Occupation: Counting the True Costs

Slowly and gradually, as the death toll mounts, as the "weapons of mass destruction" continue to prove elusive, and as evidence mounts that many if not most of the certainties U.S. officials touted as evidence that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat were based on at least shaky and probably deceptive intelligence information, the American people may be developing a healthy skepticism about ongoing efforts to transform Iraq into a model democracy. The trend may be assisted – although not necessarily purposely – by various groups and individuals coming out with estimates of that the real cost of "nation-building" in Iraq is likely to be.

I talked with one of those experts last week. James Dobbins may know as much as anybody about American nation-building as anybody in the country, having been President Clinton’s special envoy to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and President Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan. Now the head of the RAND Corporation’s office in Washington, he is also the lead author of a new book from RAND called America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.

In a word, rebuilding Iraq will be much more costly and time-consuming than anybody in authority has let on.


If President Bush knows this, he hasn’t seen fit yet to let the American people in on it. During his press conference last week President Bush said things were going reasonably well in Iraq they way things are set up now. While it will take time, he acknowledged. "the world will see what I mean when I say a free Iraq will help peace in the Middle East, and a free Iraq will be important for changing the attitudes of the people in the Middle East."

Well, maybe. Certainly few are lamenting the fact that Saddam Hussein’s two vicious sons are out of the picture. But last week also came news that the U.S.-led occupation coalition is teaching Iraq the wonders of democracy and freedom by shutting down a newspaper, pressuring Arab governments to rein in Arab networks like Al-Jazeera because of their "very biased reporting," and imprisoning two Iranian TV journalists. According to the Chicago Tribune‘s E.A. Torriero, "Angry over what it says is false reporting, the Bush administration is pressing some Arab governments to rein in their media, especially Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya."

There is precedent for this, of course. As Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine note in their Cato Institute book, Fool’s Errands, occupation forces in both Kosovo and Bosnia also indulged in press censorship, manipulation of news coverage and intervention into what passed for the political process to affect election outcomes. But it’s not exactly a ringing affirmation for exporting the First Amendment tradition of virtually absolute press freedom (or absolute if you read "Congress shall make no law" literally, as the founders almost certainly intended) to other countries. And it suggests what our government leaders would like to do here at home if the pesky First Amendment didn’t get in the way (not that most of the media are much more than compliant mouthpieces for the government anyway).


My conversation with James Dobbins and my reading of the RAND book affirm my conviction that it will be a long and winding road to anything like a successful conclusion of the occupation. The president and other officials may not want to admit as much, beyond a general acknowledgment that it will be a hard job but the American people have the persistence to see it through. But a dance through history and the facts on the ground make one long for something more specific than cheerleading from our purported leaders.

The main thing about successful occupations designed to "underpin rapid and fundamental societal transformation," as the book puts it, is that they take a long time and they cost a lot of money. In relatively successful operations, military forces stay about seven years. It’s worth noting that even though the United States does not run things on a day-today basis in Germany and Japan, cited by the hopelessly optimistic as irrefutable proof that the United States can and will do the job right, there are still American troops in place, even though they now tend to be more a source of friction than of gratitude from the natives.

As the RAND book notes, however, "The cases of Germany and Japan set a standard for postconflict nation-building that has not since been matched." During the Cold War, with the emphasis on containment and deterrence, the U.S. was mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo in countries that had not gone communist, not with trying to resolve underlying tensions. Since the communist system collapsed, however, "the United States has felt free to intervene not simply to police cease-fires or restore the status quo but to try to bring about more fundamental transformation of war-torn societies…"

The U.S. has been able to muster considerable international and UN support for such adventures recently. "Of the 55 peace operations the United Nations (UN) has mounted since 1945, 41 (or nearly 80 percent) began after 1989. Fifteen of these were still under way in 2003."

"Despite a more supportive international environment," Mr. Dobbins’ book notes, "the costs and risks associated with nation-building have remained high." And if the U.S. is serious about Iraq the costs will be higher than almost anybody has yet estimated.


For starters, as Mr. Dobbins told me in our conversation, the number of occupying troops will have to stabilize at "somewhere where we are [150,000 troops] and the ideal [500,000], or between 250,000 and 350,000 troops." He notes that "there’s an inverse relationship between the number of troops and the number of casualties," both for U.S. troops and the native population.

"The most important thing now is to get more troops in," he said. "Without security nothing else matters. All other efforts will be wasted. Our forces will be unpopular so long as they are not providing adequate security."

