Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dueling Democracies: Japan and Iraq

In his speech in Cleveland yesterday, President Bush tried once (again) to defend the failed occupation of Iraq by evoking the ghosts of wars past (again). Particularly, Bush and his fellow conservative war hawks like to focus on World War II, due to the conservative belief that it was the ultimate example of a "noble" war. They romanticize it as the valiant struggle of the forces of good over the forces of evil, which fits perfectly into George W. Bush's vision of a comic book world. Thus, the examples from World War II get trotted out in support of the current debacle in the Middle East, in hopes of channeling nostalgia for the "Great War" into support for the "Long War".

For example (from The Ministry of Truth):

We've seen freedom conquer evil and secure the peace before. In World War II, free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism, and freedom prevailed. And today, Germany and Japan are democracies -- and they are allies in securing the peace.


History has proven that democracies can change societies. The classic case I like to cite is Japan.


Sixty years ago, Japan was the sworn enemy of the United States. Today, they're an ally in peace. And what took place? Well, what took place was a Japanese-style democracy.

Bush keeps trying to establish that Iraq will become a peaceful democracy because Japan became a peaceful democracy, which ignores any and all historical context between the two situations. I think it would be instructive to look at two of the key factors affecting the possibility of democracy in each nation as well as the character that democracy might take.


Japan actually had a functioning democracy from the 1890's until the rise of Tojo's military dictatorship in the 1930's. Japan's government was made up of many political parties, with the prime minister's cabinet and the representative Diet working in a bi-cameral fashion. Note that voting rights were restricted to men only, though Japan was the first Asian democracy to extend sufferage to women. The samurai class of old eventually evolved into the political class of the modern day. It's worth noting that even during the Tojo war years, dissent still existed within the Diet against the war with China and the United States.

Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, until control passed to the British following Britain's invasion during World War I. After the war, the British merged the provinces of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad into what is now modern Iraq. After forcefully putting down an Iraqi revolt in 1920, the British installed deposed Syrian emir Faysal I as king of Iraq, under the requirements that it be essentially a constitutional monarchy. While a bi-cameral legislature did form, it remained unstable throughout the monarchy's existence, and become more authoritarian as time went on. The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy led to a brief period of republican government, though sectarian conflict between Arabs and Kurds, Shias and Sunnis was common. This sectarian strife led to a souring among the Iraqi people for the political process, allowing for the rise of a military dictatorship ruled by Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party.

U.S. Occupation

Following the surrender of Japan, an occupation by the United States was decided upon, with General Douglas MacArthur acting as Supreme Allied Commander of the country. MacArthur chose to use the existing Japanese government, under his direct control, as an intermediary with the people. This included leaving the Emperor as symbolic leader of the nation, though MacArthur required an American-style democracy be formed.

The first Japanese constitution was rejected by MacArthur, who then tasked his own bureaucrats to create one more in line with U.S. interests. Former prime minister Tojo and several members of his cabinet were executed for war crimes, while the entire Japanese military was disbanded and barred from entering the political arena. Further, the U.S.-written constitution explicitly forbade the Japanese government from granting itself any war-making powers in the future. Government-controlled corporations were broken up and privatized, while government establishment of shinto as the state religion was abolished. MacArthur also forced a liberalization of Japanese social policies, including granting expanded civil rights and establishing trade unions. MacArthur required the release of all political prisoners and the granting of sufferage to women voters.

The Japanese may have been more open to such changes for several reasons. First, they had fought a disastrous war with the Allies, losing over 3 million people and two major cities. Also, the armed U.S. presence essentially enforced martial law throughout the country. Finally, the historical groundwork for democracy already existed; MacArthur used his authority to liberalize and modernize the Japanese government and economy in the same model as the United States.

The invasion of Iraq was predicated upon questionable weapons intelligence and the belief by the Bush administration that the regime of Saddam Hussein represented a clear and present danger to the United States. Once the invasion repudiated White House claims about the dangers of the Hussein regime, the justification changed to building a democratic Iraq, under the pretense of "spreading freedom and democracy". Iraq was originally governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, a largely U.S.-run political organization comprised of Republican party loyalists and Bush appointees. While the standing military of Iraq was disbanded, the police force was reformed under the guidance and training of the U.S. military. The level of training and competency of the Iraqi police force has varied widely, with optimistic reports from the Pentagon contrasting notably with reports from in country. Reports have also surfaced of the police force being used as an instrument for sectarian reprisal.

The Iraqi constitution was written by the provisional Iraqi government, following numerous delays. While it does establish a democratic government, it also enshrines a great portion of Islamic sharia law into the government, which has caused concerns about further sectarian conflict and civil rights violations. While Iraq has undergone several elections since the U.S. invasion, the new parliament has managed to meet only once, and no coalition government has yet formed. Sectarian violence has continued, prompting former Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to proclaim the violence a civil war. The Bush administration continues to espouse the belief in a "stand up" by the Iraqi military, in clear contrast to the prohibition against such in Japan.

The differences between Japan and Iraq could easily be expanded from here into a full thesis, which I certainly don't intend to write. The point is that the situations prior to a peaceful democracy rising in each nation are completely different. Even Japan, which had the infrastructure and the conditions favorable for a democracy, took 7 years to fully self-govern again. Iraq has none of the same advantages. Many conservatives, including the President, seem unable (or unwilling) to recognize that democracy is worlds more than just a national election. Iraq has none of the institutions of democracy such as Japan had after WWII, and the kinds of comparisons Bush continues to make between the two are pointless.

In closing, I have to say that I don't believe that democracy is unattainable for Iraq. But I also believe that it is probably many years and much hardship away from today. Bush and his supporters have an almost religious misconception of democracy, which completely belies the reality of the world in which we live. Democracies are not inherently peaceful, nor are they proof against internal strife. The Union and the Confederacy were both democracies that left over 600,000 Americans dead from a civil war. Bush's comparisons serve no other purpose than to rose-tint his Iraq disaster in the eyes of his supporters for whom World War II is remembered as a glorious victory for the "good guys", rather than a global catastrophe that left millions upon millions dead. It's nothing but cheap political pandering to the delusional armchair war hawks, for whom the death and struggle of other people's children bring a kind of macho catharsis. There is no such gilded edge to the horror of war, either in 1945 Japan or modern day Iraq.

All the wishing in the world cannot make Iraq the noble adventure Bush wishes it were...

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