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America as Occupier: The Iraq War

July 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: The attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq now come at a rate averaging one every two hours. Most of the incidents are not deadly, but 38 American soldiers and marines have been killed in action since major fighting was declared over May 1. Last week, U.S. Military leaders said for the first time that the ambushes amount to “guerrilla tactics.” General John Abizaid heads the U.S. Central command.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, Commander, U.S. Central Command: We’re seeing a cellular organization of six to eight people armed with RPG’s, machine guns, et cetera, attacking us at times and places of their choosing. And other times, we attack them at times and places of our choosing. They are receiving financial help from probably regional-level leaders. And I think describing it as guerrilla tactics being employed against us is, you know, a proper thing to describe in strictly military terms.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. commanders warn the attacks will continue, and that the U.S. troop level in Iraq– about 150,000– will remain in place until next year. Ultimately, the American-led occupation could last two, even four years, Abizaid’s predecessor, General Tommy Franks, said earlier this month. Meanwhile, a new report from a team of Pentagon advisors says the U.S. window of opportunity for success in Iraq is closing, and that next three months will be crucial to reversing the instability. The report says coalition security forces in Iraq are inadequate, and that the provision of basic services requires more international help and more financial investment. On the ground, there’s ongoing unrest. Today in Baghdad, a group of Shiite Muslims called on the Americans to leave. It was similar to a protest in the Shiite’s holy city of Najaf yesterday. Still, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, reported progress during appearances on several Sunday news programs, notably the formation of an Iraqi governing council picked by the U.S. members of the group will attend a U.N. Security Council debate on Iraq tomorrow.

L. PAUL BREMER, Postwar Iraq Administrator: I think it’s clear that given the size of the task, we’re going to be there for a while. I don’t know how many years. Of course, in terms of what I’m in charge of, which is the coalition authority, there is a pretty clear timetable. We took the first step last week with the selection of a governing council, which is the first time the Iraqis have had a representative group. We’ll get a constitutional process started here in the next couple of months. Once a constitution is written and we have elections, we’ll get a sovereign Iraqi government, and at that point the coalition’s job is done. There may still be a need for security forces, but at least the civilian coalition authority, which I head, will then, at that point, hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government. If all goes well, it could be as early as next year. It depends how long it takes the Iraqis to write a constitution. Really, the timing of the coalition’s stay there is now in Iraqi hands.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bremer said last week that when democracy arrives in Iraq, coalition forces will depart.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we take a longer view: Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: We explore the role of the U.S. as occupier now with four historians: NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss, Bruce Jentleson of Duke University, Carol Gluck of Columbia University, and John Dower of MIT.

Well, guests, the beginning of the American occupation has sent people scrambling for their history books. Professor Jentleson, a worthwhile exercise?

BRUCE JENTLESON: Well, I think to a certain extent it is, but you have to both look at the lessons we’ve learned from the past, and also in a way the world is so different today. Bus even some things that may have succeeded in the past, the circumstances in Iraq are very, very different than, for example, in post World War II Germany or Japan.


