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Iraq: Rebuilding Failed States
With Rick Barton
Center for Strategic & International Studies

Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

In a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Association of the U.S. Army, senior advisor Rick Barton highlights the importance of how the U.S. can effectively help countries rebuild themselves in post-conflict reconstruction. The report points out inadequacies in the current process and stresses the importance of rebuilding failed states to ensure humanitarian and global security. Loopholes in post-conflict operations would cause serious threats such as terrorism. "With serious rebuilding efforts underway in Afghanistan and preparations for a post-conflict Iraq looming, the report offers a timely reevaluation of the U.S. government's post-conflict reconstruction capabilities." Report: Establish Standing U.S. Capabilities for Post-Conflict Reconstruction (PDF File)

Rick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was be online Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss U.S. efforts in rebuilding failed states.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Rick Barton: Thank you for joining me today. For the past ten years I have worked in about 20 post conflict situations, from Haiti to the Balkans to Rwanda. Some of my work has been for the US government, at USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, and some at the UN, as Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. These are tough challenges but I remain optimistic that we can build more peaceful societies- if we are willing to change the way we (America and the international community) approach these opportunities.

Rick Barton: "Nation building" is too grand a term and an unlikely route for the US to take. On the other hand, there is plenty of room to be a positive catalytic force for change in places that have strategic consequence for the US and where there are people suffering oppression.

This can be done on a case by case basis and if we truly dedicate ourselves to making a difference, we will. Security and public safety is the first condition. It does not require that the US have a standing constabulary (quite different from using US soldiers), but it will require that the US support the concept. Once the soldiers do their work there is a huge public safety job and if the US wants to see any change, it will need to be a leader or lead investor in such a capacity.

New York, NY: Question RE nation rebuilding in general - Post WWII we had a very good record as nation rebuilders, both in Japan and in Europe. I think we did an admirable job. Yet lately the term 'nation building' has developed a negative connotation, at least in the vocabulary of the current adminstration.

Since it worked so well after WWII, why the disdain for it now?

Rick Barton: The key to these efforts is to mobilize the local people. That is best done by identifying change agents, since most of the countries we are talking about have suffered decades of failing governance. In Japan and in Europe there were significant building blocks, as I suspect there will be in Iraq. The role of the US and the international community is to create the conditions where change agents can increase their influence. We don't do this too well.
There is always a lively, ongoing debate about an engaged US policy- it just so happens that this administration has much of it on the inside, because of the isolationist wing of the President's party, and their historic reluctance to enter into everything from WW II to so-called nation building.

Alexandria, Va.: Why not just destroy Iraq and leave it there? Why bother to rebuild it?

Rick Barton: Quick answers: human dignity, regional stability, oil and the quality and meaning of US leadership.

Fayettville, Tex.: As America teeters on the brink of war with Iraq and faces a potential major reconstruction, what is the biggest challenge the U.S. government must address in the way it performs post-conflict reconstruction operations?

Rick Barton: We have virtually no civilian standby capacity, people or money, for what is a big, tough job. That means that we are unprepared, slow, and cheap- not the best way to enter into this kind of a challenge. The default position becomes the US military has to take over- leaving soldiers on the ground in more places and longer, doing jobs they are not trained for.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think is the largest problem with post-Iraq plans in place presently?

Rick Barton: They are not well resourced and they are not public. If the plans were good we should be talking about them to the world. They could only make the politics of the region more accepting.

Washington, D.C.: Is it possible to conduct nation building while the enemy is hiding in the local population and committing acts of terrorism against the humanitarian workers?

Rick Barton: Not really. Public safety is the key precondition. You are seeing some of the problems with not taking care of this issue in Afghanistan right now.

Lake Placid, N.Y.: How do you empower local people in a place like Iraq, where Saddam has made efforts to keep the four ethnic/religious factions fighting one another and where the most of the leaders of the opposition haven't lived in Iraq for the last 20-30 years?

