Nation Building

I was rather stunned to hear President Bush propose Nation Building along with the invasion of Iraq for several reasons. First, President Bush in his 2000 campaign spoke out against nation building foreign interventions.

“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

Secondly, my recollection from my late 60’s study of political science and history was that both conservatives and liberals had both thrown in the towel on the viability of nation building after a predominance of historical failures by many countries, not just the US. While the US and Allies are proud of the rebuilding of Japan and Germany after WW II, the trail is littered with expensive and prominent nation building failures.

“If nation building means the creation of self-sustaining state capacity that can survive once foreign advice and and support are withdrawn, then the number of historical cases where this has happened successfully drops to a depressingly small handful.” Francis Fukuyama, 2004, surveying the record of state building

The following information is from Dr. James L. Payne is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis and author of numerous books, including A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem.

General Record of US and Britain

The record shows that of the 51 times the United States and Great Britain attempted nation-building by force over the past 150 years, they left behind an enduring democracy in only 14 cases, or 27 percent of the time. (For details of this study see the newly-released book by the Independent Institute, “Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism.”)


Following the Spanish American War of 1898, the United States administered Cuba for four years, turning power over to an elected Cuban president in 1902. A few years later, a violent revolution forced him from office, and U.S. troops came back in 1906. After more reforms and new elections, the U.S. again turned power over to the Cubans in 1909. More instability ensued, including another violent revolt. The marines came back yet a third time in 1917; restored order; set up another constitutional regime; and withdrew in 1922. After that, Cuba saw a succession of unstable and autocratic regimes, and now suffers the totalitarian dictatorship of Fidel Castro.


Other failed democracy-building efforts in the Middle East include Lebanon, where the U.S. twice sent troops, in 1958 and again in 1982, and Somalia in 1992.


The US. occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934, and left civil turbulence from which emerged the notorious dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In Nicaragua, the U.S. supervised the political system for 24 years, from 1909 to 1933, and U.S. troops held three fair and free elections. A year after U.S. troops left in 1933, dictator Anastasio Somoza took over the country.

Somalia was an almost unmitigated ongoing disaster….failed state.

Britain in Iraq

In Iraq, the batting average for nation-building is zero. The British occupied it from 1917 to 1932, and again from 1941 to 1947.

Other British Experiences

Despite their efforts to cultivate democracy, civil strife, warlordism, and dictatorship emerged both times after the troops left.Britain’s experience with long involvements is equally discouraging. Examples of prolonged colonial administration followed by democratic failure include Burma (63 years), Egypt (40), Sudan (57 years), Cyprus (46 years), Ghana (71 years), Kenya (69 years), Uganda (68 years), and Zimbabwe (92 years).
James Dobbinsis Director of the Center for International Security and Defense Studies at the Rand Corporation. During the Clinton years he was a special envoy to many of the hot spots — Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — and then in the Bush administration, to Afghanistan for a brief period. He is the coauthor of a two-volume set chronicling American intervention and comparing that intervention with the intervention by the UN over the last several decades, the emphasis being on how to explain what works in the process of democratization.

Dobbins has focused on a more narrow definition of nation building that whereby he only studied cases since the Cold War that were aimed at democratization.

The Pace of US Nation Building Accelerates

Not only has the pace of these operations expanded continuously since the end of the Cold War, but the scale of the operations. During the Cold War, the United States intervened abroad at a rate of about once per decade. So, you had Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama, about once every ten years. During the Clinton administration it went up to almost once every two years. And then the current administration, which said it wasn’t going to do it anymore, launched three new interventions in the first three years, to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then back into Haiti again, which indicates that these have become largely unavoidable and it’s likely that there are going to be these kinds of operations in the future. They’re not only getting more frequent, but they’re getting larger. The Iraq operation is the largest since the occupations of Germany and Japan in the 1940s.


“– to do Iraq properly — may well be beyond the capacity of even the world’s only superpower. That unless we do secure substantial support from our allies — in particular our large, rich, capable allies — it is going to be very difficult to field the level of forces and resources for the length of time that this is going to take. So Iraq, alone, requires a broadly multinational effort to succeed, in my judgment.” James Dobbin, September, 2003

“We meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation, and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others;the rest will be written by us … Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.”

—George W. Bush, February 26, 2003

Several sources pre and post Iraq invasion agree that based on successful nation building operations a much larger force closer to 450,000, three times larger, was needed to succeed in Iraq.