The era of nation building is not over

Incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declares one of his goals will be improving our military’s performance in postwar environments. It’s tempting to assume any pullback from Iraq signals the end of messy nation-building efforts, but recent history says otherwise, making Gates’ commitment vitally important.

During the Cold War, America engaged in nation building once every decade, but since then it’s been closer to once every couple of years, especially when you consider the inevitable splintering of fragile states. Iraq, for example, is logically considered three separate efforts: the good (Kurdish region), the bad (Shiite provinces) and the ugly (the Sunni triangle).

This higher frequency in what the Pentagon calls "post-conflict reconstruction and stability operations" corresponds to the sharp rise — since Bush 41, mind you — in the use of American forces in both crisis responses (e.g., civil strife, disaster relief) and regime-toppling exercises designed to round up bad guys (e.g., Panama’s Noriega, Serbia’s Milosevic & Co., Afghanistan’s Taliban and al-Qaida, and Iraq’s "deck of cards").

The problem is that bad guys get smarter, shifting their efforts from a "first half" (war) they cannot win against our world-class forces to a "second half" (postwar) where they can prevail against our rather mediocre nation-builders. Simply put, insurgents avoid our Leviathan force during war, waiting until the follow-on peace can be sabotaged by terrorism and the battered populace co-opted by their superior forms of tribe-building.

It’s easy to call it a "clash of civilizations" and bail, but let me give you several reasons why that is utterly unrealistic.

First, failed states are the essential pawns in this "long war" against radical extremism. The global jihadist movement lives for such opportunities because, despite the "holy" warriors’ vaunted reputation, they can’t possibly achieve power anywhere but in the most debilitated regimes.

Second, globalization links our security to these failed states and this historic phenomenon is picking up speed. Too many Americans live under the delusion that globalization can be stopped with tariffs and a tall border fence, like it’ll go away if we just decide we’ve had enough.

But guess what? Those three-billion-plus new capitalists recently added in the East and South want some version of our good life, and they’re not simply abandoning the dream because Iraq turns out badly for us. China and India, for example, are all over Africa, linking their economies’ booming resource needs to raw material providers.

Trust me, it’ll always be somebody’s blood for somebody’s oil, or diamonds, or platinum, or …

Third, rogue regimes love to meddle in failed states, as Lebanon’s recent woes amply demonstrate. Syria has long used Lebanon as a platform for battling arch-nemesis Israel, and Iran just directed Hezbollah’s splendid little war to draw global attention from its contested nuclear program.

Fourth, defaulting to local dictators as the answer (the preferred route for "realists") simply delays state failure without curing it. Sure, many strongmen, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek, aim to replicate the "Chinese model" of economic reforms prior to political change, but most will fail in that quest simply because China itself blocks entry into globalization’s low-cost tier.

Fifth, waiting on the United Nations to become that second-half peacekeeping kingpin is a dream that died more than a decade ago on the streets of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia that’s now run — by the way — by a radical Islamist party. Yes, NATO can provide some modest help, but don’t expect the "been there, done that" Europeans to resurrect a colonial-era "can do" spirit too far beyond their borders.

Sixth, the fundamental nature of war versus peace has been transformed: Wars have gotten shorter, easier to win, cheaper and less labor-intensive while the peace has grown dramatically longer, far more complex, a lot more expensive and inescapably labor-intensive.

Our real challenge today?

As our over-developed war-fighting force gets stronger, it drives up the resource requirements of our underdeveloped peacemaking force. We write checks with airpower that boots-on-the-ground cannot possibly cash.

The good news?

America’s Army and Marines are changing this strategic mindset rapidly through improved training, doctrine and tactics. Now if only our incoming Secretary of Defense can shift the budget from smart weapons to smarter soldiers (something Donald Rumsfeld didn’t manage), America will move far closer to fielding a second-half force that won’t squander first-half leads like the one we’ve once held in Iraq.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC.Contact him at tom(at)