A New Year's Resolution: Face Reality

Washington Matters

A New Year's Resolution: Face Reality

If we think about it, many of this nation's toughest problems stem from keeping our eyes closed. Who didn't know, really know, that housing prices couldn't keep going up and that loans with interest rates that would skyrocket could be a disaster? Did we really believe we could pay for two wars and a new drug benefit in Medicare without raising taxes or slashing government programs? There is example after example where we -- and I say "we" complacent voters are as much to blame as Congress and the president -- continued down a dangerous path even though we knew the consequences would eventually be severe. Perhaps this economic crisis will help us learn to face up to the costs of our decisions and actions more quickly instead of keeping our fingers crossed and letting problems fester.

If so, one of the first things we'll need to accept and address is our role in nation-building. Many find the idea of  meddling to such a degree abhorrent. What's even more abhorrent, though, is our habit of saddling ourselves with nation-building operations -- like those in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and being disastrously unprepared.

It would only seem like common sense that if we are going to interfere in the affairs of another country -- be it for humanitarian reasons like the interventions in Balkans in the 1990s or for supposed national security purposes such as Iraq and Afghanistan --  that we  go in prepared to help these countries recover from war. But not only have we been ill-prepared to help rebuild both infrastructure and civil society in many of these lands, but we have rejected the idea even as disasters unfolded before, like in Iraq.

It may have been understandable for President Bush to have maintained his suspicion of nation-building early in his presidency, but it strikes me as almost willfully wrongheaded to do so when the war was failing badly and some of the leading foreign policy voices in the country were devising ways to not just improve the situation in Iraq but to create a permanent nation-building capacity within the State Department and Pentagon.  But that's what Bush did when in 2004 then Sens. Richard Lugar, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel  introduced  legislation that would create a nation-building corps made up of engineers, hospital and school administrators, agriculture experts, police trainers, authorities on voting and governance and others with the very specific skills that a post-conflict society needs to rebuild, recover and in many cases break free of decades of authoritarian rule. Democracy and capitalism rarely happen on their own.

That legislation and other proposals went nowhere -- as did the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. We will learn again just how ill-prepared we were early next month. That's when a special inspector general for Iraq will present a 500-page report to a congressional commission investigating war-time contracting. The report is still being reviewed, but a draft was obtained by The New York Times and non-profit journalism group ProPublica. The draft can be read at the Times site, but be forewarned -- the tales are maddening and frustrating because they describe one missed opportunity and avoidable mistake after another.

There may be -- in fact there should be -- a happy ending to all this. Not only is it possible the report will anger enough policymakers to make them want to ensure that similar mistakes are never repeated, but many of the most important ones -- Biden will be vice president and have Barack Obama's ear and Lugar will be the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- will be in positions of influence, not on the sidelines.

It would be awful tempting to allow a nation-building corps or similar plan to slip far down the list of priorities. There are multiple and serious problems clamoring for attention and money. Plus, nation-building has been such a common and easy whipping boy for years that it may be difficult to win public backing. But not tackling the problem quickly would be a huge mistake. First, we still have to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, there is no shortage of failed and failing states, which are incubators for terrorism, organized crime and black markets for weapons. Third, a flareup could come at any time and the chances for dealing with it quickly and effectively will rise dramatically if we and our allies are truly prepared. (After all, no one acted to stop genocide in Rwanda a generation ago because we weren't sure how -- and had been cowed from such missions after the disastrous Black Hawk Down crisis in Somalia.)

We decided long ago that humanitarian and national security concerns sometimes require the United States to throw its weight around and try to right sinking ships of states that are a half a world away. Now, finally, we need the tools, experience and know-how to do it right.