From Regime Change to Nation Building

UH-60 Black Hawks. (Department of Defense)

A Summary

New York: April 10, 2003

Rachel Bronson, Council on Foreign Relations
David Phillips, Council on Foreign Relations
Yoichi Funabashi, Asahi Shimbun

Moderator: Nicholas Platt President, Asia Society

In one of its most timely programs ever, the Asia Society convened a distinguished panel of foreign affairs experts to discuss reconstructing Iraq. An offering of the organization's Asian Social Issues Program, the program delivered on its premise: the U.S. is now in the nation-building business, despite President George W. Bush's initial reluctance. But the country is still learning from past mistakes in the Balkans, Haiti and Afghanistan. And the panel members' analysis indicated the U.S. hasn't got it right yet.

Yoichi Funabashi, columnist and chief diplomatic correspondent of the Asahi Shimbun and a leading journalist in Japanese foreign policy, advised the U.S. to "prepare to play the role of the good winner" as it did after World War II, by accompanying reconstruction with a regional peace structure. The U.S. must solve the Israeli-Palestine problem. "It is vital to nation-building in Iraq," says the correspondent, who is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, at Columbia University. "This is essentially about winning the hearts and minds of the Arab region."

Dr. Funabashi was quick to call for an important role for the United Nations. "In its debut act," he argued, "the United Nations gave legitimacy to the Far Eastern Commission officially overseeing Japan's occupation. Its role is similarly vital in Iraq in relation to the legitimacy of the enterprise."

Rachel Bronson, Director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted that in the past the U.S. has generally left nation-building "to the last minute. In Bosnia, we dropped it in the lap of the United Nations one week before peace." And while we are getting better at planning ahead, Dr. Bronson worries there are "no guiding principles to where we are going. It is unclear how we get from here to there. Many in the region said they didn't think we knew what we were getting into. That fear is justified."

Bronson's point is that looting should have been better anticipated and managed. A well- constructed plan to create an atmosphere of law and order should have been in place. As we learned in the Balkans, when we placed law and order second to setting the economy on track, a black market, crime, a non-functioning judicial system and institutionalized corruption followed. In Afghanistan, we got closer to doing it right. We established law and order first, but only in Kabul, leaving war lords to cause problems down the road. "We must focus on law and order throughout the whole of Iraq," she said, "and it is not clear how Jay Garner (who will oversee transition) and General Tommy Franks (in charge of the war) are going to manage it."

Equally worrisome for her is the knee-jerk pro/knee-jerk anti-UN leadership arguments within the U.S. government and elsewhere. "I think it is in our interest to get the United Nations involved," she says, because of how well it works with humanitarian aid and so that many more countries can " buy into" the reconstruction of Iraq. "But what that role looks like remains to be determined. The UN must be involved but not run the show entirely."

David Phillips, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Preventative Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, developed a blueprint for success, weaving a story of humanitarian relief involving local partners, then transitioning to USAID and other agencies, followed by the need for a census, local elections, development of a constitution, and finally national elections, establishing a federal parliamentary republic. His two concerns: ferreting out the weapons of mass destruction, which, he predicts we "will be shocked at the extent of" and the formation of a legitimate government, which "has to involve Iraqis on the ground, not just those hanging around the bar at the Dorchester," referring to the leaders in exile in London. Iraqis should play a key role in designing and implementing a system for the de-Ba'athification of Iraq, he adds.

The panelists addressed the big question of what part, if any, sales of Iraq's oil will play in reconstruction. The answer: very little. Rachel Bronson points out that although Iraq oil revenues are $12 to $14 billion a year, $3 billion is plowed back into the industry, another $5 billion will be needed to return to the country's peak production levels of 1979 and the rest should go into food and clothing, or the basic living standards of the Iraqi people. "We would be well served in quickly turning the oil industry over to the Iraqis, and letting the chips fall as they may," says Dr. Bronson, who adds that despite 12 years of sanctions and misrule, the experts below the level of Minister ran Iraq's fields very efficiently.

Meantime, Iraq is $160 billion in debt. Further, it has $199 billion in Gulf War compensation owed to Kuwait. Most panelists agreed that the country's debt must be forgiven or refinanced. But meanwhile it will cost the U.S. $15 billion a year to keep forces in Iraq. "We will need international assistance, both in terms of money and boots on the ground," warns Dr. Bronson. "This will require deft diplomacy by the Bush Administration."

Under audience questioning, Rachel Bronson cautioned that national elections should not be held so quickly that the whole country collapses, as happened in the Balkans. "Our focus should be on Iraq's communities." Dr. Funabashi's timetable would require local elections after 3 to 5 years of civility, after which national elections could be called. "Helping to build at least the basis of a civil society first before elections is crucial," says the journalist. "You can't just call quick elections and leave Iraq to the tyranny of the majority." As David Phillips forecast, "the real test of America's commitment to democracy in Iraq will be the national elections. Even though Irq's Shia majority will play a dominant role, it is important that a fundamentalism Islamic government not take over in Iraq." The wildcard, he adds, may be the role the Kurds play in a national election.