BRUCE JENTLESON: Well, there are a number of differences. One, I think, is that the occupations in both those countries had a strong degree of international acceptance. There is a sense that after winning the war the United States had the right to be there and that we were representing the interests of the world. Second is domestically there wasn’t a lot of challenge within either country to the United States being there. And also both countries were largely homogeneous compared to a country like Iraq. And third, and in some ways most insidious, is we didn’t have the problems of weapons proliferation then that we have today, whether we’re talking about AK-47’s, suicide bombers, or anything like that, you didn’t have American civilian officials or soldiers being killed in anything like we’re seeing in Iraq. So the circumstances are really very different, which is part of the reason why some of the analogies that were drawn by the administration to the past were really very glib and not very helpful for guiding policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Glib and not very helpful for guiding policy, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think one criticism you can make is this, and that is that when President Bush and the administration were trying to get Americans to support this war before the war began, I felt at the time and said so that one of the things that they would have to do is to say only half of the problem is to win this war, and probably the easier half, if we take the responsibility on Iraq, this could be something that could take a long time, a lot of sacrifice, money, American lives. We Americans would have to have staying power. And I think one way you can very much criticize this president is to say that he did not before the war began say, you know, this is part of the job and it may take a very long time. So if you’re an American making a decision on whether to go to war or not, you should keep in your mind that a large part of this question is, are you also going to support an occupation that could conceivably take years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if you describe that as almost a necessary precondition, in other times in America’s history when we have had long-term occupations of other countries, have the leaders in place at those times done what you just suggested?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, they haven’t. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, at the time of World War II was focused on winning the war, made it clear that there would have to be an occupation, but for instance in Germany he was asked how long we would have American troops in Europe, he said maybe a year or two. I think he knew in his mind it was likely that it would take longer, but what he was speaking to was the fact that Americans do not like to think of themselves as occupiers, we don’t like to think of ourselves as an empire. We don’t have a history of long occupations. He knew that even after a war as popular as world war ii, the people would say bring the troops home.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there something, Professor Gluck, that’s quantifiably different about the mission here? In recent times when the United States has intervened militarily in countries, we’ve handed the job over to an international consortium, in the case of the United Nations in some places, our al rice in the case of NATO assistance in the Balkans. Is America going it alone making this, or almost alone so far, making this just a very different proposition?

CAROL GLUCK: What makes it a different proposition, it seems to me, is that it’s a very different time and it’s a very different place. And the analogy that’s been referred to that’s been made not only by the administration but by so many people to the success as it’s said of the American occupation of Japan and Germany is historically deficient, it ignores the difference in time and place. And if I were to state the largest difference, it would be that what succeeded in Japan and Germany, the parts of the occupation that were successful, were due to what was already there on the ground among the Japanese and German people, the institutions, and also the will. So that the idea that America succeeded in bringing democracy to Japan and Germany is actually kind of an insult to the facts of the time. So the biggest difference to me is that this analogy overlooks the situation, the time and the place today. That means America today, Iraq today, Afghanistan today.

RAY SUAREZ: But when you say that the institutions were already in place in Japan and Germany, weren’t we dealing with countries that had long-term governments that was found, were found by the United States to be noxious, a Nazi philosophy that reached all the way down to the smallest post office in the most rural area, a militarist cult in Japan, and a cult around the emperor that we found troublesome to building a democratic state? Can you also make a mistake exaggerating in the other direction, that there was a lot we wanted to keep about Japan and Germany in 1945?

CAROL GLUCK: Wait a minute, because we weren’t the only people who found those regimes noxious. That is to say there are a number of, a lot of Germans and a lot of Japanese who were happy to be, as it was said in 1945, liberated by the Americans. And when I say that they are building on institutions and popular will of the past, I mean that Germany before 1933, the Weimar Republic or Japan during the 1920s– an era that’s called “Taisho” Democracy– were constitutional governments. So that you were, what America did– and it did succeed in doing– was facilitating and supporting, with its enormous power, the power of a victor over a defeated nation in both cases, facilitating the forces, however small, however large they were, that wanted to move in the direction of building on those democratic institutions of the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dower, aren’t American forces right now, both civilian and military, engaged in the process of trying to figure out what to keep about old Ba’athist Iraq and what to make sure is replaced and swept away?

JOHN DOWER: Well, it’s difficult for me to say what American administrators in Iraq are thinking today, because I’m not sure that any of us know whether they really had this kind of planning ahead of time. One of the great differences in the case of Japan was that the Americans had done planning for the occupation of Japan beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor. And by the 19… the end of the war by 1944 or so, they were doing very serious planning for what they would do in Japan once hostilities ended. One of the things that was very clear in the case of Japan was that the government in Japan would be intact. It was a formal war; the Americans made clear that they would negotiate the end of the war with the emperor when the emperor, who had declared war, announced that the war was over.

