Playing Fast and Loose with Historical Analogies

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has frequently seized on the last refuge of the faltering debater: historical analogies. Historical analogies have their uses, but when they are faulty they only mislead.

First there was the reinterpretation of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Comparing President Kennedy’s action and President Bush’s intentions, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that Kennedy undertook pre-emptive action against the Soviet introduction of nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba. Rumsfeld conveniently overlooked two crucial points in drawing his analogy: Kennedy had conclusive evidence concerning the Russian missiles, and he resisted the advice of the military to use force. Neither can be said of Bush’s current plans to attack Saddam Hussein.

The Bush administration’s description of the threat posed by Iraq nearly always features conditional words like “could” and “might” because the administration lacks the kind of documentary evidence that compelled Kennedy to act. Kennedy resisted the use of force even when advisers went beyond recommending air strikes on the missile installations and insisted on a follow-up invasion of Cuba by U.S. ground forces. Heeding their advice could have led to a nuclear exchange. Fortunately, as Sen. Edward Kennedy has noted, his brother showed restraint. He instituted a naval quarantine and worked for a diplomatic solution.

Now that the resolution passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate has given Bush a go-ahead to use force in Iraq, the administration has mounted a new argument. Thinking about what to do with post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, it is proposing an occupation that would be a reprise of the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II ? an even more flawed historical analogy.

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, an unusual phenomenon occurred. Many Japanese, recognizing that the conduct of their war had been misguided, realized that they could learn something important from the people who had defeated them. Destruction from the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that survival and recovery depended on working with the Americans. Accepting defeat, they cooperated with the American occupation forces.

It is highly doubtful that there would be a similar reaction on the part of the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis would be happy to see Saddam Hussein and his thuggish regime go, but they would not be all that keen on cooperating with the United States. Iraqis, viewing the United States as a latter-day imperial power, would not be eager to help Americans construct a new government and society based on American models. They certainly would not have the same attitude toward the United States that the Japanese did after World War II.

There is yet another important difference between Iraq and Japan. Unlike the relative homogeneity of the Japanese population after World War II, Iraq is divided among a Shiite majority, a Sunni “Marsh Arab” minority in the south, and a Kurdish minority in the north, not to mention a couple of other, smaller but still important, minorities. Rivalries among these groups will complicate any reconstruction effort.

Rushing forward with their Japanese occupation analogy, administration planners have dropped the name of Gen. Tommy Franks as the likely head of an American occupation of Iraq. Although he has had experience in military campaigns, including Afghanistan, Franks lacks many of the strengths of America’s pro-consul in Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur came to his task with years of experience in the Pacific. He found in postwar Japan exactly the situation his imperious personality required. One might not agree with all that he did in Japan or with his methods, but he was highly successful.

And who would be the Iraqi equivalent of Emperor Hirohito? Serious reliance on historical precedents would have to take into account the outsized importance of the role of the emperor, who transformed himself from a patriotic symbol, often pictured in uniform on horseback, into the meek and mild civilian partner of MacArthur, amiably pursuing his scientific interests while the general reshaped Japan.

A closer examination of what made the Japanese occupation successful might cause the Bush administration to think twice before venturing to war against Iraq, especially with only a few allies. Any postwar scenario of reconstruction and reform must be difficult and expensive. The U.S. military lacks the training and resources for nation building. Even if America possessed the resources or could draw on the help of allies, the tasks remain formidable — not only a period devoted mostly to helping people survive and to restoring order, but years of efforts to convince Iraqis to adopt democratic politics. At the very least, the Bush administration had better not count on a repeat of the transformation of Japan.

Facile historical analogies cannot do the work of critical assessments. If history teaches any lessons, the most important may be that nothing is ever quite the same as what came before. What looks to be similar at a distance turns out to be significantly different on close inspection. It is time for the Bush administration to discard false historical analogies and take a realistic look at its prospects in Iraq.

Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.