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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.1 (2001) 57-80

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Fool's Errands:
America's Recent Encounters with Nation Building

Gary T. Dempsey

After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's seventy-eight-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia came to a close in June 1999, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright toured the Stenkovic refugee camp in northern Macedonia, where twenty-five-thousand ethnic Albanians from Kosovo lived in temporary shelters. To great cheers, Albright announced to the refugees, "All the world knows about your suffering" and now "the Serbs have lost control over Kosovo." 1 Albright then paid a visit to thousands of U.S. troops preparing to move into Kosovo as peacekeepers. "The country you will be freeing has gone through some dreadful times," she declared. "I know this is not easy on you. We are deeply honored to have you do this." 2 "Your job," she added, is appropriate: "I believe this is what America is good at[:] . . . helping people." 3

Several days later, President Bill Clinton toured the same refugee camp that Albright had. He was greeted by ethnic Albanians chanting "USA, USA" and "Clinton, Clinton." 4 With his wife and daughter at his side, the [End Page 57] president walked through the muddy camp making family-to-family visits. Stopping to chat with one family, the president placed its two-year-old boy on his lap and said, "We hope with each passing day you will become less afraid. You have a beautiful boy."

"He is still very much afraid," the boy's mother answered. "He has suffered very much. He has seen people killed and wounded."

Surrounded by reporters, Clinton replied, "There are some things children should never see." Meeting with other refugees later that day, the president declared, "You have suffered enough. . . . I don't want any child hurt. I don't want anyone else to lose a leg or an arm or a child." Before leaving the camp, the president thanked the refugees for "sharing their lives" with him and his family. He then delivered a short speech in which he echoed Albright's belief that "helping people" is a U.S. foreign policy priority that America is "good" at doing: "We are proud of what we did. We think it's what America stands for. . . . We are committed not only to making Kosovo safe but to helping people rebuild their lives, rebuild their communities." 5

But were Clinton and Albright right? Is the United States government really any good at "helping people" in troubled places? America's recent encounters with nation building suggest the contrary. Indeed, Washington said it would bring order to Somalia but left chaos; it went to Haiti to restore democracy but produced tyranny; it intervened in Bosnia to reverse the effects of a civil war but now oversees an unsustainable peace; and it occupied Kosovo to build a multiethnic democracy but has instead witnessed ethnic cleansing on a widespread scale. That all these recent attempts at nation building have not actually solved the problem they set out to address seems not to have phased policy makers. Yet before Washington's troubling pattern of failures can be accounted for in more detail, it is first necessary to define the term nation building and its place within America's post-Cold War foreign policy. [End Page 58]

Nation Building

Nation building is perhaps the most intrusive form of foreign intervention there is. It is the massive foreign regulation of the policy making of another country. The process usually entails the replacement or, in the case of a country in a state of anarchy, the creation of governmental institutions and a domestic political leadership that are more to the liking of the power or powers conducting the intervention. Since such profound interference tends to elicit resistance, the nation-building process typically requires a substantial military presence to impose the nation-building plan on the target country.

The U.S. government is not new to nation building. It concluded the nineteenth century with a war to "liberate" Cuba from Spanish "tyranny." For the...


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