When Nation-Building Becomes Cowardly Escape

If you walk down Falluja's busiest streets, you are likely to travel parallel with open trenches that smell of putrid waste. These trenches, vestiges of a planned but unfinished sewage treatment system, are more than an eyesore and an assault on the olfactory senses. They are a reminder of America's broken promises in the ongoing nation-building effort in Iraq.

The New York Times reported last week that many of the most fundamental needs of the Iraqi people, the most vital infrastructure projects, have been abandoned. Of the long-planned sewage system, for example, the Times reports, "After more than six years of work, $104 million spent, and without having connected a single house, American reconstruction officials have decided to leave the troubled system only partly finished, infuriating many city residents." The project was initially supposed to treat waste for Falluja's entire population (200,000 people), with room to grow by 50 percent. Now it will, at best, serve 4,300, before the Americans working on the project leave town.

Iraqi citizens shouldn't be the only ones infuriated by our military's half-assed effort to rebuild a nation that we so righteously destroyed not so long ago. Americans should also be outraged. We should be fuming. This war was fought in our names, and now shoddy infrastructure and broken promises will be our legacy. We should be calling our political representatives and demanding that the U.S. military finish what it started in Iraq and implement a long-term plan for incorporating nation-building practices effectively and ethically.

The RAND Corporation reports, "Nation-building has been a controversial mission over the past decade, and the extent of this controversy has undoubtedly curtailed the investments needed to do these tasks better. So has institutional resistance in both the state and defense departments, neither of which regards nation-building among its core missions. As a result, successive administrations tend to treat each new such mission as if it were the first and, more importantly, the last." In other words, we reinvent the wheel (badly), following every new conflict. We can argue the morality of wars, but as long as we keep participating in them, we must be committed to leaving them with dignity and integrity.

In a study of the seven historical attempts by the U.S. to nation-build -- in Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan -- RAND found that "there is no quick-fix" and that "none of our cases was successfully completed in less than seven years." It's worth remembering that we started the Iraq War before finishing the job in Afghanistan. Now we want to bail before the job's done in Iraq, too, setting ourselves up for another half-cooked polity and a continued world of hurt.

The financial costs are high, indeed, but the costs in terms of security and morality are potentially even higher. Our nation-building blunders are not just ineffective and embarrassing; they're downright dangerous. Leaving a taste like this in Iraqis' parched mouths is certainly not going to make Americans any safer. The president of the Falluja City Council told The New York Times: "I told the Americans if they want to leave a good impression ? and to erase bad feelings about the United States from the war, they should finish this project completely and properly. It was supposed to be finished in two years, then five years, and it still isn't complete. There's been no benefit to us."

Even many of the projects that do look to be on the path to completion are being finished so quickly and haphazardly that engineering standards have been thrown out the window. Shaymaa Mohammad Ameen, who works with reconstruction officials as a liaison for the Diyala Provincial Council, told the Times that "American officials frequently threatened to leave when Iraqis questioned engineering standards and brought up other safety issues."

The U.S. is slipping out of Iraq, base by base, soldier by soldier, not with a bang but with a whimper of unfulfilled promises and blatant denials. Sure it would be nice to just come home, as so many on the left have argued. No one wants our troops in Iraq any longer than is necessary. But what's even worse than prolonging their presence is undermining their work thus far by asking them to leave a job shoddily and incompletely done. Our troops' integrity -- and that of the country -- is at stake.

When asked about the abandoned projects and dwindling quality of those that haven't yet been scraped, Col. Dionysios Anninos, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Times: "I am not aware of the Iraqis having any sort of hard feelings that we will not finish current projects." Really? You break a promise to five-sixths of Falluja's population and no one seems perturbed? And then, as if to add insult to injury, he enthusiastically added, "We will finish strong!"

This isn't nation-building; this is cowardly escape. The American public shouldn't stand for it.

Additional research by Krystie Yandoli.