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Nation Building and the Iraq Problem

“I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” – George W. Bush (October 11, 2000).

“In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.” – Barack Obama (January 13, 2016).

It is the attitude typified by the above quote by President George W. Bush that has lead to the current situation in Iraq. The United States, with her allies, has been involved in Iraq in almost an exclusively military capacity since 2003. With a weakened ability for law enforcement, as well as an ill-functioning legal and political system, there is little surprise in how easily Islamic State was able to seize and control large swathes of the nation, including its second largest city Mosul. With the debate about whether to put “boots on the ground” currently being held, it is imperative that the US-led Allied forces make a continued and concerted effort at incorporating state-rehabilitation and nation-development strategies in Iraq. While a difficult political sell, the development of secure, robust political and legal institutions in Iraq is the best way to improve security for the region and the world. A purely military approach cannot accomplish this task. Failed and fragile states are now where security threats originate from, and in a globalised world isolation is no longer an effective option.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a nation that was tenuously held together. With fractured ethnic groups under an oppressive regime, the removal of Hussein prompted a complex power-vacuum that required substantial resources and expertise to navigate. Now, years after an extended engagement in the country and shortly after the withdrawal of foreign forces, Islamic State has been able to take hold in the north of Iraq with minimal resistance. After a series of high profile terrorist attacks which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for, Western forces are now faced with the tough decision of whether to involve itself militarily within Iraq once more. Regardless of the decision to put “boots on the ground” or not, nation building principles need to be engaged in order to prevent Iraq from continuing to be a safe haven for disorder and terror groups.

Within the US, there is political exhaustion on the topic of Iraq. The prospect of re-engaging in a country, which has already cost in excess of one trillion dollars, is a difficult sell to politicians and the public alike. President Obama has made it clear that the “pivot to Asia” is of a higher priority, and stated in the 2016 State of the Union address that “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions”.

Nation building can be effectively split into two broad camps: reconstruction and development. Historically, reconstruction has been successful in the revival of a country’s pre-existing social and political institutions after it has been ravaged by war, as seen in Japan and Germany in the aftermath of World War II.

On the other hand, development is a nation-building problem that has not yet been accomplished to any high degree. Development seeks to establish a functioning democratic political and legal system where there has not been one before. There have been several attempts at nation building development in Vietnam, some Baltic States and in Afghanistan and Iraq. It requires the engagement of military, NGOs, foreign investment, and organisations like the World Bank.

The risks of not engaging in a comprehensive plan of nation building are severe. As seen in Iraq, removing the leader has plunged a country, which has not developed robust enough institutions to repel existential threats, into quagmire. By multilaterally engaging in nation building exercises, with strong involvement by the Iraqi people, nations are able to share the burden of developing Iraq’s statehood while laying the primary responsibility of development with the Iraqi government.

In building Iraq’s nation, there are substantial long-term benefits. While it is not an easy path, the continued investment in the development of the country will stabilise it in ways often perceived to be unattainable through military engagement. Concerted efforts into economic development and utilising the knowledge of notable nation building specialists, the United States and her allies will leave Iraq having made the country more resistant to civil war and an ally.

The opposition to nation building is rife within the US political landscape. GOP presidential nominee Marco Rubio has been distancing himself from the term “nation building” altogether. Many in Washington DC believe that nation building is a fool’s errand, destined to drag Western nations into unproductive, expensive “babysitting” roles with the affected countries. These are legitimate fears, but rather than ward governments away from nation building, this should encourage a push to improving the process.

With Islamic State occupying a significant portion of Iraq, and political institutions still fragile, it is crucial that the United States and her allies dedicate resources to a serious attempt at nation building within the country. This is the only way that Iraq will resist being continually occupied by warring extremist groups into the future.

Joel Paterson is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: The U.S. Army (Cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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