The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness -- doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results -- pretty much sums up America's limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for arms and a no-fly zone in Syria, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America's failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant Well I sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen's assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen's office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government's existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with--unsurprisingly--generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office -- the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO) -- that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State's default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen's idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?