What Happened To Iraq?

Over the past two months, as Iraq has disintegrated in the face of ISIL, one particular interpretation of events has been consistently pushed forward by neoconservatives and Bush apologists: Iraq is in crisis today because America pulled its troops out too soon. Excuses are, of course, all that can be expected from the neocons at this point, since they have long since proven themselves impervious to the instructive benefits of hindsight. More concerning, though, is the readiness of otherwise thinking, intelligent people to buy into such a fantastical narrative. Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted with the argument that if only the US had taken the same time and effort in Iraq that we did in Japan after WWII, we might have a similarly friendly, democratic ally in the Middle East today. (Of course, the underlying goal of such claims is nearly always to shift the blame for the current state of affairs in Iraq away from the neocons and toward Obama.)

My initial reaction to this suggestion was disbelief, followed, however, by a determination to give it full consideration and compose a thoughtful response. I confess that my impatience with the whole idea has increased with the amount of time I’ve had to consider it. The total dissimilarity between Iraq today and postwar Japan is so obvious that it seems unreasonable to devote space to proving it. Be that as it may, such an effort is clearly needed. Following are four reasons why the postwar Japan model does not apply to Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

1 – There was no reason to anticipate a civil war in Japan, held together by two thousand years’ worth of cultural, religious and political ties; there was every reason to expect one in an Iraq held together by little more than Saddam Hussein.

Japan in 1945 had been a unified nation more or less for two millenia. It was a commercial society built on an ancient feudal structure. Culturally and politically, it’s hard to imagine a more cohesive national identity. While Shintoism and Buddhism have had their share of conflict, religious animosity was not a significant force shaping Japanese society in the 1940s. The Mikado was widely viewed as a deity and could trace his ancestry back through a nearly unbroken line of emperors all the way to Yamato herself, 300 years before Christ.

In contrast, Iraq in 2003 was a relatively new, arguably artificial nation cobbled together by Great Britain in 1920 from three distinct provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra), with a piece of Kurdistan thrown in at the insistence of exiled Syrian king turned British puppet, Faisal I. Its multi-ethnic population was deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Fourteen hundred years of tension between Sunni and Shia Islam cut across Arab, Kurdish, Turkish and Assyrian ethnic groups. Most if not all of these groups included armed militias. Political stability was a consequence of complete domination of government power by the Sunni Arab ruling class.

2: The Japanese people had many reasons to trust the US;  the Iraqi people had as many reasons not to.

The United States in 1945 was at its zenith as a world power. We had, deservedly or not, a worldwide reputation for plain dealing and fair play that had not yet been squandered by reckless adventurism and failed interventions. The Japanese had no longstanding reasons to hate America. While an indigenous insurgency was of course a possibility, it was not a likely scenario.

By 2003, on the other hand, our conduct over the past sixty-odd years in the Middle East had been marked by lies, injustice, backstabbing diplomacy, broken promises – in short, every thing but plain dealing and fair play. Iraqi Shia and Kurds both had vivid memories of being encouraged by the US to take up arms against the Hussein regime, only to be brutally crushed when America failed to deliver the expected assistance. Saddam’s own regime knew first hand how treacherous we could be, having secretly received chemical weapon components (and critical intelligence help with targeting those weapons) from the US during the Iran-Iraq war, and more recently, having invaded Kuwait with an implied American promise of neutrality only to have that promise broken spectacularly in 1991. In short, no one in Iraq had any reason to trust America or any illusions that the occupation was meant to serve the interests or improve the lives of the Iraqi people. An insurgency against American occupation may not have been inevitable, but it was nearly so.

3: In 1945 the US imposed a military government on a soundly defeated aggressor; in 2003 the US was the aggressor.

The most glaring difference between occupied Japan and occupied Iraq is in the circumstances leading to the occupation. Japan had preemptively attacked the US in pursuit of an expansionist agenda that aimed to bring the entire western Pacific under Japanese control or influence. Their aggression failed; instead of knocking America back on its heels while Japan consolidated its gains, the war became a fight for survival of the Japanese state. By the war’s end in 1945, Japan had been thoroughly defeated and the expansionist wing of Japanese politics just as thoroughly discredited. Under such circumstances the Japanese people feared the worst from the occupation; instead they were treated remarkably well.

In 2003, however, it was America who launched a preemptive war against a country that had neither the ability nor the motivation to threaten it. The Iraqi government and military, entirely unable to face the US in conventional warfare, collapsed in weeks, but the Iraqi people, most of whom had merely observed the invasion rather than resisted it, were undefeated. Their primary allegiances were tribal and religious, not to the Hussein regime; they were not about to transfer those allegiances to the US.

4: Bremer was no MacArthur.

Does that really even need to be said?

Douglas MacArthur was a brilliant general and strategist with years of experience in the Far East; more importantly, he was a conscientious leader who took his responsibilities as such seriously. He was an avid student of Japanese culture; he went out of his way to show respect for,  and sensitivity to, their customs; he used his vast power to give the Japanese people a taste of just, efficient government; he carefully discriminated between those responsible for the war and the average Japanese. He won the respect – some would say love – of the Japanese people by his conduct and policies, not by some magical force of personality.

Now consider L. Paul Bremer – a career fearmonger masquerading as a terrorism expert. Prior to his appointment as Interim Dictator of Iraq he was Chairman and CEO of Marsh Crisis Services, a risk assessment firm – which is to say, his professional expertise was in frightening other corporations. While real terrorism experts like Michael Scheuer repeatedly warned the Bush administration of the likely consequences of Bremer’s (and Bush’s) policies, Bremer used his powerful position to immortalize his own incompetence and ignorance. He disregarded years of American propaganda aimed at convincing Iraqi soldiers to abandon Saddam. Within weeks he had created all the conditions for a Sunni insurgency in Iraq through a series of incredibly stupid executive orders. That insurgency was the incubator in which Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his private army, AQI/ISIL, were formed and developed. The current “Islamic State” traces its origins directly to Bremer’s first three months in office. While a civil war and an anti-American backlash were likely consequences of the invasion and occupation anyway, Bremer did everything imaginable to guarantee both.

Does it still seem reasonable, in light of the above, to blame the absence of American forces since 2011 for Iraq’s current plight? Add to all this theorizing the fact that insurgent violence and terrorism during the occupation was at its worst from 2004-06, with >100,000 coalition troops in the country – before the much hyped “surge” had taken place and before the 2011 withdrawal date had been set by the Bush administration. If the insurgency could not be contained with that level of military presence, on what basis can it be claimed that an extended troop presence would have helped? Add to that the equally important fact that even the puppet government we established under Maliki refused to allow any American troops to remain, so that if we had kept combat forces there they would likely have been dealing with a Shia threat perhaps equal to the Sunni insurgency.

There is simply no way one can argue from the facts that it was the withdrawal of American forces that paved the way for ISIL. On the contrary, it was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent occupation of Iraq and the policies pursued by the Bush administration and the occupying authorities which led to the ongoing tragedy that is Iraq today.