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Globe & MailAn informed, thoughtful examination of why the U.S. is trying to build a new Iraqi nation, what would be considered a success, and what principles should be followed.
— H. J. Kirchhoff
What do we owe Iraq?
America is up to its neck in nation building—but the public debate, focused on getting the troops home, devotes little attention to why we are building a new Iraqi nation, what success would look like, or what principles should guide us. What We Owe Iraq sets out to shift the terms of the debate, acknowledging that we are nation building to protect ourselves while demanding that we put the interests of the people being governed—whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or elsewhere—ahead of our own when we exercise power over them.
Noah Feldman argues that to prevent nation building from turning into a paternalistic, colonialist charade, we urgently need a new, humbler approach. Nation builders should focus on providing security, without arrogantly claiming any special expertise in how successful nation-states should be made. Drawing on his personal experiences in Iraq as a constitutional adviser, Feldman offers enduring insights into the power dynamics between the American occupiers and the Iraqis, and tackles issues such as Iraqi elections, the prospect of successful democratization, and the way home.
Elections do not end the occupier's responsibility. Unless asked to leave, we must resist the temptation of a military pullout before a legitimately elected government can maintain order and govern effectively. But elections that create a legitimate democracy are also the only way a nation builder can put itself out of business and—eventually—send its troops home.
Feldman's new afterword brings the Iraq story up-to-date since the book's original publication in 2004, and asks whether the United States has acted ethically in pushing the political process in Iraq while failing to control the security situation; it also revisits the question of when, and how, to withdraw.
"Powerful and important. . . . The book, like its author, is an unusual blend: part theoretical treatise, part political analysis, part memoir. Above all, it is a plea to the American conscience to take seriously the responsibility the United States has assumed to help the Iraqi people build the democracy Feldman believes they need and deserve. . . . As American citizens, Feldman insists, we are all responsible for what happens in Iraq."—Robert Kagan, New York Times Book Review
"In What We Owe Iraq—part theoretical treatise, part political analysis, part memoir—Noah Feldman . . . makes the case that when the United States invaded Iraq, it not only toppled a tyrant but also undertook a 'trusteeship' on behalf of the Iraqi people."—New York Times Book Review
"An earnest, thoughtful brief against those who would have the U.S. withdraw before our job there is done, a temptation that will grow harder to resist in the months ahead. Mr. Feldman's emphasis on serving American interests injects a welcome dose of realism into his ethical meditations. America's de facto rule of the conquered country is a trusteeship, he insists, obliging us to think of ourselves as representatives of the Iraqi people, accountable to their views and responsible, ultimately, for restoring their sovereignty."—Wall Street Journal
"Written with tempered passion and a grounded sense of the possibilities, Feldman's book nicely bridges theory and practice."—Publishers Weekly
"Valuable. . . . What We Owe Iraq . . . lays out clearly just how we avoided delivering whatever we owed Iraq in the way of democracy. . . . Feldman thinks it is actually in our own interests to foster a legitimate democratic government in Iraq in order to combat terrorism effectively, as well as being the right thing to do."—Andrew Cockburn, The Nation
"Insightful, accessible and highly recommended for policymakers and readers interested in understanding the opportunities and hazards that will confront America as the world's foremost nation-builder?. Feldman details the behind-the-scenes power politics of the U.S. occupation and delivers a persuasive appeal for a more grassroots approach to nation building—that is, an approach seen by most Iraqis as legitimized by local input. He argues that nation building can be an effective long-term strategy to fight terrorism if its purpose is to create stable democracies. Feldman's approach offers preventive medicine against insurgency and terrorism as well as a practical strategy for a longer-term global war of ideas."—Richard A. Clarke, Washington Post Book World
"A well-argued call for a long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq. The book is original and refreshingly free of ideology and partisanship."—Andrew Apostolou, New York Post
"This short penetrating study . . . examines the ethics of nation-building, exploring its challenges from the perspectives of law, democratic theory, and political morality. . . . This timely, carefully reasoned, and elegantly written book is an important contribution to the literature on political development."—Choice
"An informed, thoughtful examination of why the U.S. is trying to build a new Iraqi nation, what would be considered a success, and what principles should be followed."—H. J. Kirchhoff, Globe and Mail
An informed, thoughtful examination of why the U.S. is trying to build a new Iraqi nation, what would be considered a success, and what principles should be followed.
