Nation-building is a bloody affair. Just ask the Angles or the Visigoths.

Oops, you can’t: they don’t exist any more. The Angles and Visigoths were early victims of nation-building, absorbed into the nations of England and Germany respectively. Their disappearance reminds us that war and genocide created nations, though the less violent interactions of inter-marriage, commerce, and centralized education also contributed to the process.

Today, the term “nation-building” is misleading. While some nations try to build themselves by violent means—an all-Croat Croatia, an all-Serb Serbia—nation-building is generally more about creating viable states than cohesive nations.

Take the case of East Timor.

Cutting and Running

The United Nations focused on governance, security, and economic development when it began its nation-building efforts in East Timor, the half-island that voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. The different ethnic groups of East Timor already had a national identity, forged in large part during two decades of anti-colonial struggle. What they lacked, when Indonesia finally withdrew after killing so many and destroying so much, were functioning political and economic structures.

But, as Arnold Kohen describes in his new FPIF essay, the UN withdrew far too soon from East Timor. Although many East Timorese predicted that the country would need a commitment of at least a decade, the UN peacekeeping presence nearly evaporated within four years of the country’s official independence in 2002. The Bush administration, before Afghanistan and Iraq changed the debate on nation-building in Washington, pushed the UN to withdraw.

Why did the Bush team favor this “cut and run” from East Timor? The bottom line: they believed that nation-building cost too much money.

If the United States had devoted even a tiny percentage of the funds for the Iraq War effort to securing the peace and stability of East Timor, the situation in that country wouldn’t have deteriorated so rapidly this past March and April. Despite far-sighted leaders, East Timor needed more outside help to stabilize the situation. It also needed a different allocation of nation-building funds.

“Although half the hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid reportedly went into the pockets of foreign consultants and expatriate officials, relatively few of the international advisers and consultants working in East Timor really added value to the process,” Kohen argues. “The balance of available funds could be much better used for widespread skills training, job creation, and other public works initiatives to engage unemployed veterans and youth, with a special emphasis on women.”

Institutional Amnesia

The difficulties of nation-building—in East Timor, in Haiti, in Bosnia, in Somalia—should have tempered the hubris of the Bush administration. When preparing to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the administration conveniently forgot about all the problematic nation-building exercises of the last 20 years and the particular incompetences that the United States brought to the equation.

This was a “failure of institutional memory,” according to Francis Fukuyama, in his introduction to a new collection of essays on nation-building (based in part on this 2004 Atlantic article). Fukuyama is too polite. The refusal to plan for the post-Saddam era was not so much a memory lapse as a determined blindness to the specific reality of Iraq. (Some day, this hubris should acquire its proper name: the Rumsfeld Syndrome). Several U.S. proconsuls who presided over the ill-fated exercise in nation-building in Iraq, like the Hoover Institute’s Larry Diamond, have returned to tell all. Diamond didn’t turn into Noam Chomsky during his tenure in Iraq, but his essay in the Fukuyama book demonstrates why so many cons and neo-cons have crossed over to declare the Iraq venture a failure.

The difference between the nation-building of East Timor and that of Iraq is the difference between hubris and humanitarianism. East Timor needed a state to go along with its new nation, and the international community largely responded to the East Timorese lead (except when pushed by the United States to withdraw prematurely).

UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello exemplified this humanitarianism. Instrumental in the rebuilding of Cambodia, he also took the lead in the UN’s mission in East Timor. By all accounts, he was extraordinarily effective in working behind the scenes, talking with all the key actors, and achieving a rough consensus on critical issues. He was very much a facilitator, not an imperial proconsul.

In Iraq, by contrast, the United States believed that it could create an Iraqi nation by force. The civil war that has resulted and the reluctance of the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites to force a common Iraqi identity have made all attempts at creating a state highly fragile. If given the authority to do so, Sergio Vieira de Mello might have been able to apply some of the lessons of East Timor to Iraq. Kofi Annan sent him there to provide just this institutional memory. Before he could have much effect, though, de Mello was tragically killed by a car bomb in August 2003. (For a powerful tribute to de Mello and a reminder that the UN is far from a faceless bureaucracy, check out the documentary En Route to Baghdad). Nation-building claims all manner of victims.

Also at FPIF

As FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes points out in a new commentary, the United States continues to get failing grades in Nation-building 101. The Lebanese state was just pulling itself out of the rubble of the last 25 years when the Bush administration goaded Israel into its July attack on Hezbollah.

Also in FPIF this week, FPIF’s policy outreach director Erik Leaver discusses the recent foiling of the terrorist plot to blow up several transatlantic flights, Americas Program contributor Mavis Anderson looks at the implications of Castro’s health on U.S. policy, and I try to figure out why the United States and South Korea appear to be heading to divorce court.

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