15 June, 2005Issue 4.3Politics & SocietyThe Middle EastWorld Politics

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The Dual Mandate of the US in Occupied Iraq

Dominik Zaum

Noah Feldman
What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building
Princeton University Press, 2004.
200 pages
ISBN 0691121786

With George Bush publicly pondering the spread of democracy to distant shores and with violence raging throughout Iraq, the issue of nation building has remained high on the political agenda. One of the most widely discussed books on nation building in the last year has been Noah Feldman’s short, but powerful book What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, based on three of his lectures given at Princeton in 2004. Feldman, a former Rhodes Scholar, was the senior constitutional advisor to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Nation building has often been considered a predominantly technocratic exercise both by practitioners and analysts, as if it involved merely erecting or fixing the necessary institutions of a state. Consequently, commentators, have justifiably derided ‘gap year colonialists’ and the new ‘Ivy League nation builders’ who think that ‘you can set up an independent central bank, reform the tax code, liberalize prices and privatize the major utilities—and be home for your first class reunion.’1 In his opening paragraphs, reflecting on his first trip out to Baghdad just after the end of the war, Feldman shows how many of his colleagues in Iraq subscribe to a similar ideology:

[I]n May 2003, I was on a military transport plane somewhere over the Mediterranean, on my way to a stint as constitutional adviser to the American occupation authorities in Iraq […]. The adrenaline pumping through me, I was rereading the best modern book on the Iraqi Shi’a and hastily trying to teach myself some Iraqi colloquial dialect. Pausing to take in the moment, I glanced around 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.

Feldman’s chill reveals his position on nation building: he emphasises throughout how the CPA’s policies in Iraq demonstrate that such a technocratic approach ignores both the nuanced and culture-specific prerequisites of building political and societal institutions, and the ethical obligations that arise from exercising governance over a foreign territory. His impassioned arguments provide a welcome counterpoint to a technocratic world view, vividly illustrating local parties’ influence on the CPA’s policies as well as the particulars of Iraqi society after the fall of Saddam Hussein—the increasing fragmentation of social structures, the importance of the Shi’a religious leader the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

While at first glance Feldman’s book is about U.S. policy in Iraq, its main arguments are theoretical, exploring the ethical implications of nation building and the obligations that arise for nation builders, using experiences from Iraq as illustrations of ethical claims. Feldman addresses three different dimensions of nation building ethics: the objectives of nation building; the practices of nation building, explored through the lens of trusteeship; and the issue of elections and exit strategies. While elegant and provocative, however, his arguments concerning all three are full of problems.

Why should the international community in general, and the U.S. in particular, get involved in nation building? In December 2001, the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published a widely-read report entitled The Responsibility to Protect,2 suggesting a residual responsibility of the international community to protect the security and basic human rights of people whose governments fail to fulfil this responsibility, and if necessary to do so through military intervention. This responsibility to protect also involves the responsibility to rebuild. The objective of nation building for the authors of the report was thus the security of those affected, and the improvement of government in their territories through the sustained provision of security and protection of human rights by a responsible (and responsive) government.

Feldman’s perspective on nation building is different, and strongly influenced by the events of 9/11. He looks at nation building as a response to terrorism, which is ‘today the greatest threat to the United States and its allies, and even to its erstwhile enemies like the states of the former Soviet Union’. By building ‘reasonably legitimate, reasonably liberal democracies’, whose citizens will be sufficiently content with the status quo to not desire the destruction of the West, terrorism can be contained.

Nation building thus takes on a strongly self-interested quality, emphasising the national security of the nation builders. Feldman convincingly argues that self-interest is important to sustain the engagement of nation builders over the longer term, but also puts limits on the pursuit of self-interested nation building by emphasising that their objectives need to coincide with those of the affected population, and that the means employed must be appropriate to achieve these aims. For Feldman, nation building is about our security as much as is it is about theirs.

While such a justification of nation building is generally convincing, two problems with Feldman’s account remain. The first is empirical: of all the cases of nation building that we have seen so far, only Afghanistan had links to international terrorism. Iraq did not pose a terrorist threat, and neither did Kosovo, East Timor, or Bosnia, unless every secessionist movement is considered a terrorist group, an interpretation that would certainly dilute the meaning and force of the notion of terrorism. Instead, nation building has been the response to a wide range of challenges to international order, such as civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, belated decolonisation in East Timor, the unwillingness of the international community to find a political settlement in Kosovo, the destruction of the (admittedly tyrannical) regime in Iraq, or, as in Afghanistan, international terrorism. Looking at them through the single lens of the so-called ‘war on terror’ prevents us from recognising the distinct challenges they pose to international order and consequently from developing the appropriate responses to them.

