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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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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    What was a mistake? The war or the hollow justifications for the war (WMD’s, democracy building, deposing Saddam)? The Iraq War was never a war of occupation such as Japan or Germany, but a war of containment to curtail the Islamic Revolution in Iran from spilling into our allies Saudi, Turkey and Paki. Occupation failed because the Iraqi Sunnis were removed from power and the Shiias installed in power but were infiltrated by Iranians who requested US forces to leave. Supposedly, the Sunnis thus morphed into ISIS but in reality ISIS was formed into a globalist force from mercenaries drawn from many Mideast nations and funded by Saudi, Qatar, etc. Now because of Obama’s further withdrawal from the Mideast (except for botched revolutionary regime change to our allies Egypt and to our enemies Syria and Libya) Turkey has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. If it wasn’t for Egyptians rising up against Obama’s regime change police and arresting the terrorist Brotherhood illegally gaining power in 2012, the Brotherhood would also hold Egypt.

    The Vietnam War was also a war of containment which was wildly successful at containing Communist Chinese expansionism even though it failed in a South Korea-like partition and occupation. The VN War allowed the Asian Tiger nations of Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore-Hong Kong and Japan (which fought in the war) to become Capitalist and our trading partners. A difference in the Middle East is that organized crime networks using religion as a false front and social control mechanism (Sharia) are resistant to Capitalism. They want oligarchy as well as giving religion a bad name to eventually eliminate it as a competitor in controlling the people.

    The Iraq War as a war of occupation is fake news and a fake narrative.

    • ljgude

      Some very provocative thinking there which I find myself agreeing with for the most part. I particularly like the caracterization of ISIL et al as organized crime networks. And I think your take on the Vietnam war is a much needed antidote to the standard claim that it was a US defeat pure and simple. The AI is good value and that is value added comment. Thanks.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        My point is taken from historian Patrick Hearden’s book “The Tragedy of Viet Nam”, wherein he explains the Viet Nam War was fought to protect Japan! (the domino effect). Imagine what South East Asia would look like if we had not repulsed Communist Chinese expansion in Viet Nam. All those nations would have been ruled by Duterte look-alikes by now.

  • Jmaci

    What if Obama had left troops and diplomats in Iraq to protect and shape a developing government? Would we be talking mistakes today? More likely we’d be talking about an Obama success story.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      The Iraqis did not want any residual US forces remaining in their country, so that wasn’t an option.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Utter nonsense….some elements of the Iraqi government (granted, the leadership certainly) laid that out as a starting point for negotiations, and an exhausted Bush administration (which simply had no interest in further political bloodletting over it) called their bluff. Obama found this entirely suitable, as he had no real interest in preserving an American achievement in Iraq (his entire foreign policy in the region was predicated on the premise that America could do no good there), so he declined to take any steps to alter the circumstances.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          I relied on which states as follows:

          “It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
          Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that”.

          Re: Bush, Clinton Play Blame Game in Iraq,, Aug. 13, 2015.

          • f1b0nacc1

            As I said earlier, Bush was hardly in any position (nor did he desire) to engage in political brinksmanship with the Iraqi government over a status of forces agreement, which was the core of the problem. Essentially the Iraqis were refusing to grant immunity to American forces in Iraq (something every other American presence in the world has as an essential part of its character), though several times they suggested that some ‘negotiation’ (i.e. bribes) might alter their position. Given the fragmented nature of the Iraqi government, it was unlikely that anything other than a deep commitment of time and political capital by Bush would have had any real impact, and he simply wasn’t interested in it (especially since the Democrats who dominated Congress at that time weren’t likely to support anything he did anyway) so late in his presidency. Rice’s statement pretty much supports this. Bush also tried to avoid tying the hands of the next administration (Rice also mentions this), as he felt that it wasn’t an appropriate thing for the outgoing administration to do.

            None of this would have prevented Obama from in fact taking a different position (it wouldn’t have been the first time, and he had been willing to reject Bush’s stands int he past), and instituting a far harder line with the Iraqis. The lack of a status of forces agreement was what prevented the US from keeping forces in Iraq, but there was no reason that the US could have simply stated that the forces were staying, and conditioned any further economic aid to the Iraqis (and lets be blunt, everyone was well aware of how much of that was being stolen by senior officials, so this sort of measure would have had enormous impact on their thinking) on cooperation with American forces. Tolerating the Iranian catspaws that were already in power was a courtesy we showed to a people who simply didn’t deserve it, and as a result, we threw away our achievements there.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            What do you guess would have been the reaction of the American public to staying in Iraq, given what happened in the Viet Nam war? I’m asking, I have no preconceived idea.