Given that we are spending $4 billion per month just for the troops there now – and more for the various civilian and quasi-civilian advisers and busybodies – that will be expensive. Doubling the number of troops would bring the military cost alone to about $8 billion a month, or around $96 billion per year (or round it up to $100 billion and figure that will be a low-ball estimate).

But just sending in more troops would be only the first step and the first increment of cost. Mr. Dobbins says that to have some hope of lasting success, there must be external economic aid. Aid roughly comparable, on a per capita basis, to what was provided in Kosovo and Bosnia would run between $20 billion and $35 billion a year for the first two years. And conditions in Iraq are potentially more volatile – more factions, more people with a vested interest in seeing the occupation fail, more ethnic and/or religious groups with reason to fear domination by rivals – than they were in either Kosovo or Bosnia. Not to mention that Iraq is a bigger place with more people.


Given all that, Mr. Dobbins believes it is essential to internationalize the effort. However, "As long as the United States insists on sole control the contributions from others will be minimal," he told me. But he notes that in Bosnia and Kosovo, with nominal NATO control, other countries kicked in about 80 percent of the resources in money and troops. The European Union is the most logical candidate to share control and contribute resources, perhaps under the auspices of the UN. He thinks that if the game is played shrewdly other countries might eventually begin to contribute up to 50 percent of the money, resources and personpower required in Iraq.

However, there is almost no evidence, beyond an occasional comment from Colin Powell, that the administration is all that interested in internationalizing the effort. Indeed, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the war and occupation – check out National Review Online or the Weekly Standard on almost any given day – view the idea of internationalization with hostility, as a sure formula for having American interests subsumed or subverted by those pesky foreigners.

Do the Bush administration and its supporters think the American taxpayers and American military personnel can pay the entire bill? Or do they really think they can do an occupation on the cheap, continuing to believe despite evidence to the contrary that Americans are welcomed as liberators and the Iraqi people will be patient while we get things right? Neither assumption seems especially realistic. Indeed, both seem the stuff of fantasy – or of bankruptcy and imperial overstretch.


RAND isn’t the only institution trying to assess the prospects for success in Iraq with a little more realism than the administration has shown to date. Another, shorter, report on American nation-building from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is available here.

The Carnegie report is not as detailed as the RAND report, but the conclusions are similar. It notes that few of the conditions that have made for successful nation-building in the past are present in Iraq, noting especially that few economies based on a single resource like oil have been successful at absorbing economic aid and diversifying.

As the Carnegie executive summary puts it, "democratic nation-building is among the most ambitious and difficult of foreign policy undertaking for the United States. Of the 16 over the past century, democracy was sustained in only 4 countries ten years after the departure of American forces. Two of these followed total defeat and surrender (in World War II) and two were in tiny countries (Grenada and Panama). The record also reveals that unilateral nation-building by the United States has an even lower success rate perhaps because unilateralism has led to the creation of surrogate regimes and direct American administration during the interim post-conflict period. The use of interim surrogates has produced a record of complete failure."

All this should be sobering.


The scholars at both RAND and Carnegie make a case for internationalizing the occupation. Pardon me if I find that a bit condescending and almost as unrealistic as the Bush hopes. The idea that only intensive supervision from somebody – whether Washington or the "international community" – can bring about anything like a tolerable outcome in Iraq suggests that the Iraqi people are thoroughly beknighted and have no resources, economic, physical, moral or psychic, of their own.

As Edward Luttwak of the Center for International and Strategic Studies (which has also done a post-conflict assessment, available at scis.org) points out in a piece for the London Telegraph, the society that would emerge in the wake of a fairly prompt American pullout is unlikely to be a model democracy. No group in Iraq has a strong ideological commitment to democracy, and most non-Shiites (Shiites make up 60-65 percent of the population) have valid reason to fear that democratic rule would be unpleasant for them.

However, the notion that every country has to be Just Like Us (or just like the ideal image of Us we prefer to hold in our hearts) is more than a bit arrogant. The rest of the world will no doubt come to resemble the United States and Western Europe more as globalization proceeds. But rather than trying to impose an "ideal" regime we would do better to let things evolve and let various countries (and individuals in them) work out how they will adapt the ideals of liberty to their own circumstances. They’ll work out something.

Not everybody will agree that the goal should be to turn matters over to Iraqis and minimize U.S. presence as quickly as feasible. But those who think otherwise should be honest about just how much any occupation – successful or unsuccessful – will cost in American tax money, personpower, and military and other resources.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).