When chaos reigns


Outside the First District police headquarters in New Orleans last September, a squad of heavily armed officers waded through water along Basin Street toward Canal. They were quitting, they said. After Hurricane Katrina, the floods, the looting, the collapse of basic services, even the police didn't feel safe.

For a few days, the residents of the Gulf Coast got a taste of life in the world's failed states - dozens of countries, from Haiti to Sierra Leone, where electricity and potable water are scarce, governments feeble and the rule of law a daydream.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Washington regarded chronically sick nations as, essentially, someone else's human rights mess. When Somalia disintegrated in 1991, the United States sent food aid along with troops to the desert land on the Horn of Africa. But the military quickly withdrew in the face of armed opposition. As a result, the country hasn't had a resident central government in 15 years. Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, has teetered on the brink of chaos since a 1980 military coup. The U.S. has used economic, political and, on occasion, military pressure to restore order. But in the past, at least, it has abandoned Liberians to their fate.

With the November election of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson as Liberia's president, the U.S. faces another test of its resolve to help this long-suffering nation.

"Failed states might have tugged at our heart strings, occasionally at our purse strings, but they weren't seen as strategically important," said Stewart Patrick, a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, directed from Afghanistan, one of the wretched, dust-blown corners of the Earth - one where Washington and Moscow fought a vicious proxy war for a decade. Now, the United States takes countries in chaos very seriously indeed. "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones," President Bush said in a June 2002 speech at West Point.

The question is, what can we do about these stranded hulks of nations - which in some notable cases the United States helped to create?

The State Department in July 2004 opened an Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to supervise nation-building efforts. The Pentagon is studying what it calls the world's "ungoverned spaces," sections of more-or-less functional nations where bandits and warlords rule.

When and if al-Qaida is kicked out of Iraq, Pentagon planners warn, it is likely to seek sanctuary in one of these lawless places - perhaps the outback of Yemen, or the wild lands of Sudan or Ethiopia.

It's one thing to recognize the general threat of failed states and ungoverned spaces. It's another to identify these regions, then to determine what specific threats they might pose, and - finally and especially - to rebuild them as viable nations.

During the Cold War, many of the most ineptly or corruptly managed countries were propped up by the United States or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which supplied them with advisers, arms and foreign aid.

To their modest credit, the superpowers often helped build health care systems, schools and hydroelectric dams. To their shame, they heavily armed many of these countries, like Afghanistan, and set warring factions against one another. In too many countries, as in Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of the Congo - their patronage helped kleptocrats rob citizens blind.

The Cold War world was embroiled in an unending series of deadly coups and conflicts, but thankfully - from a selfish viewpoint - the turmoil didn't threaten the United States with terror and transnational crime.

"What you're getting now is a disaggregated world," said Patrick, who worked on then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's planning staff and was the head of the State Department's Afghanistan desk. "Some countries in the developing world are doing reasonably well. But there is a cohort of about 40 or 50 who are stuck in a dangerous syndrome."

Global trade, jet air travel and instant communications accessible to nearly everyone mean that the United States can feel the repercussions of instability in areas that were once considered remote and inconsequential.

"No part of the world can any longer be quarantined," Patrick said. "The disorder in many parts of the world can, at least in principle, have broader consequences."

Precisely which states are failing and when they might collapse are matters of debate. One of the most widely publicized measures of nations in crisis is the Failed States Index, or FSI, launched last year by Foreign Policy magazine and a Washington think tank, the Fund for Peace. The index ranks countries in peril the way U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges and universities.

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