Think Again: Failed States

On 9/11, the West woke up to the threat posed by failed states. But did we actually understand it?

"Failed States Are a Threat to U.S. National Security."

Only some of them. It has been a truism of U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the United States is, in the words of President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy, "threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that over the next 20 years, the gravest threats to America will come from failing states "that cannot meet the basic needs -- much less the aspirations -- of their people." Both as candidate and as president, Barack Obama has repeated this claim and has sought to reorient policy toward the prevention of state failure.

But the truth is that some state failure poses a real danger to the United States and the West, and some does not. Consider the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some 5 million or more people have died in the wars that have convulsed the country since the mid-1990s -- the single most horrific consequence of state failure in modern times. What has been the consequence to Americans? The cost of coltan, a material mined in Congo and used in cell phones, has been extremely volatile. It's hard to think of anything else.

Even the role of failed states in global terrorism may have been overstated. To start, terrorism is only a problem in failed states with significant Muslim populations -- admittedly, 13 of the top 20 in this year's Failed States Index. But the correlation between failure and global menace is weaker than we think. Islamist militants in unequivocally failed Muslim states such as Somalia, or profoundly weak ones such as Chad, have thus far mostly posed a threat to their own societies. They are surely less of a danger to the West than Pakistan or Yemen, both at least somewhat functional countries where state ideology and state institutions abet terrorists.

In his new book, Weak Links, scholar Stewart Patrick concludes that "a middle-ranking group of weak -- but not yet failing -- states (e.g., Pakistan, Kenya) may offer more long-term advantages to terrorists than either anarchic zones or strong states." (See "The Brutal Truth.") Terrorists need infrastructure, too. The 9/11 attacks, after all, were directed from Afghanistan, but were financed and coordinated in Europe and more stable parts of the Muslim world, and were carried out mostly by citizens of Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda is a largely middle-class organization.

A similar pattern plays out in the world of transnational crime. Take the three-cornered drug market that links cocaine growers in Latin America, traffickers in West Africa, and users in Europe. The narcotraffickers have found the failed states of West Africa, with their unpatrolled ports and corrupt and undermanned security forces, to be perfect transshipment points for their product. Drugs are dumped out of propeller planes or unloaded from ships just off the coast of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, or Sierra Leone, and then broken into smaller parcels to be shipped north. But the criminal gangs operate not out of these Hobbesian spaces but from Ghana and Senegal -- countries with reliable banking systems, excellent air connections, pleasant hotels, and innumerable opportunities for money laundering. The relationship is analogous to that between Afghanistan, whose wild spaces offer al Qaeda a theater of operations, and Pakistan, whose freewheeling urban centers provide jihadists with a home base.

"Failed States Are Ungoverned Spaces."

Not necessarily. Somalia, the land of the perpetual war of all against all, is our beau ideal, so to speak, of the failed state, and for the fourth year running it is No. 1 on the Failed States Index. Nobody can match Somalia for anarchy, but elsewhere in the world, government, rather than its absence, is chiefly to blame for state failure. Consider Sudan, where the state, deploying its national army as well as paramilitaries, fomented the violence that has dominated Sudanese life for decades and placed it near the very top of the index. Somali violence is a symptom of state failure; Sudanese violence is a consequence of state policy.

Gérard Prunier, a prominent Africa scholar, has written that since coming to power in 1989, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has adopted a policy toward restive ethnic groups that is "verging on genocide." The same was true in Burundi in the 1990s, where Hutu governments massacred Tutsis, after which the Tutsis turned around and did the same to Hutus. In these and other failed states, mass atrocity has almost become an accepted form of politics.