          • f1b0nacc1

            By 2008, I suspect that it would have been problematic, at best, but if it could be demonstrated that there was some motivation to it other than simply staying for its own sake, it could have been managed. Bush never tried to make a case for it, and Obama wasn’t interested in doing so, so we will never truly know.

            There is an old saying, “America can win any war it fights….for 3 1/2 years”, and I think that there is much truth in that. Take a look at WWII, by the end of the war, war weariness and desire to simply end it on any terms whatsoever was beginning to become a serious problem.

            Happy New Year!

  • ljgude

    I was amused to read that Carruthers’ book is a product of today’s PC academia which thinks black soldiers in WW2 suffered microagressions. I remember 1946 when it was socially acceptable to go shoot up what we now call ‘The Hood’. It was sometimes euphemistically called ‘the boys having some fun.’ Yet the book apparently is well researched from primary sources and shows that the occupations of Germany and Japan were indeed more complex and dark. Valuable research but not a complete surprise to anyone alive at the time because the positive legend that the book questions was not the view I picked up from the returning veterans I knew or even the popular TV programs like Sgt Bilko or MacHale’s Navy which routinely celebrated the fundamentally larcenous nature of the American soldier. And if you had ears to listen to the more candid vets and civilian survivors of the war, the use of food as a tool of coercion and the sexual goings on were there to see. But to the main point of this article I have to say I am skeptical of the direct comparison of the occupations of ww2 and Iraq because they were very different wars. One with clear objectives – the other with mixed objectives having to do with the war on terror and a democracy spreading project. I’m still confused and bemused. While I doggedly supported Bush right through the war I recognized that the surge was an amazingly successful attempt to reverse a mistake. Bush’s failure to insist to Iraq that the troops were staying – he had an army there so I don’t think insisting was impossible – and Obama’s consistent and absolute lack of interest in staying lead to the current schlimazel. So I welcomed Trump’s admission – it was clear that the Iraq adventure had ended in chaos and that needed to be acknowledged.

  • Grey Spectrum

    Here’s an archived link in case anyone can’t read the article on the WSJ:

    A few points that stood out to me:

    “At times, Ms. Carruthers, who is a professor of history at
    Rutgers-Newark, uses academic, P.C. language in ways that are jarring.
    What was “micro-,” exactly, about the aggressions suffered by black
    troops in a Jim Crow-era military? Likewise, discussions of sexist
    language seem anachronistic and frivolous given that her subject is the
    aftermath of the most destructive war in human history.”

    “I also wish she had grasped the nettle more firmly on a central
    question: Were the unpleasant aspects of the occupation in some way
    instrumental to its success?”

    My impression after reading the WSJ article is that the book itself has a very different thesis than Gallagher’s article and interpretation. Still, I’ve been wondering for a while what was so different about the allied occupation of Japan and Germany, compared to the occupation of Iraq. In that sense I’m glad to have been pointed in a promising direction.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Unasked, let me suggest that there were two key points about American/Allied occupations following WWII that led them to be fundamentally different from those in Iraq.

      1) The Japanese and Germans were utterly defeated, and there was very, very little attempt to sugarcoat this reality. The old political structures were left in place ONLY where they served allied interests, and even then they were closely monitored. The notion that we could simply hand over the government to these former enemies as quickly as possible (and then without any significant supervision) was never considered, for what should have been obvious reasons. These were defeated enemies, and though we were merciful, it was made crystal clear that they were spared far worse on our sufferance and nothing more.

      2) The occupation had a geostrategic purpose that guaranteed that the Americans wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, and this was never in any doubt. The almost palpable desire of the Americans to bug out of Iraq as quickly as possible undercut any real influence that we had after our victory there, and prevented us from establishing any reliable clients in the way we were able to in both Germany and Japan.

