WASHINGTON, June 11, 2015 − Since 9/11, the term “nation building” has taken on a meaning that’s somewhat different from what it seemed to mean in previous decades. Young people now associate the process with what transpired in Afghanistan and Iraq after the United States invaded those countries, toppled their leadership and spent over a decade trying to help both countries grow a self- sustaining democracy.
Whether it involved spending millions to help Germany and Japan recover from a disastrous world war, sacrificing thousands of American lives to bring freedom to the Middle East or aiding South Korea in its struggle against Communism, nation building has long been a staple of this country’s foreign policy.
In many ways, President Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 was expected to be the catalyst for changing what many regarded as America’s imperial ways. Not only would the new president end the wars his predecessor had started. He would also “reset” America’s entire foreign policy, shifting it away from the kind of interventionism championed by the Bush Doctrine to a more humble world view of the U.S. international role.
This prediction turned out to be inaccurate in a multitude of ways. American troops are still occupying Iraq and Afghanistan with more surely headed back soon; President Obama started a war in Libya that toppled the Gaddafi regime; and last but not least, we are nation building once again on an entirely different continent.
Almost 50 countries lined up to invest in South Sudan, which sits on the fifth largest oil reserve in Africa. Since 2013, American taxpayers have spent over $1 billion in foreign aid intended to strengthen this new oil-rich country that formed in 2011 after achieving its independence from Sudan following a bloody civil war.
Unfortunately, South Sudan has continued to be an extremely volatile area in the years following its formation and recognition. While this new nation may not receive a lot of attention in the press, President Obama has actually authorized the use of American “boots on the ground” in the region. Although no American soldiers have lost their lives to this point, American military personnel continue to be placed in harm’s way, and four Navy Seals were reported to have been injured in a skirmish about a year ago.
The situation is similar in many ways to the Iraq War, which was launched 10 years ago. Getting involved in South Sudan was a mistake from the very beginning. Governmental corruption has ravaged this new country to the point where billions of dollars in aid from America has resulted in only a single paved road to date. And that one road was built by the United States.
Despite acknowledging on its website that corruption is “pervasive at all levels of government and society” in South Sudan, the State Department continues to funnel money into the abyss. Clearly, at least as far as the matter of corruption goes, the current administration has apparently failed to learn the necessary lessons from our experience in Iraq.
Like Iraq, South Sudan has internal squabbles between government leaders, squabbles that are a key factor in the steady degradation of its infrastructure. President Salva Kiir dismissed his vice president, who in turn formed his own rebel army. The rebels have caused havoc throughout the country, even as several local tribes have taken up arms themselves against the central government.
Unsurprisingly, that government has run out of money. The central bank is broke. The treasury is broke. Hospitals have run out of supplies, and even the South Sudan Parliament was forced to shut down because it didn’t have enough fuel for its generator.
In May, the United States withdrew its personnel from its South Sudan embassy. As of now, there is still no word regarding the future of the hundreds of thousands of civilians now left to fend for themselves in a massive bubble that foreign governments helped create but have now essentially popped by pulling out money and personnel.
That sums up the slippery slope that modern nation building represents. It’s one thing to pour money into a foreign government and stabilize it the best you can. But at some point, it’s time to leave, and simply leaving rarely ends well for those left behind.
Despite the best of intentions, the United States finds itself once again in a situation virtually identical to the one it experienced in Iraq − which, we were told, was supposed to be our last such mistake. The investment in American blood and treasure in this troubled, fledgling African nation is certainly much smaller than the measure of resources and personnel committed to Iraq, but the outcome is virtually the same.
Billions of American taxpayer dollars were pumped into a situation that was clearly volatile and corrupt from the outset, without a coherent, corresponding plan to efficiently remediate that situation. Two years later, there is nothing to show for that investment.