Rick Barton: Good question. In Iraq, we are not likely to encounter a thriving civil society, the kind of building block we have worked with in other places. We believe there should be a bottom up national dialogue that allows people at the municipal level (about 250 places) to select representatives for a wideranging engagement on constitutional questions, amnesty, property rights, etc.
One positive outgrowth of the sanctions decade: Iraqi's have had to be extremely entrepreneurial and adaptive to survive. These are the kinds of qualities that we will need to encourage.

Torrance, Calif.: How can the international community (with the US in the lead role) rebuild a nation which is "culturally" opposed to the West? Our success in post-WWII Japan was based on the embracing of these ideals by the Japanese people. I don't see the same situation in the Middle East.

Rick Barton: I believe that the basic freedoms, speech, movement and assembly, are universal. If we dedicate ourselves to expanding these in Iraq, the people will have a chance to shape their futures. This is not about the US; it is about making sure that the average Iraqi's voice is heard and not intimidated or silenced.

Long Beach, Calif.: What's the difference between "investing" and exploiting? Especially if we are the ones dictating the terms?

Rick Barton: A key part of any plan is to make clear to the local people what our goals are. On page 9 or our report, A Wiser Peace, we spell out some stretch goals that are not euphoric. In brief, they are:
a safe country for its people; no weapons of mass destruction; an open political system; a rule of law culture; a disencumbered financial system that will maximize Iraq's domestic investment potential.
We are not going to save Iraq, but we can help give them a fresh start.

Bowie, Md.: Iraq's borders were drawn by colonalizing powers without regard to the ethnic identities of the indigenous population.

Does the country have a national identity to keep itself together; or will it just disintegrate into various geographic and tribal factions?

Rick Barton: Many people who have spent time in Iraq feel that there is a national identity. Does that mean that there will not be divisions? Hardly. But if there are tangible signs of improvement within Iraq for all groups, then unity seems possible.

Houston, Tex.: What is the condition of Iraq'a civil institutions / bureaucracy and how useful will they be in the rebuilding process? The argument I've heard is "Iraq is different from Afghanistan, they have institutions of government already up and running."

Rick Barton: That is what we hear as well. The only way to know will be on the ground, as soon as possible. Iraq has had a functioning system of government, though oppressive. We believe that the top can be cleared out and that there will be a largely salvageable public sector (though too large).

It is tougher to work in a large country like Iraq, with its 25 million people, but the good news is that there is more to build upon. Here, there is an educated middle class

New York, NY: Do you have a good idea as to how well we're doing as far as rebuilding Afghanistan? I hear administration PR that says we're doing fine, yet I gather from other sources that the place is still disorganized, decentralized (as I guess it was pre-invasion,) corrupt, dangerous, and is once again a major center of drug trade. Is our record there an encouraging predictor of what might happen if we invade Iraq?

Rick Barton: In Afghanistan we have made two big miscalculations: allying ourselves with the many warlords and pushing many of Afghanistan's problems into the neighboring nuclear state, Pakistan. While good work has been done, the ongoing lack of public safety prevents much more than a Kabul centric rebuild. That will not be enough.

How will our marriage of convenience with the warlords end? This could be one bloody divorce.

Bowie, Md.: I am in a Civil Affairs unit that leaves for Kuwait in a few weeks. I will be participating in the Humanitarian efforts in the region. My question is, how long before you expect the United Nations to come aboard and help with the relief operations?

Rick Barton: The UN is better prepared than usual, but it still comes down to having the money and the people to do a job. The US has given some money to the UN for humanitarian preparation, (about half of the $30 million collected by the UN so far), but this is a pittance for the enormity of the task.

Also, because the humanitarian community tends to be the first civilian presence, their assignment inevitably expands into the reconstruction- thus expanding their burden way beyond their capacity.

Boston, Mass.: Hi- What particular challenges would we face in rebuilding Iraq that might be different from other places where you have worked?

