Iraq is not Japan

October 17, 2002

GEN. DOUGLAS MacArthur oversaw the postwar occupation of Japan from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. An ideal spot, in the heart of the city, overlooking the Imperial Palace. The proximity to the palace proved fortuitous to the general's mission, for his success in reforming Japan after its surrender in 1945 could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of the reigning emperor, Hirohito.

General MacArthur recognized the cultural and historical significance of the emperor in Japanese society. And rather than put the emperor on trial for war crimes, the Allied supreme commander engineered Hirohito's support for the democratization of Japan. As the emperor went, so went the nation.

That is but one of the dynamics of the Allies' success in postwar Japan for which there is no comparable element in a postwar occupation of Iraq. In the past week, the Bush administration has invoked the Japanese model in proposing an American-led occupation of Iraq. While it's encouraging to know that the president and his war hawks may actually have a plan for Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall, Iraq presents more problems than prospects for success.

The Japanese comparison only highlights the pitfalls. Unlike Iraq, with its diverse ethnic groups, Japan is and was a homogenous nation whose citizens supported the government, respected the rule of law and revered the emperor. Though fiercely nationalistic and militaristic, the Japanese understood that once the emperor renounced his status as a near-deity, their duty was to follow him. To accept occupation rule. To embrace their future as a demilitarized democracy.

No leader in Iraq or in the exile community commands that loyalty. Nothing in Iraqi history or culture suggests a preference for consensus, which is a hallmark of Japanese society. On the contrary, Iraq is a tribal society with fractious and feuding clans. Kurds control the north. Shiite Muslims dominate the south. Sunni Muslims and a Christian minority occupy Baghdad and its surroundings.

While Japan suffered the worst military assault imaginable in the 20th century -- nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the nation accepted its fate. Rather than exact revenge, the Japanese channeled their energies into rebuilding the country, which eventually gained influence and power through its economic prowess.

In Iraq, years of war and economic sanctions from the 1991 Persian Gulf war have decimated the middle class. It will take years for Iraqi society to reclaim its reputation as the most secular and educated Arab nation in the Mideast. A military dictatorship has governed the Iraqis for four decades. To whom they will pledge allegiance in a post-Hussein world is anyone's guess.

The regime's oil fields, once rehabilitated, would fuel an economic recovery in Iraq unlike anything in Japan. But restoring the political well-being of this country of 20 million people will be as problematic as rebuilding its infrastructure. And Iraq is hardly an island nation.

A large, U.S.-led occupying force in Iraq could cause problems for Arab leaders in the region where anti-Western feeling runs high. The Bush plan would need the cooperation of its allies there to have a chance at success.

The American experience in Japan was unique. General MacArthur accomplished a great deal during his stewardship of the country -- including demilitarizing the nation, implementing a bill of rights, establishing free elections, reforming land policy and empowering the economy. It took him five years.

Is the Bush administration prepared for a commitment that could take twice as long?

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