The destruction of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its replacement by a new regime that is at least not certifiably lunatic has led to discussions on the role that the United States should play in that country’s future. Some advocate a big “nation-building” program designed to create a model democracy. Fool’s Errands, however, counsels that “nation-building” has in the past been a costly failure that we should stay away from in Afghanistan and everywhere else.
Authors Gary Dempsey, a foreign-policy analyst with Cato Institute and Roger Fontaine, who served on the national Security Council under President Reagan, here survey the history of U.S. interventions in foreign nations for the purpose of transforming them — to end violence, replace despicable rulers, promote democracy, and generally to make life less Hobbesian for unfortunate people. Most of the book is devoted to analysis of our most recent nation-building escapades: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In each case, we learn much about the futility and even counter-productivity of our efforts that strongly contradicts the official optimism spun out by the Clinton administration.
The movie “Black Hawk Down” reminded Americans about our unhappy adventure in Somalia in 1992-93. Dempsey and Fontaine fill in many details of that fiasco that were downplayed or entirely ignored by the media and Clinton administration spinmeisters. Although there certainly was starvation on a large scale in Somalia in 1992, the authors note that the worst of it had passed by the time of the nation-building operation, and the free food shipments were devastating to the efforts of Somali farmers. Moreover, the U.N. and American peacekeeping force, far from reducing the level of violence, actually raised it. The authors write, “Many Somalis…came to view U.N. peacekeepers as just another clan, with its own set of enemies and allies, fighting to get its way. The round of warfare that broke out between UNOSOM II and Aideed would last for four months and produce thousands of casualties.”
Most enlightening of all is the authors’ postscript on Somalia, “By 1997, two and a half years after the last U.S. troops departed, commerce was booming in Somalia, the markets were full, and people who had previously eked out their existence with the barrel of a gun had gone into business importing, exporting and transporting goods.” Peace, at least as much as the Somalis had ever known, had returned, despite our useless meddling.
Haiti was the next of Clinton’s nation-building exercises. When a military coup deposed the elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide (and elections in Haiti are anything but reliable expressions of popular will), Clinton pressured the Haitian military to give up power to the supposed democrat Aristide.
Through economic sanctions that managed to depress the already low standard of living to abysmal levels, the United States got the ruler it wanted. Once Aristide was in power, U.S. troops were sent in to help keep him there and support a variety of structural changes Washington wanted to make.
But it was all for naught. The authors explain that, “Few, if any, in the Haitian government favor a working market economy or even understand what the term means, and no political culture prevails with widespread acceptance of the habits, beliefs, and values that sustain…democratic institutions.” Aristide rules Haiti with an iron hand and progress is imperceptible.
Bosnia and Kosovo have been more of the same — costly, feel-good political grandstanding that changes nothing. An anecdote will convey the absurdity of it all. One of the top nation-building officials announced a program that was designed to reduce ethnic hatreds in Bosnia. He was going to have 300,000 T-shirts printed up with the new, Western-imposed flag of Bosnia and see that they were distributed to a cross-section of Bosnian children. There is no evidence that children of the rival Bosnian groups are being won over to the ideas of peace and democracy due to the wearing of T-shirts.
There is, however, evidence that many Bosnian adults are coming to depend on the inflow of American aid. Nation-building, it turns out, has a lot in common with domestic welfare schemes.
Nothing in the U.S. Constitution authorizes the president or Congress to engage in foreign nation-building. This timely book shows how wise the Founders were in trying to limit the federal government to just a few necessary domestic tasks.
Transform other nations? Forget about it!
George C. Leef is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal, monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.