Rick Barton: Iraq has the potential to have a real economy. Most of the other places have years to catch up. Misusing the oil wealth or diverting it from rebuilding Iraq is my great concern.

Arlington, Va.: If the reports I've read are correct, many of the most hardcore supporters of the reigning Iranian clerocracy are exiled Iraqi Shiites. Presuming that many would return home in the event of "regime change" in Iraq, it seems that this would have a doubly destabilizing effect: Shiite radicals in Iraq might undermine efforts at establishing a central, democratic authority in Iraq, and the power vacuum in Iran might cause the situation there to unravel quickly.

From your perspective, is such a scenario something that could be "managed" or should be feared.

Rick Barton: It is good to be sensitive to all scenarios. If you are ready for the worst then there is a chance you might deal with it. Our report speaks to a decentralized approach for multiple reasons, including the delicacy of a post dictator central government of unity. Additional advantages: better identification of reliable partners, keeping the governance issues at a manageable scale, the importance of "pothole" type issues in the immediate post conflict period, etc. Saying that, there is still a need for a central authority, and our report describes trying to use the 23 ministries, with Iraqi leaders, but having an international transitional administrator who has the power to make appointments and controls the funds.

Fairfax, Va: If a general population is strongly against intervention, how can one even begin to address all the twists and turns of rebuilding? And rebuilding based on what model?

The image of Bush on mission in the Middle East (like his father) probably does not set too well with the general population over there.

Those who benefit from such interventions are given greater media visability, but what is the ratio? For every one person who is happy, are there 100,000 who will aggressively hope for the opportunity to get even with us or Europe?

Our strategy could not be more wrong as I see it. Bush once remarked that our country has become a battleground. I would counter that we must do everything we can to make sure our country does not slip into being a battleground - especially when it is an ever increasing concentric circle of tit for tat with the weapons of choice being NBC.

Rick Barton: Our paper is not an argument for intervention. It does make clear that if we are going to go to war, then the sacrifices of war deserve the investments of peace.

In terms of the Iraqi public: we don't know how they will react to the US intervention. I suspect it will be polite reserve, waiting to see if things really will get better. All the more reason to prepare well and do as good a job as our military is likely to do in war.

Washington, D.C.: Given the history of US "nation building" in South America and Southeast Asia, what makes you think Iraq will be anything other than an unmitigated disaster?

Rick Barton: Lets not give ourselves too much credit. We have not done a first rate job in most of the places (spending less than we are likely to on one big snowstorm in DC in most places). I still believe if we dedicated ourselves to a clear strategic approach and then preparing well, we could make a difference. Its not easy, but a more peaceful world could result. Worth it, I think.

Cumberland, Md.: Historically, plans can be best be made for reconstruction when unconditional surrender is part of the military planning. Don't you think it is difficult to make plans for Iraq when there are still so many questions to be answered about the civil society in Iraq after Saddam?

Rick Barton: Most plans allow for a couple of things to happen: build teams, identify real resources, clarify goals, and communicate to key parties (taxpayers, the public in country, etc.). I would feel more comfortable if we knew as much about the reconstruction of Iraq as we seem to know about our military plans.

Laurel, Md.: Obviously, the foundation of the Iraqi economy is oil revenue. Since it is currently owned by the state, is there any really good plan on how to distribute it?

Would such a plan likely be directed by the U.S., or by an Iraqi democratic process? Isn't either one a recipe for civil war or at least unrest?

Rick Barton: The Oil for Food Program, which the UN has been running since '96, has done a decent job of collecting revenue. That seems to be a good starting point. We have a companion paper going online at our website, www.csis.org, today or tomorrow.

Rick Barton: Thank you all for your stimulating questions. I appreciate your interest and am sorry that I was not able to get to every question. Please read our report and the supplements, and if you would like to receive a daily news brief on post conflict developments in the world (via email) please send an email to pcrdailybriefing@csis.org.

Thanks again, Rick Barton

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