On September 16, the President ordered 3000 US soldiers into West Africa to combat the Ebola virus epidemic. Unfortunately, the decision is likely to have a greater impact on the delegates to the United Nations General Assembly then on the victims of the disease itself.
Sorry to pop the feel-good bubble, but an hour spent recently with Stuart W. Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction suggests that we are not actually very good at nation building. Despite its superb organization and discipline, our military is pretty much flying blind when it comes to virus fighting and nation building.
The same will likely be true of our efforts against ISIS. There once was a choice of “liberate and leave” but now we are faced with “occupy and rebuild.” We have no playbook for the latter.
The role of an Inspector General is to be the taxpayers’ watchdog and look at an existing program to see whether it is being implemented effectively. In the reconstruction of Iraq it was not.
We began our efforts by failing to ask what was necessary to restore and stabilize Iraq. It went downhill from there and we spent $62 billion, largely in cash, to create the existing mess. Apparently, it dawned on no one that pallet loads of US currency might just lead to corruption.
Mr. Bowen repeatedly used the phrase “designing the airplane while it is in flight.” We actually have no plans for stabilization and reconstruction and no mechanism to coordinate the efforts of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce or myriad other federal entities that have legitimate contributions to make to such a project.
In Iraq, we ended up with a disaster: a broken country, a “reverse Superman” Iraqi Army with civilian clothes under its uniforms, and a well-trained, Baathist, involuntarily retired former military, which we released with its AK-47s after taking away its pensions. There were 300,000 of them.
What could go wrong?
If you think it is likely that the United States will be called upon to solve more such problems, you might be in favor of our having a plan to do so. Otherwise, whatever benefit there is will only be found along the banks of the East River in Manhattan.
Virus fighting and nation building: either way, we don’t know how.