As troops struggle to restore order to Iraq, the country's future and its past hang in the balance. Chris Bunting hears why the White House's favourite tale of reconstruction is inappropriate
One by one, the dozens of brand-new Chevrolet Suburban SUVs that have gathered outside the Hilton Resort in Kuwait City over the past month have begun leaving for long, dusty journeys into the Iraqi interior.
Inside the hotel, the vehicles' owners can be spotted nervously knocking back their last non-alcoholic cocktails on the balconies overlooking the resort's golden sands before hurried departures.
These men are the interim government of Iraq. This small group of army officers and diplomats, overwhelmingly American with a smattering of Britons and Australians, is known by the unassuming title "Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance". In practice, they expect to exercise untrammelled authority behind the group of Iraqi front men due to be appointed by the US next week. Their task will be nothing less than the refashioning of Iraq's politics and society, and yet some Bush administration insiders have talked of getting in and out of the country within three months.
Jay Garner, the burly 64-year-old former general picked to serve as the US administration's proconsul in Iraq, talks of making Iraq a "better place for everybody".
He told journalists last week: "We're here to do the job of liberating them, of providing them with a form of government that represents the freely elected will of the people. We'll do it as fast as we can, and once we've done it, we'll turn everything over to them." Senior advisers in the Bush administration such as deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz have talked even more expansively of using Iraq to start a "reverse domino effect" to bring democracy to all of the Middle East.
For some, this is folly: the idea that a political system can simply be ripped up and pasted back together by a small group of outsiders from a profoundly foreign culture is, say the naysayers, the most dangerous kind of hubris. And yet Bush administration advisers are pointing out that America did exactly that half a century ago in postwar Japan. According to The New York Times , a Pulitzer-prizewinning account of that occupation by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of Japanese history John Dower, called Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II , is now "required reading in the Bush White House".
The Japan model's primary appeal to advisers is its optimistic prognosis for the occupation of Iraq. Japan, which was seen in 1945 by many experts as irredeemably expansionist and incapable of democratisation, was successfully refashioned not only as an explicitly pacifist liberal democracy but as a pillar of global capitalism. The other crucial element of the model's appeal is its unilateralism. Unlike the multinational reconstruction efforts in postwar Germany and Italy and, more recently, in Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, the occupation of Japan was a wholly American affair. Dower admits that the parallels with the Bush administration's determination to enforce a US rather than UN-led reconstruction are "probably irresistible".
Between 1945 and 1952, Japan and the US were locked in what Dower describes as a "sensual embrace". Almost all outside interference was excluded. No Japanese were allowed to travel abroad until the end of the occupation, and no big decision was made without the approval of the conquerors, headed by the regal figure of General Douglas MacArthur. The Americans discarded the Japanese constitution and wrote their own in a week. Ruling elites were purged and then reinstated on the whim of the occupiers. The private letters of hundreds of millions of Japanese were systematically censored.
No criticism of the occupation was brooked.
This eccentric relationship left scars that still mark the psyche of middle-aged and elderly Japanese people today, but it provoked almost no violent resistance at the time. Indeed, a Japanese populace that had been dismissed as a nationalistic herd by many western experts at the end of the war surprised their occupiers with their quick and energetic embrace of liberalism and democracy. Outspoken criticism of Japanese bureaucrats and politicians (but not the Americans) became the order of the day. A vibrant and irreverent democratic culture - expressing itself through popular music, serious literature and a rash of scurrilous magazines - was subverting the monochrome emperor worship of the war years within months of the Americans' arrival.
No wonder advisers in the Bush administration have found the Japanese analogy seductive (although Wolfowitz himself has preferred an even more optimistic comparison with Charles de Gaulle's liberation of France). The Japan example appears a glaring contradiction to the pessimists' arguments that an attempt to re-engineer post-war Iraq as a democracy is a fool's errand. Yet the man whose work is at the centre of the current debate, Dower, is puzzled that no one in the administration has asked for his opinion about the parallels being drawn.
