There is an evident logic to seeing Afghanistan as the new template for U.S. policy toward failing states. Afghanistan is not only the most serious such problem this administration is facing but also the laboratory in which it has done by far the most experimenting. Afghanistan is also, of course, the one failed state into which the United States has poured a torrent of money, with authorized funds since the inception of the war totaling $300 billion. The United States is tripling the civilian head count in Afghanistan and just as importantly, dispersing civilians out of Kabul and into provincial and district capitals. The emphasis, Slaughter says, is very much on persuading ordinary Afghans that their government is worth defending. But Afghanistan makes for a very tough paradigm. Nation-building is almost impossible to do amid a raging insurgency, as the United States learned in Iraq. Doing so at warp speed, with a troop pullout looming, is yet harder.
Afghanistan is invariably one of those places where the tide of hopelessness gives rise to hatred. But Slaughter says that Haiti should also be seen as a model of administration policy. Slaughter says that in the aftermath of the country's Jan. 12 earthquake, the Obama administration recognized that Haiti needed help with security and development -- and that the investment in development had to bolster the country's own capacity. And the United States must work with existing partners, especially the Brazilians, who have formed the core of the U.N. peacekeeping force there. In Haiti, as in Yemen, where the United States must work with neighbors (read: Saudi Arabia), other donors, and regional and multinational bodies, diplomacy is an indispensable element of the response to failed and fragile states. Indeed, Yemen, now seen as an incubator of terrorism, might well become the administration's next petri dish.
So that's the policy, at least in its current inchoate form. On this issue, as on others, Obama administration officials tend to brandish their intellectual bona fides in a bid for forbearance: They've thought hard about these questions. They care deeply about them. They're getting to the right place. It's still early days. All true -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, for instance, led a Brookings Institution project on failed states, and White House advisor Samantha Power literally wrote the book on genocide -- but faith begins to wear thin. One senior figure at an NGO that deals with fragile states says, "I do think this group comes in with a much different vision of the issues at play, but I don't see that there has been much of a change in policy that reflects the change in mindset."
Fixing failed states requires not just a coherent plan, but very large commitments of money, people, and time. There must be boots on the ground -- but who will fill them? When the White House decided on the civilian "uplift" in Afghanistan, as it is known, there was no pool of available civilian experts from which the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could draw. They just went out and started hiring people willing and able to go for a year and then slotted them into job openings.
There was supposed to be such a pool. In 2004, the Bush administration overcame its ideological disapproval of nation-building and agreed to establish the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), housed at the State Department. The idea, as U.S. Institute of Peace expert Robert Perito recalls, was to create a single "command-and-control group" for the government, so the civilian response to a natural disaster or political crisis could be as rapid and effectively coordinated as the military one. It didn't work out that way. S/CRS became a bureaucratic orphan; its first chief, Carlos Pascual, now the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, quit in disgust. The office got emergency funding from the Pentagon, but had no budget of its own until the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Its current director, John Herbst, operates largely at the whim of the department's powerful regional bureau chiefs.