As the United States turns toward reconstruction of Iraq, the challenges are enormous. Thirty years of Saddam Hussein?s brutal rule have destroyed the strong government and civil institutions that once stood. More than a decade of economic sanctions has left Iraq?s economy in ruins. Corruption and cynicism are the norm and ethnic tensions run deep. Will the United States succeed in transforming Iraq into a democratic, pluralistic nation?

Leading scholars of conflict resolution and democracy building say that legitimacy is the most important thing when it comes to rebuilding a country. But the debate continues over how to best achieve such legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and of the world as the United States begins to rebuild the war-torn nation.

Looking back at America?s nation-building attempts over the past century, Sara Kasper of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the record of American nation-building attempts is sobering. Her organization recently completed a study of more than 200 U.S. led military interventions, of which 16 are classified as nation-building attempts where Americans either promoted or imposed democratic institutions of their choosing.

?Of these 16 cases, only four qualify as success stories. Those would be West Germany, Japan, Grenada and Panama. In 11 other cases, however, the U.S. failed to establish democracy. And our benchmark was that we looked 10 years after the U.S. left those countries democracy had not been established,? she says.

And while the Bush Administration often holds up West Germany and Japan as examples of U.S. success in nation-building when talking about its plans for Iraq, Sara Kasper says that?s like comparing apples to oranges.

?So when you look at the cases of Japan and West Germany, they had very favorable internal characteristics,? she says. ?They had strong national identities. They were both modern states with developed and effective state capacities that really took over the day-to-day administration after the U.S. began its occupation. And they both had previous experience with constitutional rule. Clearly, Iraq lacks those favorable conditions, and what the U.S. can do to create them is going to be the challenge.?

In fact, as Joseph Montville, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington notes, the United States has been unable to duplicate those successes over the last 50 years.

?I think the U.S. right after World War Two set a very, very high standard for nation-building or region re-building with the Marshall Plan in Europe and then the occupation of Germany and Japan,? he says.

?We took a lot of responsibility for transforming these societies that had been defeated and setting up the environment in which real democracy could emerge, and also in making sure the investments in economic reconstruction were made so that they could get their life together,? Mr. Montville says. ?That was probably the high point of American statesmanship and acceptance of responsibility for our actions, including our actions as being victors in the war.?

Mr. Montville says the Cold War with the Soviet Union affected how the United States saw democracy building. Often the U.S. government backed authoritarian regimes in order to keep U.S. friendly governments in place and Communist governments out.

For instance, the Carnegie Endowment report notes that in Cambodia the United States supported an anti-Communist military dictator, who soon lost control of the country to the Khmer Rouge, whose notorious killing fields were responsible for the deaths of millions. In South Vietnam, U.S. troops failed in their war against the Communist North, which has ruled the country since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Mr. Montville says the responsibilities of an invading foreign power that looks to rebuild a conquered nation are clear, but not necessarily easy to accomplish.

?In a situation where a foreign army has vanquished the government of a target country and become the occupier, there are clear obligations that devolve upon the occupier, certainly maintaining security and observing the rules according to the Geneva conventions and so on,? he says. ?But when we are really wise, we also recognize that by militarily defeating a regime, we have taken on major responsibilities for helping it become transformed into a peaceful nation with a government that meets certain standards in observing human rights, minority rights and so on and democracy and accountability to the people.?

Maintaining security and establishing rule of law are the two most pressing challenges in Iraq, where the complete collapse of the regime has led to rampant looting and violence. But who is best adapted to handle this task?

Rachel Belton, who has consulted on rule of law issues for the World Bank and is currently writing a book about nation-building, says in this case it is the United States.

?I?m generally a really strong proponent of multilateral coalitions. The process of building international legitimacy is very important in and of itself. And sometimes you can?t achieve your goals without it,? she says.

?But in Iraq the outcome is just crucial. We really owe it to the Iraqis to give them a stable country, and for that the coalition is the wrong method. The main reason is that they diffuse responsibility. Things are going to go wrong whoever is doing this, whatever institution is doing this. But at least if the ball is very clearly in our court, the world will keep pointing its finger until we solve it,? she says.

?The failures of bureaucratic coalitions are not very good press, and they quickly drop out of consciousness and people don?t pay enough attention, whereas everyone is very quick to point out the problems that America is causing. So at least that way there will be more focus,? she says.

Coalitions not only diffuse responsibility, says Rachel Belton, but they also lead to bickering over the reconstruction effort. Coalition members tend to distrust one another and get distracted by politics. For these reasons, she believes the U.S. military is best suited to take the initial lead.

?I do see the Pentagon perhaps as Winston Churchill saw democracy: that it?s the worst organization to do this except for all of the other organizations that have tried from time to time,? she says.

?I come out for the Pentagon over State largely because it?s the State Department?s instinct to work in coalition, and frankly to be diplomatic, which is their job but the style I?m advocating requires going in really quickly, restoring law and order, restoring basic infrastructure, building the government institutions, and that needs a lot of ready manpower and a lot of ready money, which the [Department of Defense] can do better than a lot of the other institutions,? she says. ?And the idea would be: do the nation building, but do it as quickly as possible and then leave.?

U.S. troops still remain in Germany, Japan and South Korea. However, presuming the U.S. military can get the job done in a reasonable time, Rachel Belton says the United Nations will be able to focus on the humanitarian issues and to see that Iraq?s oil wealth is distributed fairly.

?Everyone in the Middle East and many in Europe and around the world see it as war for oil, and discounting that is very important to our legitimacy and our ability to operate in the world,? she says.

?States with economies based on a single resource are not easy to keep democratic. It?s too easy for the state to gain central control and use that as leverage,? she says. ?I hope that Iraq will not become a single resource state. It used to have a very thriving, multi-faceted economy. Oil wealth is obviously still going to be very important. The key is to set up a system that is simple enough that corruption can be spotted and that gives regular Iraqis a stake in pointing out that corruption.?

Observers say the United States must keep in mind in rebuilding Iraq that appearances do matter. The task before the Bush Administration is daunting and the eyes of the world are on every move the Americans make.