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

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Mr. Greenberg, a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, writes Slate's History Lesson column. His book on Richard Nixon is due out next fall.

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.

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More Comments:

Thomas Gallatin - 11/10/2002

Nobody in these postings, or anywhere else, inside or outside a mythical monolithic "Left" or "Right," is posing this question except Mr. Lloyd.

A question that WAS raised prior to Lloyd’s knee-jerk intervention is why the big push against Saddam didn't come BEFORE 9-11, e.g. during the months of February through August 2001. Where were the glorious speeches then, the 100 phone calls of Colin Powell, the solemn "historic" debates in Congress ?

To simplify even beyond Mr. Moran's "simplification": A defining moment for George W. Bush's presidency came after 9-11 when he said that, as of that point, the "war" on terrorism would be the main focus of his Administration (translation: now, at last we've found an issue we can run on in 2004. Saddam is clearly terrible, thus he can be the next step, after the Taliban, in the campaign against the symptoms -and maybe incidentally a few causes- of terrorism).

A true leader leads, rather than merely reacting. The level of foreign policy competency shown by George W. Bush is not likely to produce achievements comparable to MacArthur's postwar Japan.

Gus Moner - 11/10/2002

Well, Mr. Lloyd, I see you are harking back to Clinton again. Boring comparison, and not a good one for this particular point. Bush didn’t bother with Iraq for the same reasons no one else did. Based on the evidence, it posed no serious threat.

When the Afghani adventure was completed, there was nothing else on the table. What next for the anti-terrorist Crusaders? How could they take advantage of international support and goodwill towards the US after the attacks? How could they channel the fear and despondency of the citizenry to promote their personal, economic and political interests? Ah, let’s go after Iraq, Cheney, Wolfowitz Fleicher Rumsfeld & Pele’s favourite enemy.

Everyone has a favourite enemy. Both incoming Presidents since Bush I have bombed Iraq shortly after taking office, a tradition which Bush II happily followed, and then promptly forgot about while organising to destroy the Artic Reserve for oil, disrupt the International Court of Justice, scuttle the Kyoto agreements and petulantly refuse to participate in almost everything.

Sorry Mr. Lloyd, the short answer is NOT that Clinton refused to countenance it, rather that there was no reason to. Proof of Clinton being on target was their plan to go after terrorist organisations. The Supreme Court’s election of Bush scuttled the plans. Bush’s vacillation or indifference towards the planet in general is proven when Clinton’s plans to go after al Quaeda were taken off the table by Rice & Co. and they were re-assessing the matter, at a leisurely pace. It took the bin Laden demolition derby to finally wake him / them up to the fact there is a world out there to deal with. Bush spent 9 months arguing the US had other pressing needs until this nation was attacked during his watch, when he wasn’t looking of course.

Now, terrorists are probably everywhere but in Iraq, but Iraq is next. There are other obvious reasons, not related to WMD or threats to the USA why Iraq is next. The US wants control of those oil reserves and an unpopular leader makes it easy to rail against Iraq.

If there are WMD there, let the UN deal with it. Europe and the Middle East regimes are far closer and much more affected by Iraq than the US. The threat to the US is unproven and marginal at best. Meanwhile, your administration’s “steady, measured pace, keeping strategic objectives balanced with military capabilities and diplomatic realities” should do just that, go after real terrorists, not oil, innocent victims and the inevitable wanton destruction of their property.

If it’s about complying with UN resolutions, there are plenty of nations such as Israel who have blatantly failed to heed them. By keeping Palestinian land, planting settlers there (380,000 since Oslo) and subjugating Palestinians they keep a vicious cycle of war and hate alive. Their doing so has put the entire region, and even the world, on the brink of war on various occasions and is one of the terrorists root causes for being. This conflict is, to me, a much more clear and present danger.

I have tried to keep it simple. I do hope this explanation is not “far too contorted” for you.

Alec Lloyd - 11/7/2002

Mr. Madison is forgetting Bill Clinton's 1998 war push which just happened to coincide with his impeachment trial. No sooner had the howling militarists of the Democratic caucus been loosed on an unsuspecting nation than President was acquitted and the war stopped.

Thus the short answer is that Iraq has been deserving such attention for a long time but the ruling administration was unwillling to countenance it.

As for why the Bush administration didn't single out Iraq a year ago, there was this little distraction in Afghanistan going on at the time. Perhaps Mr. Madision may have heard of it.

Far from roving the international scene, picking random fights, the Bush administration has proceeded at a steady, measured pace, keeping strategic objectives balanced with military capabilities and diplomatic realities.

Of course this flies in the face of the "Bush is a moron" template, which is why the Left automatically discounts it and has to resort to far more contorted explanations.

mark safranski - 11/5/2002

A well-written piece and I agree that to build a democratic Iraq the US must brace itself for at least a 5 year occupation and a significant investment of effort. A few comments on Japan since that is the analogy under scrutiny.

The liberal " Taisho Democracy " period hailed by Dr.Greenberg as an important experential base on which to build for American authorities itself has limits. Firstly, it was a fluke happening to coincide with the insanity of Emperor Taisho, the youth and inexperience of Regent Hirohito and the passing of the last authoritarian Genro ( elder statesmen of the Meiji Restoration ) Yammagata leaving Prince Saionji, the liberal Genro, alone. Essentially it was a transition period between two hypernationalist eras Meiji and Showa that lacked a dominating figure to sustain militant policies.

Secondly, the culture was strongly hierarchical at the time as well as intensely nationalistic, imperialist and State shintoist. To call Japan in the 1920's " democratic " is highly misleading. " Pluralist " might be a more accurate description.

Nor was there much conflict over fundamental policies between civilians and the military - everyone accepted Japanese expansionism which went back to the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 as being the proper national goal. The bickering began when radical rightists demanded uneconomically sustainable military budgets and overreaching strategic objectives from more realistic and better informed politicians like Takahashi. Japanese political culture by 1945 was as alien to the liberal democratic reforms imposed by MacArthur as Iraqi political culture is today.

Albert Madison - 11/5/2002

This reasonably complete introductory historical comparison leaves out the important difference that, unlike Japan, Iraq has been the principal aggressor in two major wars over past two decades (against Iran and against Kuwait). Many of the same U.S. administration officials were involved on the two previous occasion, and they bungled things badly. In the first war, they foolishly supported Saddam. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was repelled from Kuwait but the underlying causes remained largely unaddressed. Saddam was not deposed, the U.S. policy of weapons for oil in the region continued unabated, and America couldn't even be bothered to establish democracy in tiny Kuwait (as William F. Buckley Jr. advocated at the time).

Add to this the dyslexic and disjointed shoot-from-the-hip diplomatic stumbling of last summer, and it becomes easy to see why many Americans, and even more foreigners, are reluctant to trust George W. Bush even against the obvious horror of the Iraqi dictator.

All of this might be cast aside if Saddam had furnished the Bush Administration with an act of aggression usable as an excuse for going to war against him. Yet not only has Washington failed to maneuver him into such a position (why for instance was there no push for a new beefed-up UN resolution on weapons inspections a year ago, or even 10 years ago, after the first arrangement was obviously not working, Iraqi babies dying etc. ?), but Bush seems to lack the fundamental historical knowledge of basic diplomatic realities, e.g. the need for such a pretext in the first place, adopting instead an attack first anywhere-we-feel-like-it attitude which is utterly ridiculous, unAmerican, unneccessary, and filled with myriad possibilities for unwelcome emulation elsewhere (such as on the West Bank, between India and Pakistan and in Russia).