The Role of Political Ignorance in the Creation of Insurgencies
By David Hervey
Do you think the United States government spent more on reconstruction in Iraq during the Iraq War or in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina? The answer seems obvious—many people, even those who are very familiar with politics, may guess that the United States spent significantly more on reconstruction in Iraq than after Katrina. However, the federal government spent over $100 billion on reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina and only $62 billion on reconstruction in Iraq. Despite the funding of some of Iraq’s reconstruction with oil revenues, and the fact that the above number does not include military expenditures, it’s easy to conclude from this discrepancy that the nation-building efforts in the wake of the American invasion were dramatically underfunded. Iraq is a nation of thirty million people, while Louisiana and Mississippi combined have only about seven million people (and many people in Mississippi and Louisiana were not in areas designated for public assistance after Katrina). Furthermore, it was necessary to rebuild the Iraqi government completely after the 2003 invasion, while re-establishing governance in areas severely affected by Katrina was a much easier task. In fact, almost all nation-building and reconstruction efforts receive far less funding than they need, whether there are adequate military resources devoted to the security aspect of nation-building or not. This is largely a result of the fact that most voters do not know how little money gets directed to nation-building and how necessary it is to stop such underfunding.
Before discussing the importance of nation-building, it is important to define that term. While it is rarely defined in any structured way in political debates, nation-building can be definedas an attempt to bring public services such as education, healthcare, and law enforcement to communities. Additionally, and just as importantly, it is an attempt to improve the way that governments provide those services by improving the quality of civil service organizations charged with managing public services— often by reducing the corruption that is widespread in poorly-established, post-conflict democracies. In many cases, nation building can include election monitoring or education, and training for civil society groups like political parties in an effort to help establish democratic practices.
The simple fact is that nation-building efforts are often underfunded, and that this underfunding of reconstruction and nation-building is a result of political ignorance. Political ignorance is the phenomenon of voters not knowing or understanding basic facts about their political system or political issues. The widespread nature of political ignorance is well-documented in scholarly work, and has even made its way into pop culture. An example of this phenomenon isJimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” segment, in which interviewers ask people for their opinions on made-up events. Furthermore, one of the most commonly cited examples of widespread political ignorance is most peoples’ overestimation of the amount that the United States spends on foreign aid. Nation-building is not an exciting topic, but military operations make for riveting news segments, generate web traffic on news sites, and are conducive to eye-catching pictures on the newspaper front pages. As such, nation-building is not an issue that mobilizes voters, as it is something that is generally not regarded as of the utmost important in democracies such as ours. If an issue does not get voters to the polling stations, then there is little compelling reason for politicians to pay it any mind or devote resources to it. The underfunding of nation building is problematic for a number of reasons. Many researchers and practitioners agree that reconstruction, specifically the establishment of basic governance and social services in a conflict area, are key to staving off insurgency. The logic is simple: if a legitimate government is unwilling or unable to take responsibility for a population in a region that it nominally rules or is supposed to rule, an insurgent group will— as many have in places from Palestine, to Northern Ireland, to Vietnam. The rise of Islamic State (IS) is an example of this phenomenon. Beset by rebels, the Syrian government was unable to effectively govern large areas of the country, leading to a vacuum which was filled by IS and other objectionable insurgent groups. The same occurred in Iraq after the Iraqi government was either unwilling or too corrupt to efficiently govern many majority-Sunni areas. Had nation-building efforts in Iraq been better funded, IS’s advance there could very well have been slowed or prevented entirely by building more support for the government among local communities— the factor that separates successful counterinsurgencies from unsuccessful ones.
As previously discussed, the failures of nation-building can be attributed in part to underfunding, which in turn is largely a function of political ignorance. Although not apparent at first glance, this is a blessing, albeit a mixed blessing, because there are easily apparent methods available to counter political ignorance. Political ignorance is stubborn— it has been a well-documented fact of politics since at least the days of Athenian democracy, as was documented by many classical thinkers. However, political ignorance can be combatted with education and awareness, which is an easier task now than ever before due to the ever-present influence of politically-oriented new media. Despite the fact that most of the now-ubiquitous new media consists of “soft news” like Buzzfeed rather than serious, critical journalism; some acknowledgement by these soft news sources of political facts may go quite a way toward building political awareness in the general public. Given that the lack of political awareness in our democracy was a central factor in our under-commitment to nation building in Iraq and, in turn, the rise of Islamic State, this awareness will be critically important to keep a new incarnation of IS from popping up after the defeat of the current insurgent group.