The second problem concerns the dual objective of nation building: the improvement of local governance and development on the one hand, and the promotion of international security on the other. Historians of colonialism might be instantly reminded of Lord Lugard’s famous ‘dual mandate’. As the British High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria, Lugard tried to justify European colonialism by stating in 1922 that Europe was in Africa for:

the mutual benefit of her own industrial classes, and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane; that the benefit can be made reciprocal, and that it is the aim and desire of civilised administration to fulfil this dual mandate.3

What, though, happens if local interests and the interests of the nation-builder no longer coincide? The benefits from European rule over Africa were at some point no longer reciprocal, contributing to the demise of European colonialism. Similarly, it is not at all clear that the nation building policies of Western states always coincide with local interests. In Afghanistan, for example, the US has continued to support warlords to enlist them in the fight against the Taleban and Al Qaeda. However, strengthening these warlords, who are often deeply involved in drug trafficking, undermines the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, which is otherwise supported by the US and the international community. To take another example, in Kosovo the relations between local elites and the UN-led international administration grew increasingly tense as the international community long resisted the resolution of Kosovo’s status, thus denying Kosovo Albanians what they want most: independence from Serbia. And what would be the U.S. response to a Shi’ite government in Iraq, maybe under Iranian influence, demanding the withdrawal of American troops?

Feldman argues that local interests should have priority in such a case, and that the nation-builder would have to concede. While the argument is strong and consistent from an ethical perspective, it is politically unconvincing. Why would a powerful state, which has invested heavily in a country both financially and militarily, withdraw or acquiesce to local demands that contradict the security interests that justified its engagement in the first place? Given that Feldman views the self-interested motivation for nation building as one of the strength of his model, his failure to address this question seems a significant oversight.

Once nation building’s objectives are established, how they are enacted must be worked out, particularly as regards the structure of the relationship between foreigners and locals. Feldman explores this issue through the lens of trusteeship, discussing what is held in trust by nation builders, and what obligations arise from it. Drawing on principal-agent theories, and on theories of democratic governance, he argues that nation builders simply hold the authority to govern in trust, rather than the people and the territory of a country (as under occupation law reflected in the 1907 Hague Conventions) or a society’s standard of development (as under the League of Nations Mandates and the ‘Sacred Trust of Civilisation’).

Feldman’s model of trusteeship is intuitively appealing, for it is not as paternalistic as the classic conception of trusteeship associated with the League of Nations Mandates system, and has strong implications for the responsibilities of nation builders. If they hold authority to govern, this authority needs to be legitimated. Governmental legitimacy can arise either from the processes of establishing and exercising authority, or from the purposes for which governmental authority is exercised. In democratic societies, governmental authority is legitimised through regular elections, an option that is not available to nation builders and occupation authorities, who can at best hope for a UN Security Council mandate. This makes restraint of nation builders by, and accountability of nation builders to, the local population even more important. As Feldman observes, the occupying force owes the same ethical duties to the people being governed that an ordinary, elected government would owe them. It must govern in their interests; and it must not put its own narrow interests ahead of the interests of the people being governed.

How, though, can nation builders be held accountable and how can it be ensured that they fulfil these ethical duties? Feldman identifi es two main mechanisms: first, the freedoms of speech and assembly; and second, consulting and co-opting community leaders who command broad popular support.

While these accountability mechanisms are necessary, they are not sufficient.

If one aim of nation building is the establishment of a reasonably liberal democratic society, guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and association are necessary conditions. Similarly, local consultation or even local participation in an internationally led administration is essential to ensure increasing local ownership of the nation building process to encourage local support for the new institutions. However, without any institutions in which the authority of the nation builders can be challenged, such as courts or an assembly, the use of such measures as instruments of accountability is limited: free speech, in other words, cannot effective check international power. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, the international High Representative has the right to dismiss officials who obstruct the implementation of the peace agreement and ban them from standing for public office. Those dismissed have no legal remedy available to them with which to contest these decisions. Similarly, in Iraq today, neither private military contractors nor US soldiers can be brought before Iraqi courts if they kill or abuse Iraqis. This lack of legal remedies not only limits the accountability of nation builders, and thus undermines good governance, but also compromises the rule of law, one of the central aims of nation building.

Legitimacy, though, is also based on effective government, especially the provision of security and public services. In most cases, nation builders have fallen short of providing effective government, because their ability to govern an alien society is inherently limited by three factors. First, nation builders tend to lack full control over the territory they transitionally govern. In Iraq, the U.S. has failed to establish basic security even two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Without full control, it is difficult to implement any public policy and collect taxes or payments for electricity and water. Secondly, nation builders tend to lack both financial and human resources. Deployment is often slow, and it is difficult to find quickly a sufficient number of qualified people willing to participate in such missions. The CPA, for example, was never fully staff ed throughout its existence despite the massive resources available to the U.S.government. Finally, nation builders often lack information about the societies with which they are engaging. They know little about the existing institutions and infrastructure, often don’t speak the language, and know little about local customs. Without such information, effective governance is impossible.