— H. J. Kirchhoff
Pausing to take in the moment, I glanced around at my new colleagues. Those who were awake were reading intently. When I saw what they were reading, though, a chill crept over me, too. Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf region. Without exception, they were reading new books on the American occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan.
My initial shock at my colleagues' reading matter was almost purely situational. Although it is possible to draw some more than superficial analogies between Bathism and National Socialism, Iraq was nothing like postwar Germany and Japan. Economic, political, social, and cultural conditions in Iraq after the U.S. invasion were distinct from any occupation situation that anyone had ever encountered, and if there was to be any hope of handling the situation effectively, the first step was surely to immerse oneself in what information was available about the country. The task felt classically orientalist, in the sense of gathering knowledge in order to exert control; but what other choice was there? Once you had agreed to go to Iraq as part of the occupation, you could go ignorant, or you could try to learn as much as possible.
But there was another, deeper problem with thinking of Iraq in terms borrowed from the nation-building experiences of the post-World War II era. We were occupying Iraq for reasons very different from those underlying our occupations of Germany and Japan. The most obvious difference was that the Axis powers had attacked us, and that we had then, with no other choice, fought and defeated them in a world war of unprecedented horror. By contrast, our war in Iraq, framed though it might have been in terms of preemptive self-protection, had been essentially voluntary. More to the point, however, the purposes of our occupation and reconstruction efforts in the second half of the 1940s were fundamentally different from the purposes of the task we were poised to undertake in Iraq. Different strategic objectives call for different tactics; but that is not all. The different purposes of contemporary nation building also call for a new and different ethical approach, one grounded in a normative evaluation of what we set out to achieve, the means and attitudes we adopt in the process, and a realistic sense of what success or failure would look like. We need, in short, an ethics of nation building suitable to our circumstances.
The place to begin the enquiry after such an ethics is with a clear-eyed, honest assessment of the purposes of nation building today, whether in Iraq or elsewhere-and that is the topic of the first chapter, in which I offer an explanation of how nation building can serve the nation builder's security interests, and how failed or incomplete nation building can harm them. In brief, I argue that strong countries like the United States and the Western European powers have an interest in building nation-states that seem reasonably legitimate to their citizens, because failed states and those perceived as illegitimately imposed from outside are likely to generate terror. I then defend self-protective nation building from the ethical challenge that its motives doom it to immorality.
The second chapter confronts the legacy of paternalism that, inherited from the ideology of empire, pervades the theory and practice of nation building today. I propose that nation building can be salvaged ethically only if it is stripped down to the modest proposition that the nation builder exercises temporary political authority as trustee on behalf of the people being governed, in much the same way that an elected government does. The fact that nation builders do not stand for election means they must authorize alternative means for the people whom they are governing to monitor their performance: free speech, assembly, and the active participation in government of the citizens of the country being ruled from the outside.
In the third and final chapter I consider how elections ought to figure in the nation-building process. Too much has been made of the capacity of elections to reflect the general will, and too little of their value in revealing voters' leadership preferences and in checking the arbitrary exercise of power. I propose that elections must be understood as the midpoint of the nation-building undertaking, not the end of the nation builder's obligations toward the country in question. In particular, I argue that the nation builder must not compromise its duty to provide security so as to facilitate political negotiation among the people who must shape the future for themselves-despite the likelihood that the nation builder will be sorely tempted to cut and run.
In each chapter, I draw examples from the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in 2003-4, a distinctive moment that poses the ethical dilemmas of nation building more starkly than do the post-Cold War nation-building projects undertaken by UN-authorized transitional administrations in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan. From May 2003, when it was formally organized to replace the short-lived Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) operated for more than a year in Iraq as an occupation government before transforming itself on June 28, 2004, into a U.S. embassy with extraordinary advisory capacities. During this period, the civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, reported to the president of the United States through the secretary of defense. Although the United Kingdom participated in the CPA, sending a series of special representatives who in principle ranked alongside Bremer, and although other Coalition participants like Australia and Italy took roles in the CPA as well, the CPA functioned largely as an American show with British input.
