By: Joe Boyles – Guest Columnist
Nation building, the act of creating and fostering a functional government in a foreign land, isn’t a core mission of the American military, but it “comes with the territory.” It has always been with our country, as it was with the British Empire before our nation was founded. Sometimes it is a political football between the parties like it was in the 2000 election – Gore argued that it was an important part of the military’s mission while Bush argued against it. Gore was right.
In our nation’s history from the time of the Civil War forward, our armies have forced civil control on the conquered lands for some period of time, often with mixed results. At the end of the Rebellion in 1865, the North instituted a period of Reconstruction which went particularly bad in the former Confederate states including Florida. Eventually, the North withdrew and allowed Southerners to once again form their own state and local governments.
In America’s one imperial war against Spain in 1898, we instituted government control over The Philippines and quickly discovered that we were not only out of our league but needed to return control back to the people. At the end of World War I, the winning Allies governed the area of Germany west of the Rhine River for several years to provide a protective buffer for France. It went badly.
Our efforts at nation building following World War II went much better. In Germany, our military government was short-lived and a new constitution and representative democracy were soon formed. In post-war Japan under proconsul Douglas MacArthur, the transition to a new democratic and liberal society was even more astounding. The democratic roots of both of these nations and firm allies are the result of American nation building following the ashes of world war. We learned well the lessons from our failure after World War I.
America’s efforts in nation building following the Korean War have proven spectacular. Today, South Korea is an economic bulwark in Northeast Asia. In South Vietnam, we bit off far more than we could chew. The revolving governments following the Diem assassination in 1963 never had the support of the people; we were unable to build any strength of government which could repel their northern brethren.
Since 2000, our two wars in the Middle East have seen different results with respect to building democratic nations which represent the aspirations of the people. In Iraq since 2007, the results have been good if tenuous. Part of this is the result of the people being accustomed to a strong central government. But in Afghanistan where governing is far more tribal, positive results for creating a central democracy have been agonizingly slow. It would appear that for every step forward, there are at least one and sometimes two steps backward.
Our strategy in Afghanistan is counter insurgency, developed in 2008 by the outgoing Bush Administration and implemented by the Obama team. We’re asking our troops, primarily the foot soldiers of our Army and Marines, to take territory from Taliban insurgents and then hold it while we fabricate a functioning government – administration, security, schools, health services, etc.
With this strategy, the iron fist of our military must be housed in a velvet glove. We must separate the enemy from the people and stride carefully. It subjects our troops to greater risk and more casualties. How successful and at what cost are the critical, unanswered questions. History tells us that when Afghanistan is forgotten and left to its own tribal inclinations, the results are bad and sometimes catastrophic – the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed from al Qaeda camps in the Afghan desert.
Today, Muslim North Africa is in flames as the people of Tunisia and Egypt rise up against totalitarian governments. As the Russian Jewish refugee Nathan Sharansky wrote, ‘when you hold a gun to the people’s head, sooner or later your arm will tire.’ What kind of rule will replace the long-standing strong men? Will a Muslim fundamentalist regime such as Iran fill the vacuum? Do we intervene to protect shipping through the Suez Canal? What kind of nation building will NATO be called upon to assist the democratic aspirations of these people? How well positioned is our State Department to handle these challenges?
Nation building is a tough job but an important responsibility. If we intervene and change a regime, we have an obligation to restore order and improve the government. The United States is the premier democracy among the world’s nations. People who are oppressed look to us for leadership and democratic reforms.
We live in a dangerous and sometimes exciting world in the second decade of the 21st Century. The possibilities are endless.