The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Failed state and the global war on terror

July 28, 2006

I had lunch yesterday with two of my colleagues at the Mershon Center, John Mueller and Markus Kornprobst. The conversation inevitably turned to the Middle East and the efficacy of US and Israeli policy. As the discussion progressed, I mentioned that when we got back I would be revising my chapter on the French Wars of Religion–a case of trans-national and trans-regional religious movements prompting decades of violent conflict. I said, somewhat flippantly, that I did not believe there were many lessons to draw from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe for current developments.

Of course, I don’t really believe that. I argue in the book that there are a variety of generalizable principles concerning religious conflict and the dynamics of imperial control. But these “lessons” tend to be rather indirect.

When we got back I returned to the process of converting the footnotes from plain text to Endnote (note to all dissertation writers: use citation software now; doing so will save you a lot of time later) and realized that I could draw one rather immediate and, in some ways, rather banal lesson: if your aim is to limit the impact of trans-national religious movements, then your focus should be on enhancing state capacity. As some analysts might put it, the best way to limit “networks” is to develop “hierarchies.”[1]

I don’t think it takes a lot of effort to recognize that failed and otherwise weak states present problems for the war on violent non-state actors, regardless of whether or not they have trans-national ties. Failed states not only often become staging grounds for violent non-state actors, but weak and failed states become incredibly vulnerable to non-state movements.

As John Mueller remarked to me about a number of African polities, “their central governments are so weak that they face serious threats from roving bands of two hundred or so thugs.” In fact, the relative strength of central power across early modern Europe was a decent, if imperfect, indicator of whether or not religious contention would fragment a polity. Early modern European states tended to be relatively weak, composite entities with imperfect, at best, monopolies on coercive military power. The fact that they developed in relatively centralized and strong states later on rendered them, all things being equal, both relatively resilient in the face of such threats and decreased the likelihood that such threats would emerge in the first place.

Although, as I’ve noted, this is all pretty trivial stuff, Israeli and American policy makers don’t seem to be thinking through the implications as they craft their policies.

Via Rob, I recently learned that the US is cutting aid to African states that don’t tow the Bush administration’s line on the ICC:

The Bush administration and Congress have slashed millions of dollars of military aid to African nations in recent years, moves that Pentagon officials and senior military commanders say have undermined American efforts to combat terrorist threats in Africa and to counter expanding Chinese influence there.

Since 2003, Washington has shut down Pentagon programs to train and equip militaries in a handful of African nations because they have declined to sign agreements exempting American troops from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But the policy, which was designed to protect American troops, has instead angered senior military officials, who say the cuts in military aid are shortsighted and have weakened counterterrorism efforts in places where the threat of international terrorism is said to be most acute.

As Rob notes,

Several of the states the US has severed military ties with have genuine terrorist problems. Believe it or not, the administration has cut support for Kenya and Mali, both of which have experienced radical Islamic terrorist attacks. Kenya, as you may recall, was the site of one of the embassy bombings in 1998. While allowing that the US military probably isn’t the best organization to teach counter-terrorist doctrine, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have US officers and non-coms teaching basic light infantry tactics. Many African military organizations are completely inept, which allows small, dedicated NGOs to carve out territorial space and resist government authority.

John Mueller reminded me that the US cut aid to a number of unpleasant African regimes–and erstwhile allies–after the Cold War, which contributed to a great ideal of instability and conflict in the region. Yes, they were unpleasant regimes, but US (and Soviet) aid provided just enough patronage and capacity to keep them afloat and limit deadly instability within their borders.

Israel’s policy of trying to compel the fragile Lebanese state to “take on” Hezballah not only seems to be failing at both the strategic and a “war of ideas” level, but, as I noted in my first attempt at videoblogging, looks almost like its designed to create a failed state–a consequence that would be far worse for Israel than intermittent low-level attacks from a relatively restrained (if odious) quasi-state organization in the country. Remember the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982? They drove out the PLO and got Hezballah in exchange.

Strong states, simply put, are a important firewalls against “global guerillas.” Destroying them for the express purpose of creating democracies? Not such a good idea.[2] Strong states make it less likely that regional, substate, and transnational non-state actors will threaten US interests. Even though some of those “strong” states (such as Iran) sponsor violent non-state actors (such as Hezballah) the ultimate threat from those movements is very much conditioned by the number of low-capacity states in the world. Moreover, strong states do have the capacity to limit the activities of their proxies, and present themselves as targets for coercive leverage of the kind that might actually reduce the resources and capabilities of their clients.

Israel, as Rob notes, risks repeating the same mistakes as Americans through its over-reliance on airpower and their “firepower” advantage. American strategy towards Iraq produced a failed state and, as we now know, a far worse strategic environment for the US and the region than existed before the invasion.John Mueller wrote last year in Foreign Affairs that: “From the start of the current Iraq war, the invading forces were too small to establish order, and some of the early administrative policies proved fatally misguided. In effect, the United States created an instant failed state, and clambering out of that condition would be difficult in the best of circumstances.”

Saddam Hussein’s regime was, without a doubt, a very bad one. But it was not particularly vulnerable to trans-national movements nor much in the way of a staging ground for anything other than low-level terrorism. In Afghanistan, the US had the opportunity to commit serious manpower and resources to trying to produce a (relatively) strong state, but lost interest and now faces a country divided between warlords with an extremely weak central government.

I believe, in fact, that these outcomes reflect a tension in US occupation policy between its “unite-and-rule” goals (e.g., the kind of intense “nation-building” that Bush derided in the 2000 campaign) and its commitment to providing the absolute minimal resources it can to the effort. This raises an interesting question: does a governing party have to be social-democratic or otherwise “statist” to do nation-building right?

Regardless, I’ll return to the notion that the Bush administration is doing “unite-and-rule” occupations on a “divide-and-rule” budget, and therefore producing the worst of both possible worlds, in a later post.

1The “networks versus hierarchies” theme obscures, in my view, more than it reveals. Networks, of course, may be more or less hierarchical; hierarchies are just, in network terms, a specific class of network structures.
2That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t promote democracy, just that we shouldn’t generally do it through invasions of states in regions where we have much to fear from political instability.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.