The inability of nation builders to effectively exercise governmental authority raises a major problem for the conception of trusteeship put forward by Feldman: how can nation builders hold something in trust that they cannot operate? As long as nation builders underestimate this challenge, locals will legitimately ask why they should support an internationally staffed, unaccountable government that fails to provide public services and economic development.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, elections are frequently presented as the endpoint of nation building: with the democratic legitimisation of the new domestic institutions, the nation builders can hand over authority and leave. For Feldman, these elections are absolutely essential but do not necessarily mark the conclusion of a nation building project: even if elections democratically legitimate a local government, the government does not always have the capacity to control the country and to develop and implement public policy. Nation builders therefore have the ethical responsibility to remain until local institutions are strong enough to act without international support. With respect to Iraq, this means that U.S. troops have to remain until the Iraqi army and police force are able to deal with insurgents and protect the country’s borders.

The role elections should play in nation building remains contested. In the case of Bosnia, most analysts have argued that early elections were a mistake, allowing the nationalist parties that fought the war to strengthen their grip on power. More recently, however, some analysts have argued that the early elections helped to co-opt the nationalist parties into the nation building project, and resulted in general support for the presence of the international community, and a hence a lack of violence against it. Maybe it needed the stark contrast to the U.S. experience in Iraq for this interpretation to gain ground. Be that as it may, neither interpretation suggests that election should be the end of nation building.

But if elections do not constitute the end of nation building, what does? If nation builders need to stay until a state can exercise its sovereign rights, who determines when this time has come? The most obvious answer seems to be: when the local government decides that they should go. What if the government is still weak, or if it is doubtful that it will remain democratic? What if the government wants foreign nation builders and their troops to leave, but this might put minorities in the country at risk? Would they not have the obligation to stay?

In other cases, the local government does not want nation builders to leave, as it increasingly depends on their presence. In Bosnia, where the nation building efforts are in their tenth year, government elites have a vested interest in the continued presence of the international community as it allows them to ‘outsource’ politically difficult decisions to the High Representative, who can impose them as law. Similarly, the international organisations involved in nation building do not necessarily have the incentive to pack up and go, as they might have an institutional interest in perpetuating their involvement.

Feldman’s discussion of the efficacy of elections echoes a remark made by Jeremy Greenstock, former British ambassador to the United Nations, in a Security Council debate on exit strategies in 2000: ‘The decision on exit has to be related to a transitional mechanism. We do not just get out. We hand over to a mechanism that deals with the next stage.’ If elections no longer provide a universally appropriate exit mechanism, intervening governments need to start thinking about procedures for discerning when local institutions are strong enough for self-governance. By definition, this mechanism must be external to the nation building process so as to enable a decision made without self-interest. Ultimately, no uniform mechanism is conceivable: the nature of this transitional procedure is conditional upon the contextual attributes of each individual mission and predefined end-goals.

The debate that Feldman has joined with his book is an important one. In order to determine exit strategy as well as to mobilise the necessary resources and popular support for such an enterprise, the objectives of nation building must be clear and justifiable. The practices of nation building need to be appropriate for the aims pursued and must engender local support for the project. Institutions that fail to reflect local interests and values will either be brittle and quickly collapse, or they will only be maintained with force—outcomes desirable neither for the international community nor for the local population.

One can argue about the validity of the U.S. dual mandate at the outset of the war. Today we know that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and that the alleged links between his regime and Al Qaeda terrorists were spurious at best. To what extent Iraq thus presented a danger to international security, and to what extent the nature of Saddam Hussein’s rule legitimised regime change in the light of the insecurity the Iraqi population had to face ever since, remains an open question.

However dubious the initial reasons for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Feldman’s provides a strong argument that the U.S. has a dual mandate to remain in Iraq today. It is here that his treatise is at its most forceful. First, he declares, America needs to stay involved to avoid further destabilisation of the country and the broader region, and to prevent the spillover of conflict into neighbouring countries, which in turn would pose a major threat to international security and American interests. Second, the U.S. has an obligation to the Iraqi people to support them in creating security and providing the conditions for better governance and development. As former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell allegedly pointed out to President Bush at the eve of the Iraq war: ‘You break it, you own it.’ And as Feldman shows, by embarking on nation building and regime change in Iraq, the U.S. is largely responsible for the current situation. America has both the incentive and the ethical obligation to stay its course.

Dominik Zaum is the Rose Research Fellow in International Relations at Lady Margaret Hall. His research focuses on post-conflict statebuilding and international administrations, and he wrote his DPhil. on sovereignty norms and the politics of statebuilding in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.

1. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 211.
2. International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001).
3. F.D. Lugard, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, 3rd Edition (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1926), p. 617.