Failure Won’t Deter US Nation-Building Complex

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Ten years ago, in 2003, President George W. Bush argued in a notorious speech that “Saddam Hussein had given the Iraqi people nothing but war and misery and torture. The lives of the Iraqi people,” the president argued, “matter little to Saddam Hussein. But Iraqi lives and freedom, matter greatly to us.”

Few topics are less controversial in international politics than U.S. projects of nation-building. Strongly associated with failed attempts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, they are seen as ill-conceived adventures of Western cultural imperialism. Yet as Jeremi Suri shows in his latest book, Liberty’s Surest Guardian: Rebuilding Nations After War from the Founders to Obama, nation building is as old as the United States itself. “Whether engaged in North Carolina in 1869 or northern Afghanistan in 2009, the question has always been: how can Americans help to nurture more stable, modern and sustainable institutions?” Suri writes.

To many non-American observers critical of U.S. foreign policy, the mere title of the book is likely to be too off-putting to ever read it. The introduction, written in the form of an executive summary of a policy memo, is so strikingly approving of the practice that the reader waits for some sort of caveat, or brief acknowledgement of the suffering the United States has inflicted on other peoples in the pursuit of liberty and freedom. And yet, Suri’s book – controversial as it is – provides a useful insight into the most misunderstood element of U.S. American foreign policy: the liberal internationalist urge, something Suri calls the “American nation-building creed.”

Suri focuses on six episodes of nation-building in America’s history: the founding of the United States; the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War; the  occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War; the occupation of Germany following the Second World War; the attempt at nation-building in Vietnam; and the continuing effort in Afghanistan.

Suri’s book pursues two main goals. The first is to show that nation-building is more than just a foreign policy goal. Rather, it is an integral part of the U.S. cultural narrative, intimately tied to its history and self-understanding. The practice of nation-building is thus nothing new, and Suri successfully shows that the United States’ attempt to democratize Iraq was not the aberration many believed. His inclusion of Reconstruction after the Civil War is particularly instructive to non-Americans unfamiliar with the period, even though he does not seem to give much importance to the fact that it took until the 1960s to implement universal suffrage in the South.

His second objective is to convince the reader that U.S. nation building has been a largely successful enterprise. Despite his best efforts, he is unlikely to convince a good part of the readership,  partly because he is rather optimistic about Iraq, arguably the most ambitious (and disastrous) nation-building project of the past decades. He controversially claims that in Iraq, General Petraeus employed “the distilled wisdom of American nation-building over two centuries” – implying that the United States has continuously become better at rebuilding other societies. Yet how can such a claim be verified? How to measure U.S. expertise in nation-building?

Perhaps covering too much ground, Suri’s analysis of each case study remains at times superficial, and in an attempt to tease out policy lessons, he often refrains from revealing a more complex reality. For example, how did the United States manage the contradiction between colonialism and self-determination in the Philippines? Interestingly enough, his analysis of the U.S. failure in Vietnam is perhaps the best part of the book.

Yet Suri urges readers to be patient and adopt a long-term perspective. Seen from this perspective, he says, it is far too early to describe Iraq and Afghanistan as failures. Nation-building projects may take generations to succeed, and the United States is right to pursue them despite the short-term political setbacks they entail.

Many realist thinkers will plainly disagree. Suri argues that nation-building is difficult, expensive, and unpleasant, and at best it can be only partially ­successful — but it is often unavoidable. And yet, why exactly is it unavoidable? Were U.S. interests really at stake in the Philippines and in Iraq? How would the United States have been worse off had it not engaged in nation-building in both countries?

Despite these problems, the book is a good reminder that undeterred by the difficulties encountered during the past two attempts in rebuilding societies – Iraq and Afghanistan – the United States is unlikely to give up a practice it has pursued for the past two centuries, and which, to the chagrin of many observers, is a central element of the United States’ foreign policy.

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