America's nation-building efforts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq have all been criticized as being too ambitious and too America-Centric. Yet a good case could be made that the problem has not been that America has tried too hard to make these places into copies of itself, but that it has leaned too hard the other way. America's decentralized republican constitutional model may be far better for a place like Afghanistan or Kosovo, than the centralized quasi-French model now being pursued.
Some foreign policy professional believe that it would be easier if the US just installed an authoritarian regime with a suitable dictator and left it at that. In the pre-Reagan Cold War days this was indeed pretty much standard procedure. We saw that it lead to regimes such as Sandinista Nicaragua and the Islamic Republic of Iran. More importantly, such an option goes directly against what America stands for. A policy that says "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard." cannot in the long term, find much domestic political support.
In Afghanistan, in particular, having the local provincial governors appointed by the President makes them effectively into Afghan versions of French "Prefects" rather than accountable. visible leaders like American Governors. The Afghan constitution says, in Article 137, "The government while preserving the principal of centralism shall delegate certain authorities to local administration units for the purpose of expediting and promoting economic, social, and cultural affairs, and increasing the participation of (the) people in the development of the nation." To American ears this sounds creepy; to an EU or UN bureaucrat, this sounds normal.
Given Afghanistan's history and the nature of its people, however, an American or Swiss styled system, in which the elected local leaders grant limited powers to the national government, might have been a better fit. Why should America be reluctant to promote its model in circumstances where traditions and cultures are more suitable than the centralized European model? Why should the US spend its blood and treasure to promote a political philosophy that is, at its heart, hostile to the whole American idea of limited government?
The Afghan constitution begins, promisingly enough, combining the traditional Islamic "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" with the very American-sounding "We the People of Afghanistan." The problem is not so much that the nation is poor -- so was South Korea at the time of the Korean War -- or that it is tribal, --so is Italy. Its curse is to be stuck in the middle of set of regional and global conflicts that it now lacks the power to overcome.
It is easy to complain about Afghan corruption; but given the extreme poverty of that nation, what does anyone expect? However excessive, government regulation may be making matters worse. The harder it is for the citizens to open small businesses and for the farmers to sell their products at fair prices, the easier it is for corrupt officials and their cronies to steal from the people.
Nation building, or what the Obama administration calls the "Civilian Surge," may help to build up the local economy and strengthen parts of the society, but as General Petraeus well understands, without security this is useless. In a recent Armed Forces Journal article, US Army Colonel Craig Collier points out that to say that "You can't shoot your way out of an insurgency," may be true, but you can't buy your way out either.
Defeating the enemy on the ground, using both good intelligence and effective firepower, will create the circumstances that will allow Afghanistan to emerge from its 30 years war.
Afghanistan now has a big problem with Pakistan, and smaller problems with most of its other neighbors, with the exception of China. Successful nation-building in Afghanistan will only take place in the right regional context. There is a complex version of the 19th century "Great Game" going on right now, but instead of the major players being Russia and Britain, the game is mostly controlled by the region's own governments. This includes Iran, which according to the US, is already supporting the Taliban, and other insurgent groups. It may soon find that this support will blow up in its face.
The complaint that America is trying to turn what may be the poorest and most primitive nation on Earth into a carbon copy of itself is untenable. Critics of US nation building often make valuable points, but when they make this kind of claim, they cannot be taken seriously. In Afghanistan, as in other places, America's role is essentially a supporting and enabling one -- as it should be.
The worst possible mistake the US could make would be to force an easily influenced quasi-dictator onto the Afghans. Such a leader would obviously be looked on as weak; and no leader can last long under those circumstances. President Karzai may not be easy to deal with, but no Afghan legitimate leader is ever going to follow any foreign government's program to the letter. The State Department and the rest of the Washington establishment would be wise to recognize this.
Afghanistan's people are sick to death of war. They know that there are some forces -- including the Taliban, Al Qeada and other Islamic radicals -- that would be happy to see their country suffer through another 30 years of war and the extreme poverty that this has brought. More than anything, America or its coalition allies could do, this emotional and physical exhaustion is keeping the majority of the Afghan people more or less on our side. They know thatif we win, they get peace, and the opportunity for a better life; if the enemy wins, they get more decades of war, and we get more global terrorism.
One of the more persistent cliches about US foreign policy is that our government always tries to impose the so-called American model upon those nations we are trying to reconstruct. If one looks closely however the evidence for this is pretty thin. In Germany and Japan the occupation authorities tried, with some success to impose respect for democracy and human rights, but in neither case did they force a US style constitution on those nations.
In West Germany, the Federal system that emerged was based more on the traditions of Bismarck's Reich and its highly decentralized system than on America's model. The 1871 unification had produced a hodgepodge of different jurisdictions with widely varying levels of independence. While America's cultural influence may have been considerable, there is no evidence that its constitutional ideal was ever promoted by the military governors.
In Japan, General Douglas McArthur and his team not only kept the Emperor in place, but also all the highly centralized state institutions that had grown up in the 19th century, post-Meji restoration era. In South Korea, US influence never even tried to undermine Korea's traditional political culture and the results of nearly five decades of Japanese occupation. Likewise in Vietnam, where the US made a major, and very expensive, effort at nation-building, not even the most New Deal-besotted American politician seriously imagined that we could eliminate centuries of Asian, and specifically Chinese, gravitational pull.
Nowhere did America try directly to impose its model of constitutional government. It is simply wrong to say that the US government was ever naive enough to imagine that it could turn foreigners into Americans. This is one of those useful myths that the America's foes use to discredit its influence, and that isolationists use to argue against any effort to use power to shape the world to suit our national interests.
America's traditions of decentralized, limited government cannot be transferred wholesale to any other nation, but that is no reason to ignore them their value in Kabul or Kandahar.