No More Land Wars?

No More Land Wars?

Amitai Etzioni

There is a growing consensus that the United States should not engage in another major land war in Asia or Africa, a view encapsulated in the catchphrase “no more boots on the ground.” Indeed, currently the US is either refraining from taking military action, or is limiting itself to drone strikes, covert operations, “capacity building” of local forces, and advising. This consensus, we shall see, is based in part on a fundamental misunderstanding of the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the US won both easily, quickly, suffering few casualties and low costs—causing rather limited collateral damage. Both campaigns ended up badly (although major analysts differ with regard to the question of how badly and what exactly caused the unfavorable outcomes) once the US decided to engage in nation building, helping these nations build stable, democratic, US-friendly regimes.  There are many reasons for the US not to engage in a war in Syria or Iraq, or avoid placing boots on the ground to fight Islamic terrorist or insurgent groups in Yemen or Africa. However, the argument that the US could not win such wars with much difficulty is not supported, I will next show, by previous experiences. What failed was the nation building that followed solid military victories.  These failures were not accidental. The conditions that made successful nation building possible in Germany and Japan after WWII are currently missing in much of the Middle East and Africa.

The “No Land War” Consensus

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stated at West Point in February 2011: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Vice President Biden supported the same view in 2012: “The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East, requiring tens of thousands, if not well over 100,000 American forces.”1 Col. Gian Gentile, Professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy,  concluded that “We should absolutely avoid building a future ground force optimized for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan,”2 Likewise, a Defense Advisory Committee on “Strategic Agility” meeting in 20133    held that “U.S. leaders should think long and hard before committing U.S. ground forces to contingencies that might lead to lengthy commitments of sizable scale, particularly when the goal is to stabilize failing states or to unseat despotic rulers.

The high costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been viewed with growing alarm as deficit battles intensified at home and among American allies. A comprehensive estimate of the United States’ war expenses by the Harvard Kennedy School, for example, estimated in 2013 that the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could reach up to$6 trillion.4

The Record

The U.S. intervention in 1991, which rolled back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, exacted a heavy cost from Iraq for violating another nation’s sovereignty and shored up America’s military credibility, which had been low ever since the Vietnam debacle. Once the said goals of the war were achieved, the U.S. stopped rather than extending its intervention to encompass regime change. As a result the war was concluded swiftly, with limited American and allied causalities—fewer than four hundred—and at low cost ($61 billion), almost 90 percent of which was borne by U.S. allies.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam’s regime were carried out swiftly, with few casualties and low costs. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for Iraq operations by the time President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003, and 172 coalition servicemen had died. But the nation-building phase that followed was a different story. After May 2003, more than four thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and the cost of US operations in the country exceeded $650 billion. The result obviously is not a stable, democratic, US-friendly Iraq.

True, some hold that if the US had stayed even longer, and invested even more, the nation building goals could have been attained. However, as we shall see below, that there are strong reasons to hold that the sociological conditions for nation building of the kind the US sought are not in place in this part of the world.   

One may also argue that for the war to achieve its goals, it was not enough to topple the Saddam regime, but the US had to establish that there were no WMD. This might well have required some extension of US presence in Iraq, but most of the casualties, and the hundreds of billions, were not spent on this search but on nation building.  And clearing up this matter surely did not require a decade-long US presence.

Similarly, the 1999 intervention in Kosovo was completed with almost no U.S. casualties and few outlays, and the goal of stopping the ethnic cleansing, was accomplished. The great difficulties and large outlays that followed were caused by the nation building (although in this case it was carried out more by the UN).

The 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was carried out swiftly, with minimal American casualties and costs. Only twelve U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2001. The fighting was carried out largely by locals of the Northern Alliance. And the security-related costs of the war for 2002 and 2003 were only $535 million. Most of the ensuing casualties and costs took place during the subsequent period in which the counterterrorism (CT) approach was replaced with counterinsurgency (COIN), which includes a strong element of nation building.

One can argue that the military operation in Afghanistan was not over after the Taliban government was defeated because the goal was to eradicate Al Qaeda, and it took several years before its ranks were truly thinned out. But when the costs of the war are divided between those that concerned security and those that involved nation building (as put forth in an April 2009 GAO report that examined costs from 2002–2009), almost half of the funds were used for non-security goals such as education, reconstruction, democracy and governance building. Moreover, while nation building did little to improve security (as explained later), the security efforts were needed to make nation building possible. Hence, at least part of the security costs should be considered nation-building ones.

