Iraq is conquered; unfortunately, winning the peace is proving far more difficult.  Bringing down an unpopular, isolated dictatorship in a wreck of a country is one thing.  Creating a liberal, multiparty, multiethnic democracy where one has never existed is quite another.

Officially, the Pentagon proclaims that we will stay “as long as necessary” and leave “as soon as possible.”  That is a worthy policy, but it will be attainable only if Washington sets modest goals and a firm departure date.

Unexpected opposition to the U.S. occupation has caused the Pentagon to delay withdrawing American forces.  Forget dropping to 30,000 troops by the end of the year, as promised by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  Instead, analysts are talking about pushing the total up from 160,000 to 200,000 or even 300,000.  To find the troops necessary to maintain even the smaller garrison, the Pentagon has announced that occupation tours will run one year, twice the typical tour in Bosnia and other “peacekeeping” operations.

Nevertheless, advocates of nation-building are advancing an expansive agenda.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof argues,

To leave behind a stable Iraq, we must establish order, nurture a free press and independent police force, purge the civil service of Baath thugs, help Iraqis write a constitution and hold local and national elections.  All that will take a year or more.

Actually, far more than a year.

Unfortunately, there are few successful models upon which to draw for Iraq.  America’s obvious successes are Germany and Japan, yet neither looks like Iraq: Both had ethnically homogenous populations, democratic traditions, and an educated, professional class.  The U.S. effort was widely viewed as legitimate by all major international players and the two countries’ neighbors, which had suffered the most at their hands.

While the Germans and the Japanese seemed to react similarly to the people of Iraq—expressing relief at foreign liberation but resentment at foreign conquest—they had no illusion that an occupation would be brief.  Abu Eslam Saqir, a spokesman for the Iran-friendly Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, however, says: “We wanted the international community, including Americans, to help us get rid of Saddam’s dictatorship, not impose their will on our nation.”

Most important, Germany and Japan were real nations, while Iraq has never been one.  She consisted of three provinces under the Ottoman Empire and owes her current borders to British nation-builders.  The gulf among Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis is enormous.  Moreover, the first two groups are drawn to allied peoples outside Iraq.

Unfortunately, Iraq looks more like several countries where American attempts at nation-building have so far failed.  In Somalia, for instance, the U.S. military thrust itself into the bloody conflict among competing warlords in the name of delivering humanitarian relief.  Local combatants successfully manipulated Washington into taking sides.  The attempt to seize warlord Muhammad Aideed led to a vicious firefight in Mogadishu, killing 18 U.S. Rangers and as many as 1,000 Somalis in 1993.  The United States withdrew, and the local combatants eventually wore themselves out.  Today, Somalia has achieved some degree of peace, if not unity.

In 1994, the Clinton administration used the threat of a U.S. invasion to force junta leader Raoul Cedros from power in Haiti.  Washington installed Jean-Bertrand Aristide in his stead.  Alas, Aristide, though more popular than Cedros, was no less authoritarian.  Attempts to restore the economic infrastructure, train a police force, and promote democracy have largely come to naught.  With great fanfare, the United States managed to replace a military dictatorship with a presidential one.

The 1995 Dayton Accord led to a nation-building exercise that continues in Bosnia, a purely artificial country.  Bosnia is made up of three warring groups, two of which want to join coreligionists in neighboring states.  Bosnia exists today only because of foreign military occupation now approaching its eighth year.  Bosnia is still ruled by a “High Representative” who interferes with local elections, censors the media, and makes national policy.  He has even chosen the currency and the national anthem.  Corruption is rife, particularly in the Muslim enclave, which receives the most foreign aid.  There is no reason to believe that Bosnia will ever be a real country.

The experience in Kosovo is even worse.  After going to war to stop ethnic cleansing, the United States presided over the territory while our erstwhile allies, the Kosovo Liberation Army, murdered hundreds of Serbs; ethnically cleansed nearly a quarter of a million Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and non-Albanian Muslims; and despoiled Orthodox religious sites.  Violence remains a serious problem, as KLA members have taken over organized crime and formed the quasistate’s police force.  Yet the West holds Kosovo in an autonomous limbo: The Albanians want independence, while the Serbs want to reassert Belgrade’s control.  After being empowered by Washington, the transformed KLA mounted attacks to the north in Serbia and to the east in Macedonia.