"I suppose this is my 15 minutes (of fame), but if they asked me I would tell them that the Japanese case is, point after point, so dissimilar to Iraq that there is no parallel," he says. "The first point is that the occupation of Japan had legal and moral legitimacy in the eyes of virtually everyone in the world. This was true not only of the Allied powers and all of Japan's Asian neighbours, but also of a huge proportion of the Japanese people." Dower notes that during the entire occupation, there was not a single incident of terrorism inflicted on the US forces.
Seizing this opportunity was a US administration with a radical and long-term commitment to "nation-building". The MacArthur regime ruled Japan for seven years. Not only was the political system overhauled, but major land reform programmes fundamentally changed the economic basis of Japanese society. The Americans totally revamped the education system and introduced labour laws guaranteeing the right to organise, bargain collectively and strike, which bolstered new democratic voices. Dower doubts that much of this would be countenanced by Bush's rightwing advisers.
The MacArthur administration also had virtually no outside interference.
For two years after surrender, until the cold war brought a reversal of US priorities, MacArthur's young subordinates were left to carry out what Dower calls the "the last great exercise in New Deal idealism".
"Perhaps most important, Japan had no resources," he says. "The Americans in Japan were freed of any outside meddling and from the appearance of exploitation. That is not the case in Iraq, and I think that could be our downfall." He notes that corporations close to the US administration have already been awarded multimillion-dollar contracts for work in Iraq, fuelling the suspicions held by some that the war was about oil. "Inference from economic interests is likely to disrupt reform, but, more worrying, the appearance of 'carpetbagging' is likely to create a crisis of legitimacy totally unlike Japan," he says.
Dower's nightmare scenario is that Arab terrorism and a US presence in Iraq more interested in military strength than political and economic reform will create an occupation more comparable to postwar experiences in Okinawa than Japan. There, security issues overrode democracy. Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, describes the island south of Japan packed with 38 US bases since the war as "a hell hole".
"The people had no rights," Johnson says. "Until as late as 1972, they were not citizens of Japan or the US. Their land was routinely expropriated at bayonet-point. Their people were exposed to violence and sexual assault, and the US military would protect their men from prosecution." There was a token local government, but Johnson says the US military ran the place and, in many respects, still does. "It is still the poorest prefecture in Japan, and (the regime) bred such resentment among local people that there have been three popular revolts."
Such dire warnings may prove unfounded. In Afghanistan, the US army's energetic involvement in reconstruction efforts suggests a realisation, at least by military officers on the ground, that the improvement of local people's living conditions is vital to US security interests. But Dower's mention of carpetbagging conjures up another historical parallel that may contain a salutary lesson for policy advisers high on the "Japan model": the occupation of the US's own southern states after the American civil war.
Michael F. Holt, professor of American history at the University of Virginia, believes the civil war experience may come back to haunt the men in Kuwait's Hilton if they restrict their vision to a political programme aimed only at quick regime change and an early departure.
"There was a failure partly because the clear purpose of Northern policy was to end its presence in the South and any direct financial costs just as fast as humanly possible." The North also intended to unseat the Southern elite, he says. "But once (the North) had got its people in by jiggering the rules of the political game, its idea was to leave (governance) to the locals." There was short-term aid but no reconstruction.
Add to this the perception and sometimes the reality of corruption among the carpetbaggers, Northerners who travelled south after the war to exploit the chaotic postwar situation in the region for profit (particularly in the cotton plantations, the South's equivalent of Iraq's oil), and you had a recipe for terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, a hardening of support for the old elites and the North's eventual withdrawal from the South.
"Riding on the resentment at what were seen as illegitimate regimes, the North's men were unseated in the 1870s," Holt says.
For the South's black population, in whose name the war had been fought, the consequence of the failure of reconstruction was a return of oppression that began to be rolled back only a century later. In the context of Iraq, such a retrograde step would call into question every aspect of the US government's strategy in the region.