A categorical divide, albeit a sometimes blurry one, separates two classes of failed states. A country like Somalia is incapable of forming and executing state policy; it is a hapless state. States like Sudan, by contrast, are precarious by design. Or take Pakistan, which has followed clear and consistent policies, laid down by the military, since its inception in 1947. Unlike Somalia, or, for that matter, its neighbor Afghanistan, Pakistan is an intentional state. But just as Sudanese policy has provoked decades of violence by pitting the state against the periphery, so the cultivation of jihadi groups by the Pakistani military and intelligence services -- as a counterweight to India and a source of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan -- has turned Pakistan into a cockpit of terrorist violence. Pakistan does, of course, have ungoverned spaces, in the Pashtun-dominated badlands along the border with Afghanistan. But the country's military leaders have made a strategic choice to allow the Pashtuns to govern themselves there, the better to be able to use them against their alleged adversaries. Intentional states, in short, often pose far greater threats to the world than hapless ones do.

"Failed States Are the West's Fault."

If only. The colonial powers, especially the more heedless ones, undoubtedly dumped their former possessions on the threshold of independence with little if any preparation for statehood. Think of Congo, which Belgium's King Leopold II ruled as the chief executive of a private company dedicated to the extraction of raw materials under conditions of virtual enslavement, and whose entire population at independence in 1960 included not a single person with a graduate degree in any subject. Others, like never-colonized Afghanistan, were shredded in the savage crossfire of the Cold War.

But how can you hold the West responsible for states like Iraq (at least before 2003), Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, all of which enjoyed relative prosperity and stability in the first decades after emerging from rule by a Western power? Or what about Haiti, which threw off the yoke of French colonialism in the time of Napoleon, but never acquired more than the trappings of statehood in the two centuries since?

Less than half of the dozen most-failed countries can reasonably blame their Western parents for their plight. Why, after all, is Pakistan No. 12 on the list and India No. 76, despite sharing the same history of British colonization? Why is Ivory Coast 10 and Senegal 85, when both were under French rule? Same colonial upbringing, very different outcomes.

"Some States Were Born to Fail."

Unfortunately true. Although some failed states have no one but themselves -- or rather, their corrupt or brutal political elites -- to blame, others never had a chance to start with. Here we face a problem of nomenclature. The very expression "failed" falsely implies a prior state of success. In fact, many countries in the upper tiers of the Failed States Index never emerged into full statehood. Fourteen of the 20 highest-scoring states are African, and many of them, including Nigeria, Guinea, and, of course, Congo, consisted at birth of tribes or ethnic groups with little sense of common identity and absolutely no experience of modern government. (Perhaps in this more limited sense one can blame colonialism, because it was the European powers that drew the dubious borders.) They are, in novelist V.S. Naipaul's expression, "half-made societies," trapped between a no-longer-usable past and a not-yet-accessible future. They "failed" when modernity awakened new hopes and appetites (and rivalries) that overwhelmed the state's feeble institutions or that leaders sought to master and exploit.

What is the world to do about such misbegotten states? One answer is that you seek to minimize the harm that comes from them, or to them -- by stemming the flow of drugs into and out of Guinea, say, or by using peacekeeping troops to prevent the spillover of violence from Darfur and Chad into the Central African Republic. You bolster the regional and subregional organizations in their neighborhoods (the African Union, or ECOWAS). And you acknowledge that even in places that pose no meaningful threat to the West, a moral obligation to relieve suffering requires that those who can help do so.

"The United States Needs a Failed-States Policy."

Maybe not. One of the standing critiques of the Obama administration's foreign policy is that, though the president has spoken frequently of the danger posed by state failure, he has never formulated a coherent policy to prevent or cure it. The administration has been sensitive on this score; during her recent tenure as head of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested that the U.S. civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan could be viewed as a "petri dish" for such a policy and that the post-earthquake state-building effort in Haiti, with its high level of collaboration with international partners, could serve as an alternative model. But today, even advocates of the administration's large-scale effort in Afghanistan acknowledge that the attempt to spread good governance there has largely failed, while even a year after the Haiti quake the state-building effort there has barely even begun.

Perhaps the problem lies with our habit of thinking of failed states monolithically. What can it mean to have a policy that covers both Haiti and Afghanistan? What template could dictate a useful set of choices for U.S. officials in both Yemen, where state failure poses a direct threat to U.S. interests, and the Central African Republic, which has no strategic significance? And what policy would supply any useful options at all for Somalia, a wasteland that appears to be impervious to all forms of outside meddling, benevolent or malign? In this case, policy coherence may be overrated.

