Nation Building versus Nation Rebuilding, part 2

Joseph responded to my last post with a thought-provoking comment on my blog, and added a brief post to his own noting the exchange and wondering if there is any neutral third party who might want to weigh in on our exchange. I'd like to second that request. Of course, since I'm incapable of just letting things rest where they are without further, I'd also like to address a few of the things that Joseph brought up in his comment.

Regarding the question of whether we should stay in Iraq, he writes:

Just looking at the situation in Iraq, I would say that I used to hold the same view as you: we have a moral obligation to fix it, since we are the ones who broke it.

However, I can't agree that that means we should stay. I view the situation very much like I view an ill-advised surgical procedure. I suppose that, ideally, if a surgeon gets into a situation that he or she cannot fix, it would be ideal to find a more senior or more specialized surgeon who can come in and finish the job correctly. But what if no such person exists? I used to think that we should get the UN to put together a force to come in and take over, but now I don't think that is possible.

That's a fair point, and I'm getting closer to that perspective every day, but I don't think we've made a good-faith effort to find alternative solutions yet. It may not be possible to do so under the current administration, but I'm not yet ready to say that we've tried everything (or, for that matter, anything) yet.

He also writes:

I hate to think that we are really helpless. I want to think that there is something we could do to make things better. I am sure that people such as your wife do make things better, on an individual, local level. What I doubt is that we have the ability to do enough good on a local level, to have all those good things add up to something good on a national level. The problem is not that persons such as your wife cannot do anything beneficial; quite to the contrary, they can make a huge difference. But it is my hypothesis, that the insurgencies will actively seek to prevent any larger good from developing out of the individual acts of beneficence.

Here, I disagree, and will try to go into more detail on why in the next few days (I'm off to the airport in about 20 minutes, so I don't have the time right now). In brief, however, I think that a large portion of the problem here is not that we don't have the capability to do enough, but that we have not organized our capabilities in a way that would ease this type of process. As things currently stand, military-based nation building efforts are the worst way to provide comprehensive, broad-based improvements in war torn nations - except for pretty much all the others that have been tried. The military really does have some significant advantages in such situaitons - a broad variety of capacities (engineering, medical, logistic, etc) to use in rebuilding efforts, the ability to provide at least some security and counter-insurgency assistance, the ability to provide a wide range of training, etc. The problem is in the way that these capabilities are organized more than anything else, I think. More on that later.

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Why have we "not organized our capabilities in a way that would ease this type of process?" I think this is exactly what the insurgents end up interfering with, even if we tried to organize our military for it. The military is the bull in the pottery barn, and if we pull it back to the point where it does no harm, it isn't in a position to help or protect the menders. Those who seek to worry the bull do not meet it head-on, they encourage it to range into disadvantageous terrain where it can be attacked.

I think the reason we have not "organized our capabilities in a way that would ease this type of process" is that the reward structures in place are not designed to promote it. Lots of people are making lots of money off of this war, and politically, it has been very good for its proponents. As it starts looking more and more like a losing proposition, the money and resources will start to dry up, rather than be diverted into wiser and more helpful ideas. This war wasn't arranged by altruists.

OK -- there isn't a chance that I'm a neutral 3rd party - since I'm QA's Mom. And I'm not equipped to talk about either Iraq or Afghanistan.

But as a community organizer who has spent her life trying to make systemic changes in devastated communities - the South Bronx in the 70s and 80s, for example, I can say that many small changes on the local level can make change at the larger level.

For instance the rampant drug sales and violence that was endemic in the Bronx in the 80s stopped not because Rudy came in on his white horse -- but because community people -- often the neighborhood's grandmothers had enough. All community people could do of course was to "disrupt the marketplace" -- get dealers to move to a new location by making the location bad for business-- but it proved safe (when done thoughtfully), fairly easy to do-- and dealers lost business everytime they needed to move, plus new "customers" from the neighborhood didn't like being watched. (My most successful "project" was working with a group of elderly ladies, who simply sat at their windows watching what was going on -- as they always had - except now they kept calling the police and letting them know where the drugs were being stashed. Dealing is done on consignment --if the cops confiscate the stash -- you still need to pay your supplier).

The upshot was less dealing, equalling less violence, less bad- role modeling and a generally better place for folks to live. After that came the gentrification (a whole 'nother issue.

But the point is change rarely happens top down - but can and historically has always come from the grassroots. And grassroots folks will only begin that process where they feel they can succeed.

So maybe, just maybe, this actually does have something to do with Iraq and Afghanistan after all. Maybe the problem is that the concept of imposing democracy on people who have no experience with it, will not work until they can see that it's in their interest. And from where I'm sitting, that's not happening enough in either Iraq or Afghanistan

By Sally Dunford (not verified) on 24 Jul 2006 #permalink

Both of the previous commenters mention fiancial incentive, and for good reason. Clearly the key is to make it profitable to do good things, and unprofitable to do bad things.

The question, then, is how to do that, starting from the grass roots. By definition, the grass roots are not the people who have money to work with.

I am wondering if it would help to initiate some kind of micro-loan program. Rather than focusing on large projects, such as building schools or rebuilding power stations, give people a few hundred dollars a month to get their busineses back in order, or keep them running until they are profitable again. Have people in the community watch for good things to start happening "spontaneously," (without outside intervention) then step in and give them a little boost. None of that would make for good headlines at home, and nobody would get rich from it, and it would take an awfully long time to yield perceptible results, but maybe that is what is going to work in the long run.

I know it would not bepopular with the current Administration, but we could look back to some of our own successes in the New Deal programs, and see if some of those things could be adapted to local cultures. Who knows: maybe an Afghani version of the Civilian Conservation Corps would work. If so, maybe it would work well enough, that we would want to do the same thing back here. Again.