The Wilson Quarterly

What do post–Civil War Reconstruction and U.S. nation-building efforts in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, Ko­sovo, and now Af­ghan­istan have in common? The average American pre­ma­turely branded them all ­quag­mires.

Americans are predisposed to see failure in ­state-­building efforts, writes Dominic Tierney, a political scientist at Swarthmore College. Almost as soon as federal troops undertook Recon­struction in the South in 1865, Northerners began to lose heart over the slow rate of progress. Deciding by 1877 that the effort was a failure, they supported the troop withdrawals that would leave blacks to their ­fate.

Fast-forward to the second wave of nation-building, at the turn of the 20th ­century—­in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, and else­where. In Manila, Mark Twain wrote, America blun­dered into “a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extraction immensely greater.” In 1933 President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt promised to end the inter­ven­tions.

After the Cold War, the United States launched anoth­er round of interventions, in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo. “In a now familiar pattern,” Tierney writes, “Ameri­cans perceived every one of these missions as a failure.”

Yet in the course of intervening in Somalia during 1992 and ’93, the United States saved probably around 100,000 lives, halved the number of refugees, and repaired much of the infrastructure, at a cost of 43 American lives. Likewise, the U.S. force present in Haiti from 1994 to ’96 rein­stalled an elected government, miti­gated suffering, halted the exodus of refugees, supervised elections, and trained police at a cost of four American lives. Even so, Somalia is considered a military disaster; Haiti, a ­failure.

The long newsreel of U.S. ­nation-­building includes only one scene that the public applauds as ­successful—­the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. The postwar ex­ception to the quagmire axiom shows that Americans approve of ­nation-­building only when the nation turns out looking a lot like the United ­States.

Americans today are inclined to seize a verdict of failure from the jaws of success.

Vietnam appears to be a turning point in quagmire history. It evokes such negative memories that even oblique references skew polling results about nation-building. Responses were 15 percentage points more positive toward U.S. efforts in Somalia when the question contained no allusion to Vietnam than when it did. Most observers do not compare the results of recent ­nation-­building efforts to the results in Vietnam, but, rather, look at basic information about a mission and “see failure analogous to Vietnam,” Tierney ­says.

Rogue states, failed states, wea­pons of mass destruction, and terrorism are likely to require more ­nation-­building in the future, according to Tierney, even as Americans today are inclined to seize a verdict of failure from the jaws of success. The best presidential strategy for the inevit­able need to rebuild chaotic countries is to avoid grandiose claims, promote a ­long-­term perspective, and fight back the tide of skepticism and ­disillusionment.

* * *

THE SOURCE: “America’s Quagmire Mentality” by Dominic Tierney, in Survival, Winter 2007–08.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/John Martinez Pavliga

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