The Obama administration is certainly seeking such coherence. The State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a novel effort to marshal the tools of "soft power," repeated the criticism about the absence of an overarching policy, but also placed a welcome emphasis on the need to develop civilian capacity to actually do whatever it is policymakers decide needs to be done. At present, meaningful U.S. policy options are undermined by the absence, at least outside the armed forces, of operational or "expeditionary" capacity: police trainers, sanitation experts, public-health officials, forensic accountants, and lawyers (yes, lawyers) who can be deployed to fragile states or post-conflict settings. You need people to do things. Unfortunately, congressional Republicans seem determined to gut any and all increases in nonmilitary capacity. Conservatives seem more comfortable with old-fashioned threats from powerful countries like China, Iran, and Russia. Perhaps they're not troubled by the absence of a failed-states strategy because they don't worry about failed states.

"Military Intervention Never Works."

Wrong. The fixity of the failed-states rankings from year to year reminds us that the multiple diseases that plague these places are very resistant to being cured, whether by domestic actors or outsiders. Certainly the examples of Afghanistan and Haiti, the petri dishes of 2010, are not encouraging. But there are a few rays of light -- all of which, oddly enough, have involved military intervention. Liberia and Sierra Leone have been pulled back from the brink of utter chaos in recent years, and both are now at peace. The same may be true of Ivory Coast in future years; it's still too early to tell after this year's brief and bloody post-election civil war. Iraq, a country whose descent seemed to have no bottom five years ago, has improved its standing on the index as sectarian violence has diminished over the last year, from No. 7 to No. 9.

The inference to be drawn is not that the solution to failed states is to send in the Marines, but rather that, at moments of supreme crisis, outsiders can bend the trajectory of failed states by using force to topple monstrous leaders or prevent them from gaining power. But intervention is itself a sign of failure, a failure to anticipate the moment of crisis. Any new policy toward failed states needs to focus on prevention rather than reaction, not only to avoid the need for military force, but also because in many places intervention simply will not be possible. You want to know now that, say, Thailand is at risk of political crisis, because while neighboring countries and Western powers have diplomatic tools they can use to avert calamity, there may be little they can do once violence breaks out. The supreme example of the dire consequences of ignoring early warnings is, of course, Rwanda, where U.N. officials and the Security Council ignored repeated warnings of an impending genocide and reacted only when it was too late to stop the killing.

"Failed States Can't Be Helped."

Some of them can. What can outsiders do when this moment of leverage has passed? What can they do to promote reconciliation among tribes in Kenya, to bolster civilian rule in Pakistan, to help create an economic base to replace dwindling supplies of oil in Yemen? These are, of course, profoundly different questions, but they do have one common answer: It depends on the willingness of the state to be helped. Outsiders can do little in Zimbabwe so long as Robert Mugabe remains in power, for Mugabe is prepared to wreck his country in order to preserve his rule over it. The best thing outsiders can do is pressure or bribe him and his immediate circle into leaving. On the other hand, outsiders may be able to accomplish a great deal in Liberia, where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has invited U.N. officials to operate from inside the country's ministries in order to provide expertise and prevent abuse. The same contrast may apply between Sudan, an autocracy afloat on oil wealth, and Southern Sudan, a new country born naked and helpless, but with a legitimate political leadership (though there is a real danger that Sudan's abrupt seizure of the border territory of Abyei could plunge both countries into a spiral of violence).

It is tempting to view the problem of failed states in technocratic terms. In Fixing Failed States, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart argue that failed states need to be connected to global markets and have their innovative energies unshackled. They do -- but ruthless dictators view economic and political freedom as a threat to their rule. The generals who run Burma will make sure that no one save themselves and their friends benefits from global markets. There's no escaping politics, and political will. The hapless states, like Liberia, want help, and sometimes they can be helped. The intentional states, like Burma or Sudan, will exploit outside help for their own purposes. Unfortunately, it's the intentional states, by and large, that pose the greatest threat to the United States and the West. So here's a proposal: Maybe we can formulate a new kind of failing-states policy, one to help the deserving states, those that can be helped, and minimize the harm from the others.

