Failing the Failed: The Bush Administration and Failed States

By Stohl, Rachel; Stohl, Michael | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Failing the Failed: The Bush Administration and Failed States


Stohl, Rachel, Stohl, Michael, Harvard International Review


In December 2006, Ethiopian troops, with the support of the United States, entered Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts movement that had taken over the government. Somalia is a tragic example of a failed state that has put enormous pressure on the international community and neighboring-countries for nearly two decades. After the December 2006 attacks, fleeing Islamic fundamentalists escaped into Kenya, which is now home to over a quarter million documented refugees, the majority of whom are Somali or Sudanese. These refugees in Kenya have put pressure on World Food Program food stocks, and the Kenyan government has blamed the rise of national crime on weapons crossing the border from Somalia. The situation has even affected Kenya's robust tourism industry, as the US embassy in Nairobi has warned that Westerners in Kenya may be targeted for kidnapping by the Islamic Courts movement.

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The continuing case of state failure in Somalia, made infamous by the Black Hawk Down incident and the precipitous withdrawal of American troops in 1993, demonstrates a particular set of challenges to the international community: what can and should be done about fragile, failing, and failed states, and when is the appropriate time to address the problem? In this article, we argue that a preconceived strategy that is capable of handling political, economic, and social needs, in addition to more immediate security requirements, is both necessary and crucial for addressing the problem of failed states.

Placing Failed States on the Agenda

During the 1990s, scholars, policymakers, and military strategists became increasingly concerned with the problem of failed and failing states because they threatened regional security and often created humanitarian crises. The Clinton administration seemed to appreciate the need for interventions by regional and global organizations to mitigate the potential dangers of these states, which if left unaided would further threaten regional and global security. In contrast, the Bush administration entered office with little appreciation of or interest in the problem of failed states.

In a January 2000 Foreign Affairs article, Condoleezza Rice outlined what a new Republican administration's foreign policy assumptions and goals ought to be. While the Clinton administration argued for a comprehensive approach, which included confronting the root causes of conflict within fragile states, promoting multilateral security regarding responses to needs, and attempting a preventive diplomacy, each part of this approach was anathema to the new administration. During the campaign, Bush echoed Rice's argument that nation-building was an inappropriate use of US troops and resources. Moreover, during the televised presidential candidate debate with Al Gore, Bush indicated that his administration would not have undertaken "nation-building" in Haiti, become involved in Rwanda to prevent genocide, or intervened in the Balkans. The one exception he noted was the case of Australian intervention in East Timor, which Bush approved of because the United States offered only logistical assistance. Thus, when President Bush took office, failed states disappeared from the national agenda and were replaced by the problem of rogue regimes.

Identifying Weak States

However, weak states--characterized by lack of political and economic substance--continue to challenge the international community. While the designation of the number of failed, failing, fragile, weak, under stress, at risk, and collapsed states ranges from a dozen to five dozen across academic and government studies, there are certain characteristics that are generally agreed upon. The World Bank in its Low Income Countries Under Stress Project argues that these states are characterized by weak policies, weak institutions, and weak governance.

In addition, these states lack a strong sense of nationhood; ethnic identities connected to tribal, religious and similar characteristics continue to dominate. …

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