Selling Iraq with the Wrong Pitch

President Bush likes to tell his usually hand-picked audiences that Iraq will become more democratic and prosperous because of America’s intervention. What he has in mind are the remarkable changes in Germany and Japan after World War II because of American aid to those countries. His comparison holds little water. So why does he invoke it? Because invoking the correct comparison — with South Vietnam — would give neither his beleaguered administration nor most Americans any comfort.

The president has repeatedly invoked the American-backed reconstructions of Germany and Japan to win support for his policies in Iraq. Most recently he told an audience in Cleveland that Germany and Japan are democracies today because “free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism.”
Unfortunately for Bush’s reasoning, favorable conditions like those after World War II have never existed