Why Remaking Iraq Might Be a Lot Harder than Remaking Japan Was

News Abroad

Over the last few weeks, Iraq war talk has suddenly leapfrogged over the prospective combat itself to how to remake the country after we win. The New York Times reports that the White House is considering a military occupation, and a recent Atlantic features a James Fallows thinkpiece on how nation-building might play out. Both accounts cite one particular historical case as a model: post-World War II Japan, in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander for Allied Powers, seized control of Japanese institutions to turn the militarized nation into a peaceful, liberal, and capitalist democracy.

The focus on Japan stems partly from the difficulties of stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan. A heavy American hand in Iraq, it's hoped, might prevent the sort of in-fighting and power-jockeying that has beset President Hamid Karzai and his countrymen. Yet if officials are looking to post-World War II Japan for pointers on running the Saddam-less pit of postwar Iraq, they should study not just the similarities between the two situations but also the signal differences.

The first precondition of success in Japan was America's total victory. Even before the intense air campaign of 1945, when American planes firebombed Tokyo and dozens of other cities, Japan's morale was depleted. The unspeakable toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only heightened the people's craving for an end to the bloodshed. By 1945, about 3 million Japanese had died, and many had grown angry at the military men who had led them into war. The Japanese were ready to refute and punish their own leaders and to "embrace defeat," in the pithy phrase of MIT historian John Dower—whose definitive book on the occupation should be read by every Bush official taken with the Japanese example.

This acceptance of defeat meant that the Japanese, having surrendered unconditionally, didn't balk at American demands for demilitarization. MacArthur curtailed the powerful secret police and propaganda bureaus, dismantled Japan's weapons industries, and made sure that the new constitution renounced war. An international war-crimes tribunal executed seven of the worst militarists, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and imprisoned another 16 for life—all with little resistance.

No outsider knows how Iraqis will view an occupation. They may welcome demilitarization like the Japanese or rejoice like the Afghans after the Taliban's overthrow (although the Taliban, who had seized power much more recently than Saddam's Baath Party, hadn't eradicated pre-existing institutions and habits as thoroughly as Saddam has). On the other hand, the Iraqis might take up arms against their American occupiers, as did the Filipinos after the Spanish-American War.

John Dower has written that if Japan's Emperor Hirohito had surrendered in early 1945, as some advisers wanted, he might have spared his country not only a million deaths but also the sweeping nature of the postwar reconstruction. This conclusion points up a perversity of today's situation: The greater the devastation, the more "fabulous" the prospects (to use Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's word) for remaking Iraq. But while most of the West would welcome democracy in Baghdad, few would argue that we should go to war for the purpose of imposing it—and even fewer would favor wreaking the most ruinous damage possible in order to pave the way (literally) for a smoother post-Saddam reconstruction.

Another key to the Japan success was enjoying the world's blessing. Everyone knew that Japan had attacked the United States (along with China and other neighbors) and thoroughly lost. The world was eager to see the belligerents punished and Japanese society remade. Unlike the coming war, in which China and Russia fear American designs, no moral ambiguity surrounded the American enterprise. On the contrary, our rival powers—which were also Japan's most important neighbors—let the United States shoulder the burden.

Those who fondly recall the Japan example should also recall just how radical American reforms were. The United States not only rebuilt Japan but rebuilt Japan in its own image: as a capitalist, liberal democracy. Not only was Japan's existing constitution, dating from 1890, jettisoned, but MacArthur audaciously rejected the new draft proposed by the postwar Japanese government and had his staff write another—modeled after the U.S. Constitution, only more progressive. It included a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary, a bill of rights three times as long as our own, and women's suffrage.

The occupation reforms extended beyond politics, including measures that might not prove palatable to American conservatives this time. The United States created a new educational system, abolishing rote memorization in favor of a more progressive American curriculum and guaranteed academic freedom and coeducation. MacArthur's men confiscated the land of wealthy property owners and distributed it among the people, resulting in a more equitable allocation of wealth than the United States had itself. The relative equality helped Japan remain stable and democratic during the Cold War.

The United States also gave Japanese laborers power they had never had before, as reformers insisted that workers have the right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. The nation's financial houses, called zaibatsu, were broken up, though not dissolved entirely as initially planned. Leading executives were removed from power. Even with these radical reforms, it should be noted, Japan's democracy today remains deeply flawed and captive to its bureaucracy, and its economy still favors government industrial planning over free enterprise.

The liberal character of the Japan reforms stemmed from the liberalism of the New Dealers originally in charge. (MacArthur, though no left-winger, supported such anti-big business measures as the zaibatsu break-up because of his small-town Republican conservatism.) Skeptics at the time, both Japanese and American, insisted—much like today's clash-of-civilizationists who argue that the Arab world isn't ready for liberal democracy—that democracy could never work in a traditional, hierarchical culture like Japan's, or that the Japanese people were unsuited for this Western form of government. But the New Dealers, motivated by the same idealistic principles that undergirded the founding of the United Nations and the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, believed that radical change could happen.

Today we hear echoes of this universalism on the right. Conservative apostles of democracy like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz pooh-pooh the conservative realists and wary generals who blanch at talk of bringing freedom to the Arab world. These conservative idealists might not be seeking to spread democracy to the Middle East if war weren't on the agenda; indeed, their argument that postwar Iraq presents an opportunity, not a danger, though surely sincere, arose in response to those who warned of a thorny aftermath to American intervention. Still, these idealists sound like the post-World War II liberals who seized the moral high ground by maintaining (correctly, it turned out) that the Japanese people were capable of democracy.

Being prepared to implement expansive (and expensive) reforms is one lesson from Japan; not going overboard is another. American leaders skillfully kept their idealism from bleeding into arrogance. Wisely, they retained key elements of prewar Japanese society in the postwar order. The emperor remained on the throne, although he was downgraded from a deity to a "symbol of the state." The constitution itself, although an American creation, was submitted to the Japanese Diet for ratification, and the vigorous, open debate about it, there and in the press, led to modifications that made it more palatable to the Japanese.

Although militarists had captured power in the 1930s, Japan still had institutions such as political parties and a bureaucracy, allowing the American leaders to use them as foundations of Japan's rehabilitation instead of having to start from scratch. (The Seiyukai and Minseito, the prewar parties, became the Liberal and Progressive parties under American occupation.) In Iraq, in contrast, not even the trappings of democracy exist, making the job potentially all the more onerous, despite its smaller scope.

In the 2000 campaign, Bush denigrated nation-building. "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building," he said in a debate with Al Gore. "I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow a dictator." Gore then reminded Bush that after World War I, "we kind of turned our backs and left [the European nations] to their own devices and they brewed up a lot of trouble that quickly became World War II," whereas after the latter conflict, we engaged in nation-building, with better results. Fortunately, Bush is now heeding Gore's wisdom. But before he goes to war, he should also remember his own admonitions about how difficult nation-building can be.

This piece was originally published by Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author.