NMG in the WSJ
How to Talk About Iraq

TAI‘s own Nicholas M. Gallagher has a piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal looking at the postwar occupations of Japan and Germany—and drawing parallels with the occupation of Iraq:

Today the occupations of Germany and Japan are remembered as triumphs. But as Susan L. Carruthers argues in her well-researched new book, “The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace,” the reality was much more complicated—and darker—than that legend. Her book vividly illustrates the tumultuous period between 1945 and 1948, when Americans raised as isolationists suddenly found themselves in control of large swathes of the world and were ill-prepared to handle the mission at hand.[..]

Were the unpleasant aspects of the occupation in some way instrumental to its success? The use of food as a weapon at a time when starvation loomed, the mass relocation of populations, and the unsystematic looting that clearly demonstrated who was conqueror and who was conquered—these were all notable parts of our successful efforts to remake foreign political cultures with American military might. And unspoken but ever-present was the threat that American withdrawal would lead to Russian domination; Stalin’s recent conquest of Eastern Germany had been marked by widespread rape and summary execution. It would seem that, contra conventional wisdom on the left, occupation can change political cultures. But it may be that it can’t be done without deeply coercive measures that would ordinarily shock the conscience. This is a conclusion that Ms. Carruthers does not make, but on that is very difficult not to draw from her evidence.

This brings up the elephant in the room: Iraq. The author acknowledges America’s recent experience with occupation only once, sensibly letting the comparison speak for itself. In Iraq, the Bush administration wanted an occupation in order to achieve a liberal democracy—but couldn’t credibly threaten the coercive measures necessary to achieve it. Meantime, the left argued for walking away, which the Obama administration ultimately did. Suffice it to say, under these circumstances, the results were very different than they were after World War II.

It has been clear for some time that the Right needs to find a way to talk about what went wrong in Iraq. Donald Trump benefitted greatly by coming out against the war during the GOP primaries; that this was to the surprise of many conservative commentators shows just how much of a problem the spectre of Iraq had become for the Right. But Trump’s comments, which echoed the crudest critiques of the war (Bush “lied”) are not a template for other Republicans to follow with a clean conscience; nor did they offer a pathway to greater understanding of how mistakes were made and how to avoid them.

Lately, we’ve highlighted writers such as Jordan Hirsch who are made brave efforts to think in nuanced and serious terms on this subject. And it’s a good sign to see that Secretary of Defense-nominee Gen. Mattis, who won great distinction fighting the war but who of course had no role in planning it, has stated publicly that the war was “a mistake”; perhaps his confirmation hearings will allow for a greater clearing of the air.

One way to approach the subject is to consider the expectations the Bush Administration for what a post-war Iraq would and could look like—and why the results fell short. A good place to start is the postwar history of Japan and Germany, whose results the Bush Administration evoked, but did not match. With that in mind, it is well worth reading Gallagher’s whole piece.

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