transition to democracy as the best way of ensuring long-term stability in the society concerned.

So, that's how we define nation building. It's a relatively new phenomenon. There are some precursors, the German and Japanese occupations at the end of the Second World War, the UN intervention in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, but nearly all of the cases are post - Cold War cases.

Let's talk briefly about Japan and Germany, because those were used a lot as analogies for justifying what we would achieve in Iraq, but in looking at your studies those were special cases in the sense that they were homogeneous societies that had known economic development, that were occupied, and that had been devastated by war.

And had surrendered.

And surrendered. Right.

That's right. The German and Japanese cases are valid models but to a limited degree. In both cases, they demonstrated that the project is feasible. That is, you can use armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to bring about a transition to democracy, and that the democracy will endure even after the element of compulsion is removed. It didn't prove you can always do it but at least it did prove that it could be done.

On the other hand, as you've said, there were favorable circumstances in these cases which many of the subsequent nation-building efforts didn't enjoy. Most of the subsequent efforts were not in homogeneous societies but often in highly divided societies. They've all been in second- or third-world economies, not first-world economies. In many cases, the conflicts haven't actually been formally ended with a surrender. For all of those reasons, they were more difficult.

I think the administration did prefer to look to Germany and Japan for their models for Iraq, and there were some good reasons for doing that and there were some bad reasons. The good reasons were that Germany and Japan were big societies, they were big countries like Iraq, unlike Bosnia or Kosovo, which were fairly small. Secondly, they were unqualifiedly successful, whereas the interventions in the nineties were either failures (Somalia and Haiti), or at best were qualified successes. But a third reason also had something to do with it, which was those successes had absolutely nothing to do with Bill Clinton. They were politically correct role models, if you will, that could be embraced without embarrassment, because after all, the administration had criticized its predecessor for its roles in the Balkans and therefore was reluctant to now embrace the model.

The problem is that Iraq in 2003 looked a lot more like Yugoslavia in 1996 than it did Germany or Japan in 1945, and it probably would have made more sense to look to those later examples for models for involving the UN, multilateralizing the effort, training new police, demobilizing the old army. These were things that had been done repeatedly in the nineties and done successfully in many cases, and they offered more relevant models than much that had occurred in the 1940s.

You pointed out already that in the first Bush campaign, that is, George W. Bush, he didn't want to do "social welfare" abroad, he didn't want that as a component of his foreign policy, but you also to point out that during the Clinton years, we were doing one of these every two years and now we're doing one every eighteen months. So in a way, we're dealing with the structure of international politics -- something that's not going to go away, and something that we have to think and plan for.

Right. Not only has the pace of these operations expanded continuously since the end of the Cold War, but the scale of the operations. During the Cold War, the United States intervened abroad at a rate of about once per decade. So, you had Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama, about once every ten years. During the Clinton administration it went up to almost once every two years. And then the current administration, which said it wasn't going to do it anymore, launched three new interventions in the first three years, to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then back into Haiti again, which indicates that these have become largely unavoidable and it's likely that there are going to be these kinds of operations in the future. They're not only getting more frequent, but they're getting larger. The Iraq operation is the largest since the occupations of Germany and Japan in the 1940s.

You point out in your discussion of the Clinton years that what was in place was the Powell Doctrine, which emerged out of the Vietnam War [and] the Weinberger Pentagon. When Powell was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [he] made the argument that if you're going to go into some place, you oversize your expeditionary force so that you can ensure stability and the security that comes with overwhelming military power.

Now, in the Bush administration, this is an idea that has been dropped because of the debates within the Pentagon about what kind of military we want in the future. Talk a little about that, because there is an irony here. By using overwhelming power you are in a better position to secure basic security, which seems to be the key to making the first step successful in the process of democratization, whereas the Rumsfeld notion seems to be to go in with as light a footprint as possible, win the military victory quickly and devastatingly, and then that's it. But as General Casey pointed out, what we seem to have needed in Iraq was the 400,000 to 500,000 troops that he predicted. Talk a little about that.

In the 1990s, particularly in the aftermath of Somalia, which was very controversial after the Blackhawk went down and the American Rangers were killed, there was a high intolerance for casualties, a certain risk aversion. As a result, the administration was under strong political pressure to absolutely minimize the number of casualties. It did that by, in effect, supersizing its interventions, by using such overwhelming force that potential opponents would be intimidated and deterred from even mounting a violent resistance.

That was quite successful. Our study of American interventions did show that there was an inverse relationship between the size of the force as a proportion of the population being stabilized and the number of casualties, with the most generously manned operations in Germany, Bosnia, or Kosovo suffering the fewest casualties. In fact, we suffered no casualties in Germany after the surrender, we suffered no casualties in Japan after the surrender, we suffered no casualties in Bosnia or Kosovo, whereas in the interventions which were more economically manned, such as Somalia, such as Afghanistan and now Iraq, we did suffer higher levels of casualties.

This becomes a serious problem when the civilian population is also suffering high levels of casualties, because if the civilian population doesn't feel secure by reason of your presence, then they're not likely to commit themselves to you and to the changes you're trying to undertake. So, security is a prerequisite for economic and political reforms, and security does ultimately mean that the population has to feel they're safer by reason of your presence.

Next page: Comparing U.S. and UN Interventions

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