U.S. Must be Stubborn on Democracy in Iraq

January 18th, 2004

Just one year ago–about two months before the United States launched an attack on Iraq–I touched on the U.S.-led Allied Powers’ occupation of Japan in this column as a possible lesson for administering the coming occupation of Iraq.

Although I do not know whether my opinion has had any actual influence on the coalition’s policy, it seems that Saddam Hussein is not likely to be tried without the involvement of the Iraqi people. There were no Japanese judges or prosecutors in the Tokyo Tribunal, which was officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The maximum penalty should be meted out for Saddam because of what he has done. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that it is desirable that justice is meted out to him by the Iraqi people themselves, rather than by jurists at a U.S.-led trial.

Also, Saddam should only be indicted for crimes against the Iraqi people. Questions regarding the war responsibility inevitably would backfire on the U.S. side.

In fact, the issue of who was more responsible for the war was raised in the Tokyo Tribunal, but soon suppressed by the supreme commander of the Occupation authorities. That would not work this time.

In the case of the postwar rule of Japan, a team of shallow, simplistic New Dealers was assigned to administer the Occupation, while sophisticated Japan experts in the U.S. administration were intentionally sidelined. A year ago, I wrote to the effect that such a mistake should not be repeated in Iraq. To my relief, that has not been the case.

Unlike Japan, Iraq is not a nation that, as a former enemy, has surrendered to the U.S.-led coalition forces–it is a nation that has been liberated from the tyranny of Saddam. Considering this fact, it is only natural for the occupation policy to directly reflect the opinions of the Iraqi people, not necessarily through Iraq experts.

The highest item on the political agenda in Iraq from now on is to forge a governing body that is capable of evenhandedly representing the opinions of various groups that have been freed from Saddam’s dictatorship. They include refugees, Shiite Muslims, Kurdish people and the silent majority of Iraqis who have no groups representing them yet.

As far as the utmost concern right now at the moment in Iraq–the restoration of public order and safety–is concerned, Japan’s examples have no relevance at all. Japan is a uniquely law-abiding society that, for example, astonished the media in the rest of the world covering the tragedy of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake–which killed about 6,000 people and paralyzed the police force in the area–as there was absolutely no looting.

In fact, the Japanese people, following Emperor Showa’s order, cooperated perfectly with the Occupation forces in the postwar years. Prior to the landing in Japan, the U.S. military had considered–out of fear of a possible insurgency–to deploy as many as 1 million troops for the Occupation of Japan. Such a scenario might have been usefully considered ahead of the occupation of Iraq.

Members of the Baath Party have been purged from public services in a way reminiscent of the expulsion of members of the Nazi Party in Germany and military officers in Japan after the end of World War II. Perhaps, such a measure, though harsh in the early stage, is an inevitable part of the process of selectively recruiting innocent, talented people for public office to facilitate the reconstruction of the country.

In my contribution a year ago , I referred to the ill effects of the strict restrictions on the freedom of speech during the Occupation of Japan. In Iraq, people apparently may speak freely. I also mentioned the harm that resulted from the fact that Japan’s Constitution was written by foreigners. In Iraq, the people there are to be given the right to write their country’s constitution on their own.

Lessons from the Occupation of Japan end here. In Iraq, we now have to look at the new problems caused by policies that have been based on such lessons–which, in other words, are the problems associated with the freedom of speech and the policy of letting the Iraqis write their constitution by themselves.

From a wider perspective, it is the question of the conflict between the principles of freedom and democracy and the necessity of reforms and modernization of the country. Here, lessons to be learned should be taken from the history of the modernization of the Islamic world.

The most recent precedent was Algeria in the 1990s. In the northern African country, an era of one-party rule came to an end alongside the democratization of the Soviet Union and East European countries, and its first parliamentary election was held in 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamental Muslim party, won the election, but the military intervened and made the poll results null and void. The United States and European countries officially blamed the military coup, but in reality welcomed it since the armed forces prevented the establishment of an Islamic fundamentalist leadership similar to Ayatollah Khomeini’s in Iran. A decade of chaos and terrorism followed. As in the case of Iraq, some terrorists in Algeria of late used to be guerrillas in Afghanistan.

Much earlier, Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) initially sought to install a multiparty parliamentary democracy, but owing to the formidable presence of Islamic conservatives, he had no choice but to continue sticking to one-party rule with the backing of the military during his rule of the country.

The examples of Algeria and Turkey are those of interference by militaries that were intent on modernizing their respective countries. If the U.S. forces had to assume a similar role in Iraq, the consequence would be horrible indeed.

One option to avoid such a hair-raising quagmire could be to take a wait-and-see policy, based on a laissez-faire stance, patiently waiting for the swing of the pendulum by letting the Iraqi people determine the fate of their country at their initiative. Of course, it must be remembered that it took nearly 30 years in Turkey and 10 years in Algeria for their respective situations to be normalized. Over this period, Algeria has turned out to be a hotbed of terrorists.

In Iraq, such a possibility is already looming. The quality of the Iraqi media is said to be terrible. Certainly, there exists a ban on articles that might incite mutiny and murder. But there seems to be a rampant fad among Iraqi newspapers to publish anti-American articles without bothering to verify their accuracy. Such a trend may be seen with a philosophic eye as a common trait of the commercial media that will fade once terrorism is gone. However, if the phenomenon goes too far and is unchecked, it will influence the Iraqi people’s nation-rebuilding process following the transfer of sovereign power to them, threatening to hamper the continued stationing of U.S. troops.

It is good news that a loya jirga national assembly has approved Afghanistan’s new Constitution. However, it refrains from ruling out the principles of Islam on one hand and emphasizing human rights on the other. The Afghan approach is understandable. Obviously, in the Islamic world it is traditionally difficult to challenge anyone who, for example, says raising the social status of women runs counter to the teachings of Islam.

Theoretically speaking, it could be an option for the Americans to write a new constitution for Iraq by imposing a harsh control over the freedom of speech to prevent people from speaking out against the new Constitution, as in the case of postwar Japan. Of course, this option is not viable nowadays. Even if the United States resorted to such an approach, there would be a further explosion of anti-American sentiment sooner or later.

Learning from the Occupation of Japan again, the Afghan case may be a successful precedent. Suppose that the Constitution of Japan had been written in the spirit of respecting Japanese history and tradition while maintaining the principle of democracy steadfastly. Then Japan would have avoided a half century of ideological confusion. This country would have been the most reliable U.S. partner of democracy in the Far East throughout and after the Cold War.

The effect may not be limited in the Far East. America’s world strategy would have been stable and complete with Britain across the Atlantic and with Japan across the Pacific.

What can the United States really do in the ongoing circumstances? It should become a donkeylike stubborn advocator of democracy, while being flexible on all other issues and particularly respectful of history and tradition of local people. Disregarding the oscillating will of the local people, the United States could say it will not yield any inch on the issues of freedom and democracy. Such a resolute policy would definitely win the backing of the U.S. populace and make all the other countries in the world resigned to rally behind Washington. In other words, it would make most sense for the United States to implement, without showing any signs of compromise, what U.S. President George W. Bush has stated time and again in his recent speeches on democracy.

Another thing the United States should do in Iraq is to stay steadfast. Once a powerful person chooses to be as stubborn as a donkey, people surrounding him cannot do anything. The transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and a reduction of the number of U.S. troops in that country should be carried out only when it becomes certain that freedom and democracy will be respected and maintained–not when Iraq or the United Nations is capable of taking over the role of the United States. By setting such a condition, it might be possible to see the establishment of a truly democratic and stable government combined with the respect of its traditional nationalism in Iraq.

But even such an approach may not succeed in the end.

Such a possible consequence means that we will have to accept a conclusion that, even though it is not totally impossible for democracy to prevail in the Middle East, several decades of trial and error will be required for this to happen. In other words, accepting such a conclusion is tantamount to determining that in the short term the United States has failed in its operations in Iraq. However, no one can tell the outcome of the U.S. efforts to democratize Iraq at this stage. Therefore, the United States has no choice but to move toward its original goal.

In the Jan. 19, 2003, contribution of mine to The Yomiuri Shimbun, I wrote that in spite of so many problems unique to Iraq “it is to be hoped the experience the Iraqi people have had with Saddam’s harsh dictatorship will prove beneficial to the future growth of democracy in that country.” Even today, this remains the sole hopeful clue to the success of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.