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Iraq: Does Postwar Japan Serve As Model For U.S. Plans?

  • Antoine Blua

The U.S. is pressing ahead with plans to occupy and administer Iraq in the event of war. Press reports suggest it would be the most ambitious U.S. occupation of a defeated country since the allied occupation of Japan following World War II. Analysts say the Japanese occupation -- widely seen as a success -- holds lessons for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. They add that differences between today's Iraq and post-war Japan could greatly complicate the task.

Prague, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has prepared a postwar scenario for Iraq reportedly envisaging an extended military occupation.

The U.S. newspaper "The New York Times" reports that a military commander is to wield absolute authority during the early days of the occupation when the threat of unrest is presumed greatest. A civilian administrator would then run Iraq in tandem with the military commander.

The proposals would amount to the most ambitious American effort to administer a defeated country since the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II.

Following Japan's surrender to allied forces in 1945, Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese government became subject to the authority of the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers in occupied Japan. The post was filled by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who presided over the reconstruction of Japan's government, industry, and society.

Six years later, in 1951, the U.S. and 47 other nations signed a formal peace treaty with Japan. The document recognized that country's full sovereignty and provided for the termination of the occupation, which happened the following year.

Hajime Kitaoka, a senior researcher with the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo, says the occupation is widely viewed as a success.

He tells RFE/RL the key factor was that the U.S. paid close attention to Japanese traditions, while at the same time it carried out ambitious political and economic reforms to revitalize Japanese society.

"General MacArthur, [along] with the general headquarters (GHQ), paid attention to the traditions of Japan and agreed to keep the emperor [in place]. But they worked well for 'vitalizing' Japanese society. So they are regarded in a favored manner by the Japanese people now."

Kitaoka says two additional factors were also in place. The emperor and the political elite were persuaded to go along with the occupation. At the same time, the Japanese population was united behind the hierarchical political structures.

Kitaoka says, however, these constitute important differences between postwar Japan and Iraq. Iraqi society is divided among three main ethnic and religious groups: the Kurds in the north of the country, Arab Sunnis in the center, and the Arab Shiites in the south. Kitaoka warns the divisions are likely to cause postwar conflicts inside Iraq.

Gerd Nonneman, a teacher of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Lancaster in Britain, agrees. He points out that in Iraq the leadership will be deposed and that new political structures will be introduced.

"It does mean that when you put a different administration in place, partly run by a civilian administration, partly by a military commander, you impose a new set of structures that is not going to be all that straightforward. You start with a divided society that has no recent experience of democratic participation or negotiations among themselves. And there are no clear structures ready-made. So it's going to be far more problematic than in the case of Japan."

John Swenson-Wright is a lecturer in Japanese politics and international relations at Britain's Cambridge University. He notes that the occupation of Japan had clear and limited objectives: the democratization and demilitarization of the country. He says the U.S's objectives in Iraq -- no less than the democratization of the entire region -- are far wider.

"The wider regional context is likely to pose a serious challenge to any occupation [of Iraq]. If we're right in taking [President] Bush's remarks last week, then the scale of the undertaking that the United States is contemplating -- embarking on not just the conflict itself but its clear commitment to regime change and promoting democracy in the region -- is far more ambitious than the 'realpolitik' practiced by the United States in Japan in 1945."

Swenson-Wright adds that he doubts the U.S.'s ability to successfully build an international coalition to share the burden of rebuilding Iraq. He says change in Iraq will require a genuine international effort in terms of money and expertise.

He points out that Harry Truman, the U.S. president at the time of the reconstruction of Japan, used a special envoy -- John Foster Dulles -- to build international support.

"John Foster Dulles, who at that stage was the Truman administration special envoy to Japan, played a key role in brokering an international coalition of the willing, that was willing to support many of the American objectives. It's hard to see that there's anyone with similar stature who would command comparable cross-body respect in the case of future planning for Iraq."

Swenson-Wright says that in the case of Japan, specialists with an "intimate" understanding of the country were actively involved in planning the occupation at least three years ahead of time.

"In the case of Japan, the occupation [] exercised the mind of policymakers in Washington really from as earlier as 1942. And all the evidences so far that I've seen suggest that where it comes to Washington's response to the situation in Iraq is a much more recent phenomenon."

There's also the question of the U.S.'s long-term commitment to Iraq. Swenson-Wright says in Japan the U.S. was driven by the notion that Japan would be part of a bulwark against the Soviet Union. He says too that there was a general perception that Japan had the capacity to stand on its own feet. Iraq may lack this capability, he says.

"[As for Iraq] there are many more uncertainties: uncertainties about the viability of the political regime, real ethnic and religious divisions within the country. There are concerns about the ability of Iraq to put in place the new civil society and economic structures that will enable it to -- with American and allied support -- sustain itself over the long-term."

Reports say the Bush administration is ready to take on the challenges. But Iraq is likely to be more unstable and unpredictable than postwar Japan.

Analysts say the U.S. experience in Japan is instructive but one should be careful not to exaggerate the extent to which it can act as a model for America this time around.

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