Bogged Down Again

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Bogged Down Again


THE SOURCE: "America's Quagmire Mentality" by Dominic Tierney, in Survival, Winter 2007-08.

WHAT DO POST-CIVIL WAR Reconstruction and U.S. nation-building efforts in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan have in common? The average American prematurely branded them all quagmires.

Americans are predisposed to see failure in state-building efforts, writes Dominic Tierney, a political scientist at Swarthmore College. Almost as soon as federal troops undertook Reconstruction in the South in 1865, Northerners began to lose heart over the slow rate of progress. Deciding by 1877 that the effort was a failure, they supported the troop withdrawals that would leave blacks to their fate.

Fast-forward to the second wave of nation-building, at the turn of the 20th century--in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere. In Manila, Mark Twain wrote, America blundered into "a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extraction immensely greater." In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to end the interventions.

After the Cold War, the United States launched another round of interventions, in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo. "In a now familiar pattern," Tierney writes, "Americans perceived every one of these missions as a failure."

Yet in the course of intervening in Somalia during 1992 and '93, the United States saved probably around 100,000 lives, halved the number of refugees, and repaired much of the infrastructure, at a cost of 43 American lives. Likewise, the U.S. force present in Haiti from 1994 to '96 reinstalled an elected government, mitigated suffering, halted the exodus of refugees, supervised elections, and trained police at a cost of four American lives. …

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