How to End America's Ugly Image

An Iraq war has become more certain with President George W. Bush's decision to seek United Nations support in his campaign against Iraq. There is even a feeling, perhaps naive, that this war will be a sort of instant replay of the 1991 conflict - albeit with a different ending: the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

It is far from certain that things will go so smoothly. But even if they do, there remains the question: what next? To judge by US policy in Afghanistan the answer may be: establish a seemingly friendly leader, put in a few peacekeepers, sketch out a framework for governance, involve the UN and reward key countries in the region. Then retreat and let the credits roll.

In reality, this is probably not sufficient to achieve a happy ending. At least, not sufficient to preclude Iraq's slipping into the sort of chaos and instability that generate would-be dictators, warlords and terrorists.

What is more, such a course of action could foster enormous hostility to the west. After all, dramatic punishment that is not followed by dramatic reward can itself perpetuate instability. Who can love, or even choose to live with, an alliance that is all hammer?

A number of influential US voices are therefore calling for nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan: the strong and enduring involvement of western powers in rebuilding. This involvement must start with an international presence. But it would include substantial aid, as well as years of serious political work to inculcate democratic values: a free press, a truly functional government, free markets and so on.

To embrace comprehensive nation-building would be an enormous turn for the US. The very term has been anathema since Vietnam, which was said to prove a) that nation-building cannot work and b) the arrogance and fallibility of the American model. In the case of the Middle East, the idea of imposing western-style democracy on Muslim societies has been rejected repeatedly. Trying to make Middle Eastern nations into "mini-Americas", as one US politician put it, was a recipe for trouble, antagonising allies (the House of Saud) and generating fundamentalist rebellion.

Still, the case of the nation-builders is compelling.

Consider Afghanistan. Its hosting of al-Qaeda can be seen as a direct result of a past failure to build a nation. The US worked hard to support the Mujahideen in the 1980s; recall the image of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, telling soldiers that God and the US were on their side. But once Soviet soldiers retreated over the Friendship Bridge, the US also evaporated. Warlords, and eventually the Taliban, filled the vacuum.

Iraq's history also suggests the need for more involvement. After recapturing Kuwait, the US halted, confident that it did not need to unseat Mr Hussein to force regime change in Iraq. Any number of US leaders went around saying that Mr Hussein was "finished" and that Iraq could now find its own path to stability.

Indeed, you can argue that a phobia of nation-building caused much of the instability through the Middle East. At a conference hosted by the Donald and Paula Smith Foundation in New York last week, Richard Holbrooke, the former UN ambassador, called the US failure to engage more in Iraq "the single greatest mistake" of the recent era. Mr Holbrooke, who secured the peace in Yugoslavia on behalf of the Clinton administration, notes that, while 60,000 troops have been sent to Bosnia, there are only some 5,000 in Afghanistan.

Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute goes a step further and calls for active engagement, as well as potential nation-building, in Iran and Syria as well. Even expanding trade will not suffice to stabilise the Middle East. "There is not an automatic connection between wealth and democracy," he says. Democracy needs US help.

To the sceptics who fear hostage-taking, bloodshed and revolution, the nation-builders offer four rebuttals. The first is that the experience of Yugoslavia proves that troops are not necessarily sitting ducks: not a single member of the international forces in action there since the peace has lost his life from hostile fire. The second is that sheer momentum of victory will make nation-building a relatively easy task. The US passed up a big opportunity when it failed in 1991 to take control in much-damaged Iraq and rebuild the country.

The third point is that most of the concern about nation-building is based on cold war experiences. Now, though, there is a fundamental difference: there is no superpower on the other side to push back and prolong the battle. Vietnam would have been different had there been no Soviet Union or China behind the Viet Cong.

But it is the fourth argument that is the most important and the most novel: that many Middle Easterners, in Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere, would welcome westerners, especially Americans, who want to instil democracy. Mr Ledeen points to the pro-US demonstrations that have taken place in Iran this past year. Americans, Mr Holbrooke says, ask: "Why do they hate us?" The answer, he says, is: "They don't hate us." The unpopularity of the US among Middle Easterners stems instead from America's hypocritical support of non-democratic leaders.

The new currency of the nation-building ideal is interesting for what it tells us about American culture: that, for better or for worse, the US is at last trading away its old, cold war view of itself as the "ugly American" for a more positive image. But it is nation-building's relevance to the Middle East that really matters. The fact is that the "containment" of the past decade has failed; nation-building may be our best hope.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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