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After the War: Nation-Building from FDR to George W. Bush

After The War: Nation-Building from FDR to George W. Bush by James Dobbins et al. RAND, 2008, 146 pp.

Leveraging previous work on the subject, the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Division focused its effort in this volume on analyzing the US executive’s efficacy in overseeing and managing the nation-building process. Whether the mission is rebuilding a failed state or reconstructing a postwar county, nation-building is a complex and complicated process without any guarantees of success. However, potential indicators of success do lie in the strategic processes and management of any given operation.

As part history, part case study, eight major nation-building operations carried out by five administrations since World War II are examined. In doing so, the authors found that much like in any business venture, operational success is shaped by the management processes and structures in place, which in turn are affected by the executive manager’s style. This book does a fine job exposing potential system breakdowns that can impede the management of nation-building efforts.

Two factors play a key role in the oversight of these operations: management processes and institutional structure. These two factors are essentially developed from scratch every four to eight years as each new administration is sworn in. It is commonly accepted that each new administration comes with significant changes at the highest levels of government. What is not so well known is that with each new administration, many critical processes and thousands of political appointees who manage those processes also change. With each change ushering in a multitude of new faces and ways of doing business, there is an associated period necessary to find the right management structure. This transition period can be especially lengthy and, consequently, dangerous if the party taking office has not recently held the presidency. This is due to the limited experience opportunities the previously minority-party appointees have had in the executive branch.

To counter disruptions during a change in administrations, the authors suggest a two-prong fix to provide a defined structure and improve the quality of the individual managers. First, the management structure and oversight process should be legislated. In and of itself, this fix would provide the framework for structural continuity during the transition period. This is not to say the structure should be rigid and inflexible, but it should be organized to include pertinent agencies and oversight levels. Additionally, a codified framework allows for best practices to be identified and carried over to a new administration. To be sure, legislating the structure and oversight of nation-building may seem as though Congress is micromanaging the executive branch, but history shows that a good process is not a bad thing. Take the Goldwater-Nichols Act which killed off interservice rivalries in the name of the joint greater good as an example.

The second prong involves a change in personnel management from a system of political patronage to a merit-based system. Remember the public outcry over Mike Brown, the appointed head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose lack of experience in disaster management emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina recovery operations? The executive departments have many talented and experienced career Civil Service personnel who are left out of the highest management levels because of the extensive use of patronage. The authors argue that more of the currently appointed positions should be converted to Civil Service positions. In so doing, these new opportunities could provide incentives for civil servants who currently feel left out of the system and have much to contribute. It is no doubt that structure and experience are vital parts in the oversight of any governmental function. The third leg of the management stool is executive style and the authors address this as well.

No matter how well organized the structure and how highly experienced the staff, the quality of the final product is tied to the quality of advice given to the president. Although each president has a unique and preferred management style, there are three basic types exhibited: a competitive style, a collegial style, and a formal style. Each has its own merits and disadvantages and is based on personal preference. This is the variable that cannot be controlled and has had the most impact on the entire process, as it sets the ground rules of the game.

This book presents a very good, high-level assessment of how nation-building has been done and what factors improve the odds for its success; it also provides eye-opening insight into environments that can lead to strategic failure. Since nation-building is arguably a task where you do not want the cure to kill the patient, the case is well laid for significant reform of the process.

Capt Todd C. Cavin, USAF

71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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