In the context of UN-approved nation building, serious problems of conflict of interest, paternalism, and self-determination are sometimes shrugged off with a gesture toward the authorization of "the international community." By contrast, the case of U.S.-led nation building in Iraq precludes easy answers-and continues to do so even after formal political authority has shifted to Iraqis, with the recognition of the Security Council. Coalition troops remain on the ground in large numbers, and others will likely stay on for years. Nation building in Iraq is far from over. Our responsibilities to Iraq, and to ourselves, are not yet discharged. The ethical problems that this book considers will therefore remain alive in Iraq for years to come; and they will recur, in identifiable forms, whenever nation building is contemplated or undertaken.
A further distinctive feature of nation building in Iraq is, of course, the way the old regime ceased to be: not by internal collapse, but by overwhelming military force from without. Throughout its brief and eventful life, the CPA's status reflected legal ambiguity about the invasion of Iraq-which the Coalition depicted as authorized by a UN Security Council resolution, but which was never subsequently ratified by the Security Council, only acknowledged. In this book, I do not propose to consider the legality or wisdom of the U.S.-led removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Nor shall I even pose the related, extraordinarily complex question of when international intervention is justified, if ever. Other and better minds than mine have devoted enormous energy to the subject without exhausting it-and the debate, albeit altered by September 11, is still on. I want to focus, rather, on what happens after intervention is an accomplished fact-when the old regime is gone and a foreign power is calling the shots, whether it be the United Nations, NATO, or, as in 2003-4 in Iraq, a far narrower, U.S.-led coalition. On the ethical aspects of this topic there has been relatively little systematic thinking in the post-Cold War environment. We have a crop of memoirs about war and reconstruction in the former Yugoslavia, and some excellent studies of transitional justice and war-crimes tribunals. There is also a growing literature on the how-to side of nation building. Inspired by the problem of failed states, a small literature has grown up revisiting the option of international trusteeship. We do not yet have, however, a satisfactory account of why we should want to do such a thing as build nations and what the relevant principles are for making ethical sense of this goal.
The aim of this book is to jump-start an urgent conversation about the ethics of nation building. In the midst of all the heated, high-priority arguments about what policy would best serve U.S. interests in Iraq, it sometimes seems as though no one is asking what obligations we might have to the Iraqis whose government we deposed and whose country we occupied. The need is all the more pressing because of the tremendous complexities of the developing situation in Iraq, but it will persist even after Iraq recedes from the headlines. Realism and protective self-interest will play crucial parts in this conversation, to be sure; in what follows I seek to analyze problems of violence, security, and nation building in terms of the strategic incentives of various participants in a complex, multitiered engagement, because I do not think an account without this perspective would be very useful in the real world. But this is not the whole story, either. If ethics are to be taken seriously, we must also consider our problem from the standpoints of law, democratic theory, and moral principle.
In the hope of rendering the discussion concrete, I have included plenty of particulars of the situation on the ground in Iraq, including circumstances I encountered personally. In doing so, I want to provide a taste of how ethical problems and doubts present themselves in the real time of nation building. But I also aim to do something more, something that a few astute listeners noticed (and to which some strongly objected) when I delivered an earlier version of my argument as the Walter E. Edge Lectures at Princeton in April 2004. I want to implicate you, the reader, in the subjective "we" of ethical obligation, no matter your views on war and reconstruction in Iraq or elsewhere. If you are reading this, I want to suggest, you can be called to account for your own role in considering and debating the ethics of nation building, and in shaping collective decisions for the future. This claim may be controversial, but making it seems to me the only point of an argument in ethics. After all, there is no coercive authority in a book. All I can do is suggest a point of view, give my reasons for holding it, and invite you to try it on for size. What you do next is up to you.
Excerpted from What We Owe Iraq by Noah Feldman Excerpted by permission.
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CHAPTER ONE: Nation Building: Objectives 7
CHAPTER TWO: Trusteeship, Paternalism, and Self-Interest 52
CHAPTER THREE: The Magic of Elections and the Way Home 92