Think Again

Think Again: Bob Gates

As the secretary of defense steps down, it's time to set aside the paeans and reconsider the conventional take on his tenure.

"Gates Was a Great Secretary of Defense."

Only if we grade on a curve. Bob Gates certainly makes pundits swoon. They appreciate his rhetorical restraint, purposeful demeanor, and evident distaste for the early zealotry of George W. Bush's administration. But his main asset, in their eyes, has always been that he's not Donald Rumsfeld, who seemed to relish antagonizing the media and had grown increasingly detached from the realities of the war in Iraq by the end of his tenure.

When Gates answered a question at his 2006 confirmation hearing about whether the United States was winning in Iraq with a curt "no, sir," pundits were head over heels. Schoolgirl mash notes masquerading as blog entries called him "the best defense secretary we've ever had" and the author of "one of the bravest defense budgets ever."

Much of that commentary praised Gates's management prowess, but failed to assess the objectives it served. Gates has proved a competent executor and skilled promoter of bad policies: the continuation of the Iraq war, the expansion of the one in Afghanistan, the deification of counterinsurgency warfare, and the continued growth of the Pentagon's bloated budget in service of an excess of global commitments. Gates was an able defender of the status quo, but at a time when U.S. foreign and military policies desperately needed an overhaul, he was not up to the task.

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"Gates Disciplined the Pentagon."

Not really. Gates does deserve credit for shutting production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and a host of other overpriced toys beloved by the military services and industry contractors. His personnel policies have likewise been praiseworthy from a budgetary standpoint: He fired the military and civilian chiefs of the Air Force in 2008 partly because they resisted his decisions about the F-22 and how to run the Predator drone program, and he subsequently put a non-fighter pilot in charge of the service for the first time in 25 years, reminding officers of their chain of command.

But Gates' management exacerbated the Pentagon's broader budgetary woes. For all his talk of discipline, every defense budget he submitted to Congress asked for more money than the previous year's. With almost $700 billion in annual expenditures, the Pentagon now spends more, in real terms, than at any point during the Cold War. (Even leaving out the country's current wars, the United States spends roughly 50 percent more on defense than it did in 2000.) Under pressure from the White House, Gates recently agreed to slow the rate of spending growth, supposedly generating $400 billion in cuts over 12 years, though most of those "savings" will have to be specified in budgets submitted by future presidents. Even under that plan, the United States would spend more on defense in the next decade than during the record spending of the last. According to Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon's unchecked growth has impaired its "ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."

Despite this record, the media tends to cast Gates as a fiscal skinflint fighting for the taxpayer. Last year, when Gates proposed shifting money from administrative overhead to force structure, media reports repeatedly referred to the reprogramming as "defense cuts." They often failed to note that any "savings" he produced were swallowed into his growing budget.


"Gates Made the Military Into a Better Counterinsurgency Force."

A little. He did lean on the services to heighten their dedication to irregular warfare. According to Gates, asymmetric war will constitute "the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time," and we should think of the fight against terrorism as a "prolonged, worldwide, irregular campaign."

But the counterinsurgency transformation was more talk than reality. It had little impact on Pentagon spending outside the scope of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been funded time and again through supplemental budget requests. A Pentagon that was truly committed to counterinsurgency would pay for the manpower needed for several occupations, meaning that it would shift funds to the Army from the other services. Spurred by Congress, Gates did grow the ground forces starting in 2008, but once again mostly through supplemental funds. The Navy and Air Force, which play a limited role in counterinsurgency, kept their traditional shares of the non-war military budget: about a third each.

