What lessons about state-building and counterinsurgency can be applied to U.S. efforts in Iraq? To answer this question, Roger Myerson’s June 2009 article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution examines the assumptions about state-building implicit in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq (2006), and a piece of classical literature, Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus. While the Army’s Field Manual emphasizes the importance of security and effective governance, Bremer puts constitutions front and center, and Xenophon, conversely, argues that leaders’ reputations and ability to reward supporters are the most important factor in forming a state.
In contrast to both the Army’s Field Manual and Bremer (2006), Myerson agrees with Xenophon that a leader’s reputation, established by his respect for democratic norms and using power responsibly, is vital in nations emerging from autocratic rule. Using examples from 1940s China and British colonial rule in India, Myerson argues that “a reputation for reliably rewarding a network of active supporters is a precious and fragile asset that defines a leader” and that “the primary imperative in any political machine must be to build and maintain a network of political supporters who have trust in their leadership.” Thus, “the first step in a project of democratic state-building should be to encourage more individual politicians to begin building independent reputations, by giving them administrative power and budgetary authority” and increasing the autonomy of local government officials. Local government officials can better allocate funds to their constituents, and those constituents can better evaluate the performance of local officials, establishing both social capital and leaders’ reputations.
By distributing power more broadly (beyond the central government) and building networks of trust, social capital, and local accountability, an emerging nation such as Iraq can better insulate its population against the appeals of an insurgency. Policymakers and development practitioners may find that while security and democratic institutions are important in state-building, a focus on developing strong and trustworthy local leaders that are able to provide benefits to their supporters may be essential to winning the hearts and minds of civilians torn between supporting a democratic Iraqi state or the ever-present possibility of an insurgency.
Download “A Field Manual for the Cradle of Civilization” from the Journal of Conflict Resolution if your university has access here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.