The Conditions for Successful Nation Building

Long-distance social engineering—in which one nation is seeking to develop, democratize,  or build another nation—is not merely costly but also a mission prone to failure. It should be undertaken only if the conditions for success are favorable.

The following overview of the demanding conditions under which nation-building may succeed suggests that such endeavors generally should be avoided. It examines the conditions under which the original Marshall Plan, deemed a great success, was implemented; the preconditions for democratization, which is failing in many places, including the nations of the Arab Awakening; and the reason why coin runs into difficulties, which has implications for all nation-building missions.

Over the past several years, and particularly since last year’s uprisings in the Arab world, it has become common for senior policy makers and public commentators to look to the Marshall Plan for guidance in today’s Middle East. As Hillary Clinton said in a June 2011 speech: “Today, as the Arab Spring unfolds across the Middle East and North Africa, some principles of the [Marshall Plan] apply again, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.”  This view was endorsed by national-security adviser General James Jones and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Advocates of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East often point to the success of the original Marshall Plan. As General Jones explained, “We learned that lesson after World War II; we rebuilt Europe, we rebuilt Japan.” But the experiences in Germany and Japan demonstrate the conditions under which nation-building can succeed are largely missing in the Middle East.

The most important difference concerns security. Germany and Japan had surrendered after defeat in a war, and nation-building occurred only after hostilities had ceased and a high level of domestic security was established. There were no terrorists and no insurgencies.

Second, Germany and Japan were occupied during much of the nation-building drive. Social engineering by America and its allies was hands-on; a Marshall Plan for Libya, Yemen, Somalia or Egypt, on the other hand, would have to be long distance. The people of these nations don’t want foreign troops on their soil, and no foreign powers are inclined to send any.

Additionally, there was no danger that Japan or Germany would slip into a sectarian or ethnic civil war, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. No effort had to be expended on building national unity. Indeed, strong national unity allowed change to be introduced with relative ease. Also contributing to success were competent government personnel and a low level of corruption. Robert A. Packenham observed that “technical and financial expertise, relatively highly institutionalized political parties, skillful and visionary politicians, well-educated populations, [and] strong national identifications” all contributed to success.

None of this is surprising. Germany and Japan were very strong nation-states before WWII. Citizens closely identified with the nation and were willing to sacrifice for it. By contrast, the first loyalty of many citizens of Middle Eastern nations is to their ethnic or confessional group.

Germany and Japan also had strong industrial bases, established infrastructures, educated populations, and vigorous support for science and technology, corporations, business and commerce. In contrast, many Middle Eastern states lack most of these assets, institutions and traditions. They cannot be reconstructed because they were never constructed in the first place.

Social science teaches that cultural values play an important role in determining how a population fares—and that these values are very resistant to change. Max Weber, for example, contended that Protestants were more imbued than Catholics with the values that lead to hard work and high levels of saving, both essential for the rise of modern capitalism. For decades, Catholic countries lagged behind the Protestant Anglo-Saxon nations in development. Weber also pointed to the difference between Confucian and Muslim values, thus predicting, in effect, the striking difference between the very high rates of development in the Asian “tigers”—China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea—and the low rates in most Muslim states.

The U.S. commitment to reconstruction after World War II was significantly higher than its current commitment to foreign aid. In 1948, the first year of the Marshall Plan, aid to the sixteen European countries under the plan totaled 13 percent of the federal budget. The United States today spends less than 1 percent of its budget on foreign aid, and not all of that is given to economic development.

In short, nation-building can succeed; however, the conditions must be favorable, and most favorable conditions are missing in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Somalia and Libya. They also are in short supply in Egypt. Some conditions may be found in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan—but even these nations compare poorly to post-WWII Germany and Japan. If Marshall Plans were initiated for these nations, they would likely fail. The same does not hold for limited and sharply focused nation-building attempts or development projects—for example, fixing the oil refineries of Libya, which could be made to work. But these are exceptions to the rule.

