Even if the March 7 elections in Iraq come off without a voter boycott or major violence, forming a new government is likely to take months of hard work. Making it function will be even more difficult. Once the most powerful country in the Arab world, Iraq is now anything but.
True, even an ardent opponent of the war would have to acknowledge that Iraq has evolved dramatically from the authoritarian state it was under Saddam and the failed state it became after he was ousted. Violence is down. The economy is growing. Politics in the run-up to the elections has been intense. But clearly the country is still fragile. Deep fault lines persist, most notably between Kurds and Arabs, but also between minority Sunnis—not all of whom accept their diminished position—and majority Shia, who have yet to fully embrace Winston Churchill's dictum, "In victory: magnanimity." There is no national consensus on how to share oil revenues. Neighbors like Iran meddle at will.
It is impossible to escape the irony. A principal rationale for the Iraq War was to create a model democracy that other Arab countries would be forced to emulate. Iraq has become a model, certainly, but of a different sort: it is the epitome of a weak state, one that cannot defend itself, maintain internal peace, or address many of its most pressing challenges without outside help. As such, it is a harbinger of the kind of national-security challenge the United States will confront this century.
That we should care so much about weak states marks a major change. Much of 20th-century history was driven by the actions of strong states—the attempts by Germany, Japan, and, in the century's second half, the Soviet Union to establish global primacy, and the corresponding efforts of the United States and a shifting coalition of partners to resist. Those struggles produced two world wars and a Cold War. In the 21st century the principal threat to the global order will not be a push for dominance by any great power. For one thing, today's great powers are not all that great: Russia has a one-dimensional economy and is hobbled by corruption and a shrinking population; China is constrained by its enormous population and a top-heavy political system. Just as important, China and the other major or rising powers seek less to overthrow the existing global order than to shape it. They are more interested in integration than in revolution.
Instead, the central challenge will be posed by weak states—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Haiti, Mexico, Congo, and others. What they have in common (in addition to the fact that many, like Iraq, are located in the greater Middle East) are governments that lack the capacity, the will, or both to rule. They are unable to exercise what is expected of sovereign governments—namely, control over what goes on within their own territory. In the past, this would have been mostly a humanitarian concern. But as we all know, thanks to globalization, people and things travel. Terrorists, diseases, illegal migrants, weapons of mass destruction—for all of them, international boundaries are often little more than formalities.
On the other hand, we cannot resolve these problems solely by using the U.S. military. As we learned in Iraq, replacing governments is easier sought than done, and in many cases there is no clear—much less preferable—alternative to the current authority. Even in a supporting role, foreign soldiers can provoke a nationalist backlash against the government they're trying to bolster, making the weak-state problem even worse. Nor is it always clear that doing more militarily will result in lasting improvements that are commensurate with the investment in blood and treasure. This could well be America's fate in Afghanistan.
The cost of transforming Iraq from a failed state in 2003 to a much-improved, but still weak, one—more than 4,000 U.S. dead, the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops for seven years, almost $1 trillion in direct costs—is clearly too great to be replicated. In most cases, the U.S. and other governments should seek to avoid such costly and often controversial interventions, and focus instead on building the capacities of weak states. This is a slow, retail, from-the-ground-up grind. It often requires erecting rudimentary physical infrastructure as well as basic economic, legal, and political frameworks. Professionalizing police and armies requires years of education and training.
The United States should speed the creation of a large, civilian "nation building" corps—analogous to the military reserve—that could be dispatched to help states build these capacities. But many others can and should also be approached to assist. Internationalizing the problem spreads the economic and military burden, and any missions backed by the United Nations or the relevant regional organization are likely to be far more politically acceptable to the recipient nation.
Aid can be an important component of this policy, but it must be conditioned on good governance and sound planning lest it fan corruption and subsidize inefficiency. Trade is another tool: opening markets in the West to the agricultural and manufactured goods of weak states is essential. Allowing Pakistan to export its textiles more easily should be as much a part of U.S. policy as launching drones and cruise missiles.
Buttressing post-Saddam Iraq cost a great deal, possibly more than was warranted. And many lessons should be gleaned from this experience. But we should be careful not to learn the wrong lesson and rule out helping weak states. Shoring them up may not be cheap, but it is less expensive than the alternatives of occupying them or ignoring them. As is often the case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.