      Sadly, hindsight suggests (and I say this as someone who supported the principle of democratization of Iraq at the time) that our biggest mistake was treating what was never going to be a long involvement as anything other than the incursion that it should have been. A short, extremely destructive and violent engagement, with far less forgiving ROE would have saved American lives, achieved the goals of destroying a hostile force, and then allowed us to leave quickly. The phrase “rubble don’t make trouble” comes immediately to mind, and applying it in Iraq would likely have been a far better approach. The blood and treasure to try to transform a group of theocracy-soaked peasants into a modern democratic state were wasted on a useless, if noble ambition, and it was not worth the life of a single American soldier. Recognizing these people for what they are may not be particularly pleasant, but it would have saved lives and resources for both parties to the conflict.

      • Disappeared4x

        fwiw, “theocracy-soaked peasants” describes Afghanistan*, not Iraq, where literacy in 2003 was 84%. Saddam’s Baathist rule was also secular, why there were 1.2 mil Christians living in peace until the US invaded. Possible that is why Bush43 thought Iraq2 would be easier to ‘democratize’. One of the many occupation mistakes: Should not have sent in so many young MBAs wanting to privatize a socialist economy. Developing a stock exchange was early priority.
        I always add that, in postWW2 Germany and Japan, the Allies re-wrote the textbooks. Seems that was last time textbooks got re-written as a force of good.
        The USA’s restrictive ROE are the legacy of the Geneva Accords.
        *In 2001, only 21% of Afghan children, all male were in formal schools. By 2012, 97%, including almost 3 million girls.
        By 2016, Afghan literacy <40%
        The USA still debating Vietnam War. Iraq2 will create similar jobs program for pundits.

        • f1b0nacc1

          With the exception of a very small (<15% of the population, coincidentally the part that most Westerners saw) portion, most of Iraq was indeed composed of theocracy-soaked peasants, thought you are quite correct that Afghanistan was even worse. The notion of things like democracy was alien to them, particularly since the very concept is antithetical to totalitarian religions like Islam. Worse still, the culture was family and clan based, so things like the rule of law (essential for economic freedoms) was nonexistent as well…

          Rewriting the textbooks never struck me as a particularly good idea, as it established a precedent that has endured to this day.

          The current ROE far exceed what is required by Geneva, and in fact have virtually nothing to do with them, and far more to do with the utopia musings of many of Obama's advisers, few of whom have any understanding of military reality. The micromanagement and intrusion by JAGs in virtually all kinetic planning is a legacy of the toxic mix of bureaucracy and technology, not some enlightened approach to conflict…

          Couldn't agree with you more regarding the 'full employment' aspect…analysis of these sorrowful conflicts will keep lots of PhDs in the business for years to come!

          Sending children to schools is of course desirable, but not in and of itself proof of much. By that standard, Saudi-funded madrassas would be preferable to war….

      • Dale Fayda

        You bring up several good points in your post.

        Another important factor to consider when evaluating the after-effects of an occupation of an actively hostile enemy country is the old “force to space” ratio. Taking your example of Allied occupation of Germany, it was a country slightly larger than Wisconsin inundated by an occupation force of many hundreds of thousands, especially in its eastern parts, where the Soviet Army had enormous numbers of troops immediately after Germany’s surrender. Moreover, the Soviets and to to a large extend the Allies, had immediately implemented a policy of de-Nazification, which in the former case effectively amounted to a campaign of systematic shootings, imprisonment and deportation of large swaths of the population, along with a policy (official and unofficial) of stripping Germany of all movable assets, from factory equipment to prize cattle to dishes and door knobs. The NKVD and SMERSH did not play around.

        Under these circumstances, no effective organized resistance to the Soviets and the Allies was even remotely possible.

        The reverse was the case in Iraq – a much larger and less accessible country than Germany occupied with a much smaller military force, which was further handcuffed by restrictive ROE. To put it in simpler terms, there was a constant shortage of infantry to effectively occupy ground and to consolidate military and political gains. As I commented before on this site, where the US military sat, things were reasonably OK; where it didn’t, there was nothing to prevent the insurgents from taking the initiative.

        The Surge had largely corrected that and at the end of Bush’s term, Iraq was largely quiescent. Even a token US military and diplomatic presence could have prevented the rise of ISIS, but Obama had a re-election to win and Bush’s policies to reverse, which brings us to the charnel house that Iraq still is today.

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