This was a formal act that the Japanese people accepted. And they were exhausted. They had been fighting and dying since the late 1930s. And the Americans were able to move in to an intact government– that’s a striking difference from the present– and to a government which had accepted their presence as a formal condition of the surrender that the emperor and the Japanese government had accepted and announced. Once they got in there, as Professor Gluck has said, they were able to work with various groups within the society– both at the government level and at the grassroots level– who in one way or another really were committed to starting over, and really welcomed the end of what had been seven or eight years of enormous losses in war. The Japanese casualties were roughly, we estimate, about two million military dead and about one million civilian dead in the course of World War II. And when that ended, there was a sense of relief, and there was a sense that the Americans and the allied powers had come in as a legitimate occupation force. So there was a great deal the Americans went in knowing that they could build on and there were a great many elements they knew they could cooperate with.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States stayed on in Japan, professor dower, well into the ’50s. I understand there was virtually no homegrown resistance to that occupation. Is that right?

JOHN DOWER: Well, like all occupations, this one began, as was mentioned previously, with the notion “we will stay there until our task is done; we will stay there until Japan is a democratic society.” And when pressed on this, people like General Douglas Macarthur, who was the supreme commander, said, “Well, probably one or two years we should be done.” And he really was arguing he could wrap it up by 1947, two years after the end of the war. And he hoped he could do that because he wanted to run for president in the United States. In the end, the Americans stayed there for six and a half years, and, of course, the American military presence remains in Japan to the present day.

RAY SUAREZ: Weren’t we also in Korea for a long time, Professor Gluck?

CAROL GLUCK: At the same time that we occupied Japan we occupied Korea, and it’s very instructive because we didn’t do the same thing in Korea. We didn’t give the Koreans the same kind of opportunity, and that had to do with the Cold War. We actually ran a military government and then supported dictatorships for many years. So there’s another instance where the time and the place really mattered. We also occupied Okinawa and didn’t occupy it in the same way that professor dower talked about Japan. We ruled Okinawa, and the Americans ruled Okinawa from 1945 to 1972.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor Jentleson, along with these post-World War II occupations in the first half of the century, wasn’t the United States involved in a lot of places in our own hemisphere where there wasn’t international cooperation or international support?

BRUCE JENTLESON: Yeah, the United States military intervened very frequently in many Central American and Caribbean countries in the early part of the 20th century: Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic. Some of these interventions went on for 20 years, as in Haiti; in Nicaragua, sort of on and off for 20 or 25 years. And at the end of the day, it wasn’t the single case, in which when we left we could leave behind stability other than in the hands of a dictator.

We really didn’t claim democracy to be a major purpose then. It was really more about order and our own interests, particularly our economic interests. But we also fueled a lot of anti-American nationalism and planted many of the seeds of instability that were part of our problems after World War II. Franklin Roosevelt tried to shift the strategy to a good neighbor policy from 1933 to 1945. And there were some positive effects there. But after World War II, in the context of the Cold War, some of the roots of instability we had to deal with were the ones that we in part helped create in the first half of the 20th century.

JOHN DOWER: One of the great differences is the difference between this administration and people who were involved in the early so- called “democratization” of Japan, who were very much coming out of a left-wing, progressive New Deal milieu in which they believed they could bring democracy to people of a very liberal sort– “liberalism” was a key phrase– and that they could do this with the state coming in and playing an important role in the economy.

RAY SUAREZ: And you would say that that’s a stark contrast to today?

JOHN DOWER: I think we’re a very different America today, and our political objectives are very different today.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And one other thing, and that is that, for instance, in Germany, one of the worst nightmares of FDR and Truman had was that Hitler might survive the end of World War II, perhaps retreat to some mountain readout and use his money and his influence to create the kind of insurgency that we are now seeing in Iraq. So if you had had that kind of thing in Germany after world War II, I think the kind of record that John Dower has talked about in Japan and that we also had in Germany might have been a much bleaker story.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all.