But the real problem with Gates' enthusiasm for counterinsurgency doctrine is that it amounts to a set of best practices for fighting dumb wars. Counterinsurgency relies largely on a chain of arguments that has caused Americans great misery in the last decade: that terrorists thrive in failed states, that Americans won't be safe unless those failed states have been put on stable footing, and that this means Washington must train its military to occupy states, build new systems of governance, and defeat local insurgents who rise up against these new regimes.

That argument, which Gates embraces, is not only a recipe for endless war, but badly flawed on its own terms. International terrorists thrived in 1990s Afghanistan because the Taliban welcomed them, not because the state was weak. Since then, the United States has spent nearly a decade showing that no matter how many cups of tea they drink or wells they dig, U.S. soldiers lack the power to fix failed states, at least at reasonable cost in blood and treasure. The country also now has at its disposal the technology and tactics -- and more than enough political will -- to attack terrorists, wherever they may be. Counterterrorism does not require counterinsurgency.

Defense secretaries are policymakers, not servile executors of presidential whimsy. Gates could have questioned the need for perpetual counterinsurgency campaigns. Instead he endorsed the conceit that the U.S. military can be trained to meet this impossible task, inspiring false confidence that has encouraged military officers and civilian policymakers to repeat the errors of the past decade. His dedication to "winning the wars we are in" seemed sensible. But trying to end them would have been better.

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"Gates Is a Realist."

Only compared with the neocons. Gates's low-key style convinced even discerning analysts to label him a realist. Fareed Zakaria, for example, wrote an August 2010 article lauding a speech Gates had recently given at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, deeming Gates "a genuine conservative in Eisenhower's tradition."

But Gates's actions suggest he is anything but. Gates self-consciously evoked Ike's efforts to limit security spending and protect the country's economic health, even in the face of the Soviet threat. But Eisenhower followed up by actually cutting defense spending: He fought Democrats' efforts to increase defense spending on the basis of the phony missile gap with the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that Gates would have taken Eisenhower's side in those late 1950s fights. Indeed, he has a long record as an inflator of security threats. In 2009, for example, he claimed that Americans now face greater danger than at any point is his career, suggesting that al Qaeda and its ragtag subsidiaries are more terrifying than the nuclear-armed Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. This kind of strategic hypochondria offends realism.

So have Gates's frequent defenses of the war in Afghanistan. The United States' mission in Afghanistan is a massive state-building effort that involves providing social services, developing infrastructure, reforming agriculture, and promoting women's rights in a country that has rarely known any of the above; this is community organizing, not realpolitik. Lately, Gates has lobbied the Iraqi government and his own colleagues to extend America's foolish adventure in Iraq. The right phrase for these sorts of wars is militarized progressivism. And the word for using Ike's record to sell Barack Obama's defense policies is chutzpah.

By all measures, Gates should have lost any claim to realism with his declarations of support in recent weeks for the humanitarian intervention in Libya. Originally skeptical of the mission, Gates now claims that the United States must participate in the war to support its European allies. But realists know that one has allies for wars, not wars for allies. And true fiscal conservatives understand that trying to run the world is neither conservative nor cheap. It's hubris.

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"Gates Is a Straight Talker."

Only by Washington standards. The secretary has an uncanny knack for saying things that get him credit for what he will not do, as defense analyst Lawrence Korb has noted. Gates claimed it's crazy to send ground forces in large numbers to Asia or the Middle East after advocating precisely that in Afghanistan. He said that diplomacy is underfunded compared with defense, but wouldn't surrender funds for the State Department. He said the United States has too many carrier battle groups, but fought to keep them all. He said in his Eisenhower speech that the "gusher" of defense spending that opened after 9/11 had been turned off, while fighting successfully to keep it gushing. He often claims to have saved $330 billion on canceled programs, which is only true if you use very creative math. He just gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute saying that saving money on defense requires re-examining roles and missions -- two days after giving another speech at the University of Notre Dame claiming that all of the Defense Department's roles and missions are essential.

America's combination of wealth, geography, and nuclear weapons makes it the most secure great power in modern history. To be praised as a heroic, truth-telling visionary, a defense secretary should be asked to at least acknowledge that simple fact. Actions reflecting that understanding would be even better.

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