The Difficulty of Democratization

Much has been made about the successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, relatively corruption-free elections are viewed by many as an indicator that a major element nation building—democratization—has succeeded. However, when other key elements of democratization have not been developed or introduced, elections often lead –to domination of undemocratic, neo-authoritarian elements (e.g. in Iraq and in Russia and on the West Bank) or corrupt governments (e.g. in Afghanistan).

Before the recent democratization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were similar attempts in scores of other nations. Most failed (a list follows below). Although there is little agreement on conditions for success, there is a consensus that certain facilitating and constituting factors can play a positive role. Generally, the more widespread these variables are, the better the prospects for democracy. Also, the variables support one another. Democracy building is more likely to succeed if at least some elements within each of the broad categories are present, rather than many elements from one or two categories and few from others.

Facilitating factors—conditions that ease the formation of democracy—include: (a) law and order and basic security; (b) literacy, general education and civic education; (c) economic development, separation of economic power from political power and leveling of economic differences; (d) a sizable, developed middle class; (e) the rule of law, independent judges and respect for law-enforcement authorities; and (f) civil society, voluntary associations and communities.5

Constituting factors—building blocks of democracy—include: (a) the unencumbered ability of parties to compete for support and votes; (b) set eligibility criteria for public office; (c) assurance of free and fair elections; (d) formulation of a constitutional order and process that ensures power sharing as well as separation of powers, which is essential for checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches; (e) a low level of corruption and high level of transparency; (f) protection of minority rights; (g) freedom of association; (h) freedom of the press; and (i) enumeration of individual rights vis-à-vis the government.6

Clearly fair and open elections are not of themselves a sufficient foundation for democracy building. Without the presence of a significant number of the above factors, the result is likely to be similar to what prevailed in Russia in 2012. There, one party prevented others from competing, controlled large parts of the media and was complicit in the killing of critical journalists and human-rights activists—although elections were regularly conducted. The corruption of the elections adds to the failure of democracy but is not the only or main factor.

When Arabs in several nations took to the streets in 2011 to protest the authoritarian regimes, they generated widespread optimism. It was assumed that democratic regimes would follow and that the West could help with the transformation. We know better now.

Even a cursory examination of these conditions beyond elections shows that developing them is an arduous process that is difficult for outsiders to direct. It is overwhelmingly difficult to cultivate respect for the rule of law where little has existed, build a sizable middle class or reduce corruption where it has run rampant. It took Britain centuries and America generations to develop solidly liberal-democratic regimes, and conditions throughout this time were fundamentally much more favorable than those found in the Middle East.

In a 2003 study, Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper examined sixteen U.S. attempts at nation building since 1900. By their calculation, only two of the sixteen interventions were “unambiguous successes” (Japan and West Germany). They labeled two others as successful (Grenada and Panama) but noted that the small populations in these cases made nation building a much easier task. The remaining eleven cases (excluding Afghanistan, which was too recent for a sound determination) were failures, giving the U.S. a 26% success rate. Pei and Kasper observed, “Historically, nation-building attempts by outside powers are notable mainly for their bitter disappointments, not their triumphs.”

More generally, as Thomas Carothers, author of Aiding Democracy Abroad, puts it, “The idea that there’s a small democracy inside every society waiting to be released just isn’t true.” And F. Gregory Gause III observes that the “confidence that Washington has in its ability to predict, and even direct, the course of politics in other countries” is both “unjustified” and “problematic.”

In Conclusion

There are many reasons the US should carefully deliberate whether to engage its military forces in any armed conflicts. However, the experience of interventions does not show that such commitments are failure-prone, as long as their goals are limited to defeating an adversary and allowing the local people to form a new regime. However, the experience shows, if local nation building is added to what the US military is seeking to accomplish, failure is likely to follow.

End Notes

  1. “Vice Presidential Debate Transcript,” ABC News, (October 11, 2012).
  2. David Axe, “The Future of Land Wars: Intense, High-Tech, Urban, Coastal,” Breaking Defense, (November 30 2011).
  3. “Strategic Agility,” Stimson Center, September 2013.
  4. Bilmes, Linda J. "The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP13-006, (March 2013).
  5. Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 43; Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004); S.M.Lipset, The Democratic Century (Norman, Okla.: Oklahoma University Press, 2004).
  6. Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 43.
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