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Judging the occupation

What does history tell us about the progress, or lack of progress, made by the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq so far? A news analysis by’s Michael Moran.

Just over a month since the enemy disappeared, the occupation appears to be faltering, as evidenced by anarchy on the ground and battles raging between rival U.S. bureaucracies. U.S. officials take heat for allowing members of the former regime to reclaim their former posts and for allowing a power vacuum to persist. Water, medical supplies and electricity are in short supply. Casualties continue to mount, and Washington increasingly worries that a new tyranny will rise from the ashes of the dictatorship only recently vanquished. Welcome to Berlin, June 1945.

What does history tell us about the progress, or lack of progress, made by the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq so far? Those who have studied past U.S. occupations — and in particular, the two most successful and extensive occupations, in Germany and Japan after World War II — are quick to point out that Iraq’s circumstances and the world geopolitical situation today make nonsense out of any attempt at direct comparison.

John Dower, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Embracing Defeat,” a study of the occupation of Japan, says the critical difference is in the eye of the occupied population.

“Regardless of whether they are Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, Iraqis see a ‘carpetbagger’ aspect to this war,” he said. “It couldn’t be more different from Japan. By 1945, American forces literally were liberating the Japanese not from tyranny, but from death.”

Still, even historians critical of the Iraq war concede that certain shared dilemmas and key milestones exist. Winning a formal enemy acceptance of defeat and then re-establishing order are the prerequisites to any further progress. Then, in no particular order, come the dismantling of the tyrannical ruling party, the purging of war criminals from military ranks, organizing a means for prosecuting war crimes or crimes against humanity, organizing elections for new civilian authorities and, ultimately, the transfer of sovereignty back to the occupied nation.

History as a guide
Critics of the course of the occupation to date, often bolstering their case by claiming that current problems were predictable, have focused on five major shortcomings:

  • The slow response by U.S. forces to looting and infrastructure damage, especially in Baghdad.
  • The White House’s inability to enforce an overall agenda on rival factions in the State Department and Pentagon.
  • The lack of a clear process and timetable for turning power over to a new Iraqi authority.
  • A failure to understand that the absence of international legitimacy would cause severe problems in reviving Iraq’s oil industry.
  • The continuing inability of U.S. or British forces to find solid evidence of the weapons of mass destruction that precipitated the war.

A survey of U.S. news reports in the month just after the surrender of Germany (May 1945) and Japan (September 1945) show that some similar criticisms dogged the U.S. and allied commanders tasked with occupying those nations. But they also suggest a far smoother transition in both nations to what might be called an orderly postwar regime — one with clear lines of authority and quick, if sometimes brutal, administration of justice against those convicted of war crimes.

In both Berlin and Tokyo, news reports speak of desperation, looting and of young men set loose on the wreckage of society.

In Tokyo on Oct. 26, 1945, for instance, The New York Times reported on the first of what would be many protests against the lack of food in the Japanese capital. The protest, peaceful but confrontational, occurred on the doorstep of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters, with U.S. troops looking on but taking no action.

The power struggles between Washington bureaucrats and generals on the ground also existed. As careful news readers know, the State Department recently executed a “coup d’occupation” in Iraq, usurping the Pentagon’s hand-picked viceroy, Jay Garner, and replacing him with a retired foreign service officer, L. Paul Bremer.

Back on May 15, 1945, a similar battle pitted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, whose army had just defeated Germany, against one Elmer Davis, director of the powerful Office of War Information, which had issued a blanket ban on news dissemination inside occupied Germany. It took President Truman to settle the feud, giving Eisenhower power that eventually would help him midwife a new, democratic German media.

One month into the post-Saddam Hussein era, the lack of a clear road map to elections and a new Iraqi government also has raised criticism, particularly from among Iraqi exiles who had, in some cases, expected to be installed in interim positions of power.

Analogies to postwar Germany and Japan suffer enormously from the scale of the defeat these two countries experienced, the scale of the atrocities they perpetrated and the different way the war against them was perceived. Germany and Japan were universally viewed as the aggressors by 1945, while much of the world is highly suspicious of U.S. motives in Iraq.

The idea that either Japan or Germany might again govern itself any time soon — let alone reconstitute their militaries — was not open to discussion. In both places, war crimes tribunals already were being organized ,and reports of hangings by less formal “military tribunals” were daily features.

Allied commanders in 1945 minced no words about why Japan and Germany were being occupied. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding Britain’s zone of occupation, broadcast a message June 10 promising to teach Germany “an ultimate and final lesson” about its guilt and the futility of war.

MacArthur, in his first radio broadcast to the Japanese people, warned that Japan’s “path in the future, if it is to survive, must be confined to the ways of peace.” Barely a month after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no mistaking his meaning.

Just over a month ago, such issues were far from the minds of U.S. commanders as their troops began to take hold of Baghdad. Indeed, the main threat until very recently continued to be Saddam loyalists — the irregular forces that had harried U.S. and British forces far behind the front lines all along the march to the capital. The collapse of Saddam’s regime came so suddenly, and so anti-climactically, that U.S. commanders could not believe their eyes. Their caution may have delayed the necessary shift from combat to occupation and in the process drained away much of the goodwill U.S. forces packed with them into Baghdad.

Nonetheless, while there is little precedent either in Berlin or Tokyo for the protracted looting that has taken place in Baghdad, there is also a very good reason.

Both the German and Japanese governments were intact, if in disarray, when they surrendered. Iraq’s merely melted away. Or, in the words of Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, 3rd Infantry commander, at a news conference Wednesday: “When we entered Baghdad, again there were no ministries in operation; the leadership in all the ministries ... was out of power.” Police stations, he noted, were destroyed by an angry population more thoroughly than they would have been in a precision bomb strike.

While Blount dodged a reporter’s question on whether the United States had been unprepared for this eventuality, Blount conceded that fixing the problem “will take a long while.”

And that, remember, is just to restore order, which is a prerequisite to the other hard tasks to follow.