Examples in the Middle East and the Muslim world look no better.  Two decades ago, many Shia Muslims in Lebanon greeted Israeli invaders as liberators.  The Shiites shared little affinity with Palestinian guerrillas, who had dominated their territory and turned it into a target for Israeli military retaliation.  War raged among Muslim sects, however, while Israel allied herself with contending Christian militias.  Eventually, residents hated Israeli occupation even more than that of the PLO, and the Shia Hizbollah movement proved to be as deadly a foe of Israel as is the PLO.

Lebanon offered no better an experience for America.  In 1958, a temporary U.S. military intervention seemed to help stabilize the government.  In 1983, the United States jumped into the ongoing Lebanese civil war on the side of the minority Christian government, which ruled little more than Beirut.  Washington turned itself into a combatant and was rewarded with a bomb blast that took out a barracks and killed 241 Marines.  Washington quickly redeployed its forces on ship and sailed away.

Today, Afghanistan is also turning ugly.  Although Washington expeditiously defenestrated the Taliban government and its Al Qaeda allies, more than a year of occupation has left Hamid Karzai more as mayor of Kabul than as president of Afghanistan.  Bloody factional fighting wracks the country.

As yet, Karzai does not even trust his safety to Afghan bodyguards.  In order to extend Karzai’s power, U.S. forces are increasingly intervening in local squabbles—for instance, bombing two contending warlords to Afghanistan’s west near Iran last December.  “It’s all tribal now,” declares Whitney Azoy, a former U.S. diplomat.  “The US military is being used for these personal vendettas, and they don’t have the experience in this region to realize it.”

Yet American action no longer goes unchallenged.  With some regularity, American soldiers are being ambushed and killed in southern Afghanistan.  There are more and more attacks on aid workers and tourists as well.

While most Afghans remain pleased at their liberation from Taliban rule, many are chafing at America’s continued control: Washington carries out searches and detentions on its own authority and has been widely criticized for the war in Iraq.  America won no friends when troops arrested Naeem Koochi, an influential tribal leader, on his way to Kabul to meet with government officials, and transferred him to Guantanamo Bay over the protests of the Karzai government.  Public demonstrations greeted the accidental killing of four Afghan soldiers in Kabul.

Nor has the West bought much progress in reconstruction with the $800 million spent last year by various aid agencies.  Scott Baldauf, South Asia bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, observes:

Despite some positive signs in Afghanistan over the past year—children going to school, homes being rebuilt, wells being dug—there is much about postliberation Afghanistan that hasn’t changed during President Hamid Karzai’s first months of power.  Businessmen complain about harassment by corrupt policemen and thuggish soldiers.  All but the bravest women still wear sky-blue burqas, their only protection from the hungry eyes of gunmen.  Some villages are so far away from doctors or medical clinics that preventable diseases like polio and measles are making a comeback.

He is not alone in his assessment.  In the Washington Post, Marc Kauffman writes:

Virtually every significant system in the country is broken.  The military is splintered by factionalism, the police force is untrained, the justice system is dominated by religious conservatives who have more in common with the Taliban than with Karzai, and tax collection is largely ineffective.  Even the driving rules are in disarray.

I cannot help but recall the Soviet experience: In the beginning, Moscow quickly occupied Afghanistan and faced only modest opposition.  A decade later, it withdrew in the midst of disaster.  Baldauf worries that, “For all the appearances of stability, Afghanistan is tottering at the edge of civil war.  It needs only a nudge.”  His driver proclaims: “The only thing that keeps this country from going back to the Taliban are those B-52s.”

None of these experiences means that nation-building cannot ever work in a non-Western country.  They do suggest, however, that nation-building is an enormously difficult enterprise, best carried out in narrow circumstances—ones, alas, not present in Iraq.

Having invaded Iraq, Washington has little choice but to help rebuild that nation.  However, America’s basic objective should be to safeguard U.S. security, not to inaugurate an Iraqi New Deal.  That means being less concerned about whether Iraq holds together, who rules Baghdad, and how the country practices her politics, and more concerned that any new regime traffic in neither weapons of mass destruction nor terrorism.  And it means getting out quickly, so as not to create both a permanent grievance and a target for America’s many enemies in the region.