American Enterprise Online
June 30, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

While it may be difficult amid car bombs, beheadings and gun battles to celebrate the rebirth of Iraq, we should keep things in perspective here.  

Iraq’s is not the first new government to draw the fire of radicals or reactionaries. Consider the mini-civil war in Moscow in the autumn of 1993, when Boris Yeltsin used tanks and artillery to put down a rebellion. Consider the state of Israel, which fought for its very life from its very first breath. Consider the administration of Abraham Lincoln, which came under assault even before his inauguration. Or consider what thirteen tiny colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America endured after declaring their independence. 

Change, like the struggle for freedom, is hard and painful and sometimes bloody. But it is often necessary. That’s especially true in Iraq’s neighborhood. 

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It’s just as important to recall that Iraq isn’t the first place the United States has been challenged to turn military victory into political success—and ultimately into a durable peace. US diplomats and troops are doing just that in the Balkans, and they have been for the better part of a decade. They’re doing the same on the Korean peninsula, and they have been for more than five decades.  

Of course, even better parallels are found in postwar Germany and Japan. There, as in Iraq, the enemy didn’t accept defeat easily. The Japanese fought on even after an atomic attack, although once the emperor surrendered US occupation forces were generally unchallenged. Veterans of occupation duty in Germany, however, recall how Nazi holdouts set booby-traps for the allies and strung barbwire across roads to decapitate US soldiers.  

Then, as now, the situation on the ground looked bleak, partly as a consequence of our own miscalculations. “Instead of coming in with a bold plan of relief and reconstruction,” a 1946 issue of Life magazine concluded, “we came in full of evasions and apologies.” As a consequence, according to Life’s gloomy correspondent, “We've lost the peace.”  

This premature doom-saying should serve as a reminder that building democracy on the ruins of terror and tyranny is no easy, but nor is it hopeless.  

Time does more than heal wounds; it also provides perspective. A month and a half ago, it appeared nothing was going right in Iraq. There was stalemate at the UN, fighting in Fallujah, evidence of US jailers running amok. Yet today, there’s cooperation among key powers, the emergence of courageous leaders in Iraq and tangible proof that America keeps its word.  

Even so, a year ago, few expected 700 Americans to fall after the fall of Baghdad. Of course, a decade ago, no one predicted that Saddam’s regime could be taken down and a friendly government installed at such a rapid pace and relatively low cost.  

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In a word, things are never quite as bad or good, easy or hard, as they appear at close range. For example, after the collapse of Hitler’s regime, British war hero Bernard Montgomery worried that Washington would win the war strategically but lose it politically. At the time, his assessment looked accurate:

In post-Nazi Europe and post-Tojo Asia, as in post-Baathist Iraq, new enemies emerged to spoil the victory—communist fifth columns in Italy, communist guerillas in Greece, a communist blockade in Berlin, communist labor strikes in Japan, communist troops plunging into Korea’s southern half. It’s little wonder why Ambassador Averell Harriman matter-of-factly predicted that “half or maybe all of Europe might be communist” by the end of 1946. He was either half-right or half-wrong. By 1950, with Europe’s eastern half consolidated by Stalin and China under the control of Mao, the National Security Council pointed out the obvious—that America’s enemies were “animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, that seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.”   

It doesn’t take a spin-doctor to argue that things looked worse after the defeat of Hitler and Tojo than they do now, after the ouster of Saddam. And you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the Don Rumsfeld Fan Club to make the case that Iraq is moving rather rapidly along the road to independence, at least when compared to the postwar nation-building operations in Germany and Japan.  

Recall that postwar Japan didn’t have a constitution for almost two years. (Postwar Iraq’s will be completed sometime next winter, with no input from General MacArthur.) As late as 1949, Washington was rushing $1 million a day in food and economic aid to Japan. And “sovereignty” wasn’t officially restored to Japan until 1952, a full seven years after its surrender.  

In Germany, it was even later: the Allied powers granted West Germany independence in 1955. However, the German people were anything but sovereign. Germany’s eastern half was under Soviet occupation, its western half under US, British and French. The prized Saar region was administered by France. The capital of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich was divided into four pieces. 

Even after Japan and Germany had earned back some semblance of sovereignty, the foreign troops remained, but only partly to “keep the Russians out.” Today, more than 100,000 US troops are stationed in Germany and Japan.  

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In other words, neither country ever became fully sovereign after the war they unleashed. And nor should we expect Iraq to become fully sovereign, as my SIPR colleague John Clark has observed. “After all,” he notes, “there hasn’t been a fully sovereign Iraqi government since 1991. The sovereign Iraqi government before that point invaded Kuwait and Iran, gassed its own people and the people of its neighbors, filled still-uncounted mass graves, devoted itself to the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.” In Clark’s view, this partial transfer of power now underway “ought to be embedded within a broader effort by the people and leaders of Iraq, the United States, the countries of the region, the UN, the world’s democratic countries, and others to devise a long-term diffusing and sharing of the rights and responsibilities implied by ‘sovereignty.’” 

As Iraq moves toward “semisovereignty,” US troops can and should help, just as they did in Japan and Germany.