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The English Romantic poet Percy Shelley was allegedly haunted by a recurrent nightmare: that history was cyclical rather than linear and that Man was hence incapable of self-betterment. What would he have made of 10 years of interventionist state-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq? He might have applauded the apparent appetite for what may contentiously be termed “moral interventionism” by liberal democracies, but it is less certain that he – or anyone else – could look upon the ad hoc procedures and unpreparedness that has characterised the civil response of the UK and its allies to each of these crises with any satisfaction.

The chaos and violence of postwar Iraq has bathed the void between our aspirations and abilities in a steady and uncompromising light; and one instinctively wonders, as domestic appetite mounts in America and elsewhere for troop withdrawal from Iraq, whether the US-led coalition will retain the reserves of moral courage required to finish the job.

In the 1991-1995 Yugoslav war, Britain and others faced what Warren Christopher, the Clinton administration’s first secretary of state, later called “ . . . an intractable problem from Hell”. Britain had no template for military action for humanitarian ends, save the Navy’s 19th-century blockade of slaving vessels and a 1991 foray into Kurdistan. Douglas Hurd, then British foreign Minister secretary, described the Bosnian war to me in 2003 as “a thoroughly messy business – messy operationally, messy intellectually, messy ethically”. Government uncertainty obscured the clear moral and strategic imperative to intervene and permeated Britain’s early responses, one of which was to support the European Community’s attempts to “monitor” the war.

But that was 10many years ago. A wearying succession of crises has since eroded the inviolability of states and furnished us with a great deal of experience; and if the word “monitor” betrays still the poignant naivety with which the EC and later, the European Union, among others, began this intellectual journey in 1991, there is little sign of the substantive operational review that should have accompanied it. We have re-learned Hobbes’ warning about “covenants without swords”, and the fact that civil-military interventions are always “messy”; but it remains the case that Britain, among others, relies almost entirely on jerry-built civil structures to meet the largely predictable challenges of post-conflict reconstruction.

One senses a damaging government perception that state-building is not a science, but rather a form of absorbing hobby. How else explain our enduring lack of intellectual rigour in tackling this most brutal and expensive of practical problems? British civil servants in departmental crisis units in Whitehall, though able, must come and go as their careers dictate. Hard-won knowledge is routinely dissipated. Civilian experts, whose mobility and niche skills make them an indispensable adjunct to state-building, are listed on a plethora of disparate departmental databases that underscore the fragmentary approach.

Of the many hundreds of British civilians who learned their trade in south-eastern Europe in the 1990s – whether in governance, police training, elections or human rights – only a very few were ever used in Iraq; and, overwhelmingly, the “governance teams” deployed to run that country were composed of people who had never done it before. Interventions of any kind are a formidably difficult business and impose the most ruthless of audits upon those people and plans assembled to prosecute them. War is often simpler than the political and physical reconstruction that must follow it, and failure here may risk the very strategic goals for which the conflict was launched. While it is idle to imagine that our difficulties in Iraq are due entirely to our demonstrated deficiencies, it is certain that our failure to anticipate the challenges implicit in regime change – and our resultant inability to marshal our energies and resources from the outset – has cost us dear: Iraq’s insurgency has been made more deadly by an embedded shadow government composed of the Ba’athist and military structures we dismantled, and the support of the thousands of the angry poor whom we could neither employ nor reassure. These and other voices are now discernible in the stubborn wrangle over Iraq’s constitution, as the United StatesUS and its allies attempt to inculcate a binding national vision based on inclusive rather than cantonal precepts in political leaders who have never seen it demonstrated.

In this impassioned and occasionally intemperate debate, one sees the stirrings of the democracy we have sought so assiduously to create; and, if there are risks implicit in further slippage of the drafting process, those attendant on the risks of a still-born constitution are graver still.

The British government formed last year the inter-departmental Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit (PCRU). Its task it is to create the very over-arching coherence that the country so evidently lacks in responding to the challenges posed by conflict and nation-building. that the country lacks. A similar effort is taking place in the US, with the creation of the post of Co-ordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilisation (OCRS) in the State department. These are bold and praiseworthy initiatives, but they must now be driven home; for there are signs that the friction that units such as the PCRU were was implicitly created to overcome – territorialism and departmentalism among them – now risk impeding progress.

The treatment of conflict, its causes and its effects, is presently allocated piecemeal across Whitehall, an error that daily highlights the futility of attempting to divide the inherently indivisible to match departmental mandates. Conflict should be dealt with in a unitary fashion, and it is essential it is done so that this is done in close concert with a range of international partners at working level.

We need this new approach to succeed because the old one has failed us repeatedly; and this must include the formation of a standing cadre of deployable experts, carefully selected and vetted to handle classified information, acquainted with military and governmental procedures and capable of moving at the speed of the armed forces – if not with the tanks, then with their fuel bowsers. If liberal democracies are to tackle tyranny and do so more effectively – as I believe they must – there can no longer be any excuse for the British predilection for “muddling through”.

The writer, author of Revolt on the Tigris: the al Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq (Hurst/Cornell University Press 2005; Cambridge Studies in International Crisis), he was the Coalition Provisional Authority’sPA’s governorate co-ordinator in the Iraqi province of Wasit, 2003 -04

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