Let me tell you something you probably already suspect: Iraq won't be the last time America tries to rapidly resurrect a shattered society following some national trauma. Whether it's regime change, civil war, natural disaster or state failure, our military's overseas crisis responses have grown both more frequent and dramatically longer in the past two decades.
So the real question is, do you want America to get better at doing this?
Granted, in any crisis intervention, it's first and foremost about establishing security on the ground. Until you achieve that, you can just forget about rebuilding anything. But, say we remember to send enough ground troops for the postwar next time - what then? Will America be any more ready to jump-start a devastated economy than we were in Iraq?
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have just rewritten their joint counter-insurgency doctrine that's clearly an institutional response to the hard lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. The key lesson? Successful counter-insurgency campaigns are roughly one-fifth kinetic (putting the hurt on the bad guys) and four-fifths nonkinetic (winning over the rest of the population through economic development and political institution-building).
Given the skills of our troops, I'm confident about the kinetics, but who's carrying the ball on everything else?
Traditionally, that's the purview of the Agency for International Development (AID), which has a small office for disaster relief but typically thinks of economic development in terms of decades, not months or years. Frankly, that's too slow.
In any humanitarian intervention, there's a golden hour that runs anywhere from weeks to months past the triggering event - war, disaster, whatever - but certainly no longer than a year. In Iraq it ran from May 2003 to April 2004.
In that period, the intervening force enjoys the overwhelming good will of the local population. If real progress is demonstrated in economic reconstruction, you create stakeholders among the people. But, the longer you go without proving to the locals that you're going to leave them better off than you found them, the more they turn on you.
Having studied such military operations over the years, my basic rule is that any intervening force has about six months to feel the love and get things moving again. That's it.
In the U.S. following any disaster, it's more like six days before the guns come out, but our expectations are naturally higher.
AID isn't built to achieve broad results that quickly, which tells me what's missing in our kit: the ability to rapidly reconnect a shattered economy to the global economy.
That's basically our definition of crisis in this globalized world: business continuity is threatened and/or disrupted. Our definition of recovery needs to match that minimal global standard: rapid reconnection of secure networks and re-establishment of economic transactions.
Call it Development-in-a-Box or the ultimate "push package" that we ship to any post-conflict or post-disaster situation, whether it's Iraq post-Saddam Hussein, Pakistan post-earthquake, Indonesia post-tsunamis, or - yes - New Orleans post-Katrina.
What goes into the box?
First, our best practices and software templates for running a host of essential government services, public utilities and market activities.
So one module could be on how to set up and train local police forces. Another could be on how you turn the entire nation into a Wi-Fi zone so anyone can access the Internet (don't laugh, AID and others are doing that right now in backward little Macedonia). Still another could be on how you set up and run a central bank.
There are a host of such fundamental networks that any recovering state needs in order to generate both internal stability and just enough trust externally so that nations and their companies will re-establish economic connectivity. Development-in-a-Box would be designed to provide the targeted nation with: (1) the infrastructure required; (2) the best practices to run those networks - automated wherever possible; and (3) training so locals can start managing those processes as quickly as possible.
What's the finishing line here? When a less-developed country starts looking to global investors like a low-cost country whose labor is ripe for exploitation. When that happens, foreign direct investment starts flowing, and both the military and aid groups are soon out of a job.
Sound hard? Absolutely. But what's your alternative? More Iraqs? Or just pretending that Iraq will be the last one?