Since the 1990s, the neoconservatives have urged the United States to adopt a muscular, assertive foreign policy that includes invading dictatorships and failed states and turning them into democracies. The Bush administration agreed, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq was one of the fruits of this policy.

However, there’s a big gap in this idea of creating democracy abroad: no one knows how to do it! It’s a desired destination with no known route to get there.

The burgeoning literature on nation building, published by scholars from the Agency for International Development, the Endowment for Democracy, the U. S. Institute for Peace, and other entities, is pretty much empty palaver, lacking concrete, scientific content and containing no proven techniques or methodologies for bringing about democracy.

In any case, what the scholars know or don’t know would make very little difference, because they aren’t the ones who carry out nation building in the field. The actual job has been in the hands of government officials, usually military officers. And as they themselves often admit, when it comes to nation building, they are flying by the seat of their pants.

Consider the 1989 U. S. invasion of Panama. Lt. Col. John T. Fishel was Chief of Policy and Strategy for U.S. forces in Panama, and it was his job to figure out how to conduct nation building to ensure democracy. He found his order to be meaningless because democracy was an “undefined goal.” The U.S. government agencies in Panama “had only the vaguest idea of how to lead the country toward democracy,” he wrote in his book on the intervention.

In practice, what “ensuring democracy” boiled down to in Panama was installing Guillermo Endara, the winner of a previous election, as president, supporting him as he became increasingly high-handed and unpopular, and then stepping away after his opponent was elected in 1994. Not exactly rocket science.

The U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II has been hailed by President Bush and the neoconservatives as a shining example of American nation building know-how at work. Alas, this hopeful picture is a figment of their imagination. The historical record shows that from the point of view of promoting democracy, the U.S. military occupation of German was a disaster.

To begin with, promoting democracy wasn’t the aim of the occupation. The policy was to punish the Germans. American policy deliberately restricted production in order to keep Germans poor. It directed soldiers to destroy factories. If U. S. troops had surplus food, they were ordered to render it inedible so Germans couldn’t eat it.

Americans were not to engage in any kind of friendly, normal interaction with Germans. They were not supposed to shake hands with them, or visit them in their homes, or play games with them, or converse with them. If they went to a German church, they had to sit in separate, Americans-only pews. The U.S. military police arrested over a thousand Americans in an effort to sustain the policy of non-fraternization.

On balance, the policy of trying to persecute Nazis earned ill will for the Americans, and provoked sympathy for Nazis that they otherwise would not have had.

Today, many have a rosy view of the U. S. occupation, but observers at the time, familiar with the facts, were appalled. Illustrative of these contemporary views was an article that appeared in Commentary in September 1949 entitled “Why Democracy is Losing In Germany.” “We must face the fact,” the author wrote, “that the contradictions, vacillations, and reactionary manifestations of Western occupation policy have appallingly discredited democracy in Germany, both as a political system and an intellectual outlook.”

The overall conclusion is that Germany became a democracy not because of the U. S. military occupation, but in spite of it. (For details of the U. S. failures in the occupation of Germany, see my account in the new book by the Independent Institute, “Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism,” edited by Robert Higgs and Carl Close.)

The experience in Iraq demonstrates that nation building is still an undefined, haphazard undertaking. After the military victory, the Iraq mission was put in the hands of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who was two weeks late getting to Baghdad, and who naively expected to find a functioning government in the country. Two months after the invasion, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the V Corps commander, described the nation-building “technique” U. S. officials were applying in Iraq: “We’re making this up here as we go along.”

In most trades and professions it’s morally wrong, and usually illegal, to undertake a task you don’t know how to do, to make it up as you go along. Apparently, a lower standard applies to presidents who invade countries in order to establish democracy.