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The US must fight a complex society to win a lasting peace in Iraq

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 30 May 2003

In Iraq the United States is now re-learning the lesson it first had to learn in 1945: that while military victory over an oppressive regime is one thing, the successful conduct of a postwar occupation and transition to local rule is another entirely.

The closest historical parallel to the challenges faced by the occupiers of Iraq is probably that of postwar Japan. Not Germany, because the Germans were Europeans, nominal Christians, and were well represented in the flood of European migration that helped create the United States. The Japanese were far more "alien" to their American occupiers (and vice-versa) than were the Germans.

It took the Americans and their fellow-occupiers in Japan the best part of six years to create conditions under which it was felt safe to return the country to domestic rule. Nevertheless, while the Japanese version of liberal democracy has always contained some elements of sham or tokenism, the goal of getting the Japanese to renounce military aggression and conquest was successfully achieved. So successfully, in fact, as to substantially frustrate later American efforts to have Japan rearm and play a larger part in US Cold War (and now, coalition) strategy.


What this tells us about Iraq is that we are unlikely to see a full-on liberal democracy there any time soon - though we may get the forms and of course the end of Saddam-style repression will be welcome - but that any sane Iraqi government will probably not be interested in more warfare. As with the Japanese, one can hope that the Iraqi people have had a sufficiency of war for a long time to come. They have after all had to endure Saddam's gratuitous war on Iran, the disaster of the 1991 Kuwaiti adventure and, most recently, foreign invasion and conquest.

But a lengthy US occupation of Iraq is unlikely to conduce to internal or regional stability. The Iraqis appear much less willing than the Japanese to accept foreign occupiers, one reason probably being the complete destruction of the old regime. In Japan, the US wisely kept the Emperor who, in return for his position, legitimised by his commands the actions of the occupiers: there is no such domestic authority figure in Iraq. Nor indeed was there one prior to the US conquest: one could hardly imagine Saddam Hussein as a latter-day Hirohito.

Iraq is, moreover, far less homogenous a polity than Japan. With both religious (Sunni, Shia) and ethnic (Arab, Kurd) divisions, the country is hard to govern. All indigenous regimes have found it so; the US will certainly find likewise.

Moreover, the politically necessary commitment to democratic forms poses difficult problems for Washington in Iraq. What if the Shia majority wins elections and seeks to set up a theocracy, oppressing Sunnis and Kurds alike? What if, instead, a Sunni/Shia alliance wins elections on a platform of removing the occupiers, no foreign military bases in Iraq and an anti-Western (but not aggressive) foreign policy? Should the occupiers annul the elections? Would they dare?

Yet it is clear that the American strategy for the Gulf region now involves shifting much of its military presence from Saudi Arabia - whose credibility, especially on the terrorist issue, is increasingly thin - to Iraq. The US wants important bases in Iraq over the long haul, just as it did in both Germany and Japan. Its interest in Iraq now goes beyond emasculating the country's military potential; it sees Iraq as a bastion of Western power in the region. Has anyone considered whether the Iraqis will wear this?

Whether one can exclude the growth in Iraq of a militant anti-Westernism is difficult to say but I find it hard to credit that an American military presence will ever be more than grudgingly endured by even the most moderate of Iraqi patriots.


Thus it is likely that Washington will be challenged by significant contradictions between its desire to promote Iraqi democracy and its desire for long-tenure bases. It seems to me that the ongoing presence of American forces in Iraq - even once the country is returned to civilian Iraqi administration - will be a constant irritant.

The Americans will need to be especially careful when it comes to the collection, management and distribution of Iraqi oil export revenue. The slightest hint of an attempt to defray war or occupation costs from this revenue could destroy Western credibility in the region (such as it is) for years to come.

The ongoing lack of ordinary civic order in Iraq can now only lie at the door of the occupiers. If you conquer a country you are thereafter responsible for law and order. The US is winning no local friends with its manifest reluctance to commit the resources necessary to put an end to lootings and other disorders. One could say: if you are going to occupy the place, at least get the basics right.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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