Liberation Will Be No Cakewalk: Lessons for the Iraqi Future from Past Experience

As the Bush Administration ponders the invasion of Iraq and what to do in its aftermath, some are suggesting that the liberation of Japan and Europe could be models for future American behavior.

As the Bush Administration ponders the invasion of Iraq and what to do in its aftermath, some are suggesting that the liberation of Japan and Europe could be models for future American behavior. Before we get too carried away with images of Iraqis joyously welcoming the United States Army as it marches into Baghdad and casting the Commander of CENTCOM, General Tommy Franks, in the role of proconsul, it is useful to recall that the conditions at the end of World War II were volatile and that the successful transition of Germany and Japan into thriving democracies was not without pain and danger. Generals Lucius Clay and Douglas MacArthur, the two generals who were in charge, respectively, of the American sector of occupied Germany and Japan, had different tasks and achieved them in different ways.

The liberation of Europe from Nazi domination coincided with a new struggle with the central and eastern regions under the de facto control of the Red Army. To the west, the liberation of France in the summer of 1944 (while welcomed by the majority of the population) was accompanied by one of the most brutal episodes in recent French history. In the wake of the allied military victories, the French turned on each other. Over a period of a few months there were over 9,000 extrajudicial killings during what became known as the "purge", or l'epuration. Collaborators, real and imagined, were summarily executed, often by French communists bent on a power grab of their own. In many cases individuals used the occasion to settle personal scores and eliminate rivals. There is no reason to believe that similar passions will not be unleashed in Iraq. Given the hatred of the repressed groups, especially the Shi'a, towards their predominantly Sunni masters, it is likely that there will be much blood-letting unless the United States occupies the country with sufficiently large ground forces to be capable of assuming the responsibilities of policeman as well as peacekeeper and liberator.

For a year and a half after VE day in May 1945, Europe teetered on the brink of chaos. The United States withdrew much of its military might soon after the war. Conditions were so bad that France, Italy, and Greece were on the verge of becoming communist. Europe experienced an energy crisis so severe that Britain, still one of the "Big Three", was forced to abandon its military presence in Greece and Turkey and accelerate its departure from India and Palestine. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were announced in March and June 1947, not as a response to the defeat of Germany, but because of the Cold War and the political crises that followed liberation.

In Japan it was a different story. What made MacArthur's task more manageable was his wise decision not to prosecute the Emperor, but rather have the Emperor announce that cooperation with the occupying forces was a duty for all Japanese. Since the Japanese were a very homogeneous society and revered the Emperor, his word was final and accepted. Japan overnight became a pacifist society. We assume that Saddam Hussein is not revered by the Iraqis (despite his recent unanimous re-election) but loathed. It is clear that the Bush Administration does not plan to "save" him and give him a chance to redeem his people. Morever, Iraq is a very heterogeneous society, totally unlike Japan. It is hard to imagine Iraqis behaving in as docile a manner as the Japanese.

We are right to feel proud of the achievements in Europe and Japan after the great victories of 1945. But we should be wary of romantic notions that a quick military victory against Iraq will enable us to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East according to our preferences. It is true there will be no "Red Army" to contend with, but to be complacent about the future role and behavior of Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, Syria, and the small Gulf countries, will be to commit an act of extreme hubris. There is little to suggest these countries share our earnest desire to reshape the region in our own image. Instead, their capacity to create trouble for us is almost unlimited. Of particular concern is the potential for serious confrontations between Turkey and the Kurds of Northern Iraq over the control of the rich city of Kirkuk.

Military victory does not preordain successful reconstruction. In 1945, there were no guarantees that Japan and Germany would emerge as peaceful, democratic nation-states (and the eastern portion of Germany did not share in the benefits until 1990). We should be very cautious in projecting a prosperous and peaceful post-Saddam Iraq simply because we were successful fifty years ago. Realistic assessments--not nostalgic memories--should guide the development of American policy.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. During the first Reagan Administration, he served as a Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and as Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff.