Draw from past in postwar Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Robert D. Hormats

PRESIDENT BUSH has compared postwar reconstruction in Iraq to that of Germany and Japan after World War II. The comparison is apt. In particular, America's experience in Germany offers valuable lessons for today's planners.

Then-Secretary of State James F. Byrnes described America's aims: "to win the German people ... it was a battle between us and the Russians over minds."

This time, the battle over minds will be with Islamic radicalism. America's success or failure in Iraq will have a crucial impact on that battle throughout the Middle East and worldwide.

Differences between postwar Germany and postwar Iraq are as instructive as the similarities.

Unlike Iraq, Germany had democratic institutions before the takeover of the Nazis, and a modern economy. Germany had longstanding ties of immigration, culture and trade with the United States. Many Americans spoke German; many had visited there.

U.S. forces entered Germany as an army of occupation. This time, the United States wants its forces to be received by Iraqis and seen by others as liberators. Therefore, U.S. authorities may be less willing than in Germany to demand wholesale political and social re-engineering. Enlisting U.N. and multilateral support for reform could reduce the need for unilateral pressure.

Despite obvious differences, many of the postwar challenges are similar.

In 1945, Germans suffered wretched hunger, sickness and poverty. Millions roamed in search of shelter, food and jobs. In Iraq, millions already face shortages of food and medicine. War could make these worse, especially by disrupting the oil-for-food distribution system on which 16 million Iraqis depend for subsistence.

If Iraq's fragile power infrastructure is damaged, hospitals, sewage systems and water treatment plants will fail. Wars with Iran and Kuwait and Saddam Hussein's brutality have created many refugees. A new war, plus score-settling and retribution, will add many more.

Germany had to be de-Nazified, demilitarized and purged of war criminals. Iraq will have to be de-Baathified, its military thinned and war criminals punished. But disqualifying too many civilian officials could be counterproductive. U.S. authorities needed skilled and untarnished Germans to help run the country. They must find a similar group of Iraqis. And they must support Iraqi reformers, just as they did German reformers such as Ludwig Erhard, who created the postwar German market economy.

The United States pressed Germany to create a new government structure that would prevent authoritarian power from re-emerging yet be strong enough to avoid disintegration. In Iraq, it will want to see authority diffused, but not so much that Baghdad loses the ability to maintain the country's territorial integrity. A security architecture was built to provide Germany a place in Europe that did not threaten its neighbors. The same will be needed in the Persian Gulf.

What can be learned from the occupation of Germany that will help in Iraq?

The United States and its allies were unprepared for the widespread hunger, disease and malnutrition that staggered Germany after the war. Much of Europe and Asia experienced similar conditions, so Germans got little sympathy.

Today, the United States will be judged harshly if a comparable humanitarian disaster befalls Iraqis. Immediate and massive assistance for the malnourished, wounded and uprooted will be required. U.S., U.N. and private relief agencies should be preparing a major effort.

Even with Germany's skilled and democratically experienced population, a new government structure had to be constructed from the bottom up.

First, elections were held in the states. Then governors in the western occupation zones met to fashion broader administrative institutions. Representatives to a German economic council were elected by the states to oversee reconstruction. Four years after the war, state delegations met to draft a West German constitution. Only then were parliamentary elections held.

A similar bottom-up approach could lead to the creation of an Iraqi federal government that represents geographic rather than ethnic or communal interests. In the absence of democratic experience, this should start with discussions about responsibilities of voters and elected officials. Electing an economic council to oversee reconstruction and oil matters would help dispel the myth that the war was fought to control oil.

Reparations and debt repayments could cripple a recovery in Iraq. Rescheduling or forgiveness will be needed. The United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should lay the groundwork now. Oil revenues should be used for humanitarian and reconstruction purposes. Using them to support U.S. forces or pay war costs would undermine reconstruction, as did German reparations.

If American peacekeeping and reconstruction is conducted well, and a moderate, progressive government takes root, Iraq and the entire Middle East will be far better places - as Germany and Europe are today.

Failure would undermine U.S. credibility and influence in much of the world, as it would have in Germany more than 50 years ago.

Robert D. Hormats, a Baltimore native and vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International), was a senior economic official in the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations.

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