Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq.  A simple Google search will bring forth a plethora of articles  discussing the decision to invade, the evidence presented to the American public, and the impact of the war on American foreign policy. While this analysis is deserving of time and research, I want to focus instead on past US efforts to reconstruct post-conflict states and attempts to “democratize” other countries while using Iraq as the key example. Analyzing the nation-building policy of the US Government is imperative in an attempt to understand and critique the notion that societal reconstruction is a workable policy. This blog does not merely serve as a critique of policy, but a lambasting of the American military intelligentsia for their attempts at flat-out central planning. Attempting to reconstruct another society is no different than trying to centrally plan an economy — it’s pompous and it’s bound to fail.

Reconstruction is defined as both the rebuilding of physical infrastructure as well as fundamental changes in economic, political, legal, and social mental models of the citizenry of a nation-state. While government contractors and vast budgets may create the first, the second is something which has stumped “experts” for decades. The reconstruction process is rife with hurdles to overcome which make the prospect of successful democratization so difficult. The focus of American reconstruction has been historically on the formal, not the informal, reform of institutions which is the chief reason why long-term success has been so elusive. The example of Iraq is no different and the results should not be surprising.

Occupiers know what they want to accomplish but often struggle at how to accomplish those goals. Formal institutions are defined as private property rights, voting systems, political stability, and political efficacy while informal institutions are defined as cultural traditions, taboos, customs, and behaviors. However, contrary to popular belief, the key to reconstruction, to democratization, and to societal change is found in the informal reform of institutions. Nobel Laureate Doug North elaborates further on informal institutions and explains, “History demonstrates that ideas, ideologies, myths, dogmas, and prejudices matter; and an understanding of the way they evolve is necessary for further progress in developing a framework to understand societal change.” North depicts a critical idea; that culture is a hodgepodge of individual notions passed down throughout generations without any central guidance. Government systems, which are formal institutions, arise from the basis of these informal social norms and ideas. Foreign occupiers cannot instill new “ideas, ideologies, and dogmas” through violence and occupation. In other words, changing the culture towards a liberal political order remains more important than changing government rules and regulations.

There are dozens of examples of potential constraints that occupiers face in reconstruction but they can be categorized to external and internal. Chris Coyne, in his wonderful book After War (which served as the basis for a much longer article on this same topic), provides numerous examples of these constraints. For example, Larry David, former US State Department official, revealed, “A number of US government agencies had a variety of visions of how political authority would be reestablished in Iraq. In the bitter, relentless infighting amount US government agencies in advance of the war, none of the preferences clearly prevailed.” This external constraint deals with the politicking of US bureaucrats and military officials on how to centrally plan Iraq. Assuming the Iraqi people would accept the “vision” of these bureaucrats (and that assumption can be the basis of another blog) they could not even come to a semblance of agreement.  Internal constraints are those that cripple reconstruction from inside the country, such as waste, fraud, and lack of coordination.  The reconstruction effort was a massive project that resulted in billions of dollars being used from differing government agencies to fund hundreds of projects. The differing agencies lost money, allocated it poorly, and used it inefficiently. One report found, “The United States faces a new wave of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

FA Hayek wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about that they imagine they can design.” Hayek called this idea “the fatal conceit” and his analysis finds symmetrical distinctions in the discussions of reconstruction. Hayek posited that “spontaneous order” organized society and the economy better than government planners. Order of a society is not derived from any central planner, but instead; from the long evolutionary process of informal institutions.  No matter how many times this idea is noted, central planners continue to think they can plan economics, in Hayek’s context, and society’s, in the reconstruction context. As 19th century French economic philosopher Frederic Bastiat said, “The plans differ; the planners are all alike.”  They believe that “experts” can somehow rework a new societal order and government from thousands of miles away without any appreciation for culture.

Diffusion theory seeks to find the ways ideas and innovation are spread through culture and society. Diffusion theory literature points to the “change agent.” Defined as a “focal individual with a well-established reputation” that has the ability to influence the people around them, these change agents greatly alter reconstruction efforts. Similarly, Hayek, in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” points to the “second-hand dealers in ideas” that transform society’s ideas over time. Finally, recent studies from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that if 10% of the population holds an “unshakable” belief, and they have a wide range and influential network, their ideas will eventually be adopted by the majority of society.  These three ideas would be at the forefront of informal institutional reform. But occupiers continue, from the 1898 reconstruction of Cuba to the reconstruction of Iraq, to focus on formal, political institutions without any focus on changing the mental models of the citizens. If the occupiers can sway the opinion of the second hand dealers in ideas and reach the 10% threshold of well-connected change agents, reconstruction becomes a much more attainable goal. If occupiers focus on changing laws and reworking constitutions, their goal will continue to be obscure.  Very simply: this conversation deals with human beings and they should be treated as more than puzzle pieces in a grand scheme.

In Iraq, Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr, a strong anti-American Shi’a cleric, can be defined as a change agent. Al-Sadr led an uprising in 2004 that resulted in weeks of fighting between occupying troops and insurgents. Al-Sadr, an influential cleric in Iraq with a large following, severely strained the reconstruction effort when he spoke out against it. Similarly, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a respect Shi’a authority figure in Iraq, used his influence to push back against the initial drafting of the Iraqi constitution. Also, the actions of the American military have tremendous effect on the hearts and minds of the citizens. As the Iraqi citizens became aware of international law abuses and violence, their perceptions of the reconstruction fell. From drones over Iraqi skies, to target killings, to the torture photos that came from Abu Ghraib , the hearts and minds of the citizenry were effectively lost. It’s incredible difficult to try to alter mental models of citizens and create in them an affinity for more Western culture and governmental systems while they are hearing of these human rights abuses.

The ultimate paradox in this discussion is that despite the rhetoric that boasts of freedom and liberation, occupiers scoff at the notion of self-determination for the occupied. They only accept centralized planning for the society they are attempting to repaint. But simply: “no one can plan freedom.” Doug North provides an accurate summary of the needed elements to reconstruction, “Both institutions and belief systems must change for a successful reform since it is the mental models of actors that will shape choices.” One without the other may succeed in the short-term but is guaranteed to fail in the long-term. Until the mental models of the citizenry are changed to spontaneous order and not the butt of a gun, American attempts at reconstruction will remain incredibly costly and very difficult. Reconstruction, both formal and informal, is inherently determinant on the non-political.