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Can Iraq Learn to Live in Peace?

by Jonathan Dresner on Mar 28, 2003

Jonathan Dresner

The disarmament of Iraq is our aim, we say. And surely even if there’s some slippage between our public statements and true motives, reducing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) seems like a good idea.

Previous inspections for WMD in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed because the Iraqis refused to cooperate and the inspectors were too few and too weakly supported to overcome Iraqi resistance. But even if the inspections had succeeded in the short term, a high-cost, intrusive inspection program could not have continued indefinitely.

So now we’re going to try something else: regime change through conquest. Forcing out Hussein and his loyalists should allow the United States and its coalition partners to eliminate Iraq’s present WMD capacity. But disarmament is difficult to sustain, even with total victory. What’s necessary is the creation of a social and political aversion to weapons of mass destruction in New Iraq like that which developed in Japan after World War II.

Japan today could easily produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in large quantities in short order, but it has not done so. The Japanese population is deeply opposed to such weapons, owing to its unique experience as the targets of the only nuclear weapons ever used in war and to its suffering from conventional bombing. As a result, Japanese politicians have found alternative methods of defense through alliance and diplomacy.

There are two principal components to creating a WMD-averse environment, both essentially psychological: a sense of the humanity of opposing forces or neighboring populations, and confidence that one’s defensive situation is not desperate. The United States fostered this attitude in Japan after 1945 by demonstrating the inhumanity of WMD, by creating a popular democratic and antiwar constitution for Japan, by committing itself to defend Japan, by supporting economic growth and by working to promote regional stabilization and democratization.

The vast majority of the Japanese public still believes that WMD — and aggressive wars — are unacceptable, and Japanese political leaders work hard to maintain strong diplomatic relationships with the United States and with the other Asian nations.

Both of those elements are fundamentally lacking in Iraq and have been since before the first Gulf War. This leaves us the question of whether we can replicate the dramatic turnaround of Japan in Iraq.

The only way that Gulf War II will succeed in long-term disarmament is if the United States can stabilize the political situation in Iraq and in the region to make WMD unnecessary and undesirable. Not only must we remove Saddam Hussein, we need to make certain that another aggressive and autocratic leader does not become popular. Not only must we eliminate WMD, but we must make the people of Iraq secure enough to be satisfied with conventional defenses.

If we fail, we face a potential disaster like that we helped to create in Germany after World War I. The Allies effectively disarmed Germany and dismantled its war industries. According to the 1919 Versailles treaty, Germany was forbidden to maintain substantial military forces. It was contained and democratized. But political parties in Germany established large private paramilitary forces. The Nazi movement transformed the Weimar Republic into single-party totalitarianism in 1933 by exploiting political deadlock and a sense of economic and social crisis.

The Nazi regime unilaterally abrogated the disarmament clauses of the Versailles treaty in 1936. International reaction was mixed but ultimately limited to a few harsh words. The United States was then uninterested in the problems of “old Europe,” problems that had cost so much to fix in World War I. The League of Nations, also struggling with the invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1932 and the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935, did little.

Germany then embarked on full-scale rearmament. With Germany¹s advanced industrial economy, military redevelopment was rapid. The Allies disarmed Germany completely after the World War I but still had to fight a second war twenty years later against another sophisticated and powerful German military.

The United States and the coalition against Saddam Hussein must commit to rebuilding Iraq’s social, economic and political infrastructure, so that New Iraq does not have German-like lingering resentments or weaknesses to exploit. This means addressing Iraq’s internal tensions and creating meaningful participatory political systems. But unless the region is stable, New Iraq will still not be secure, so we must commit to active and multilateral engagement in the region. This will not be easy: after all, we have fought two major wars in Asia since 1945, the Korean War (1950-1953) and the conflict in Vietnam (1954-1975), and still maintain a significant and active military presence in Korea.

But the alternative — conquest followed by disengagement — risks the catastrophe of repeating the mistakes that led to World War II.


Jonathan Dresner teaches Asian and world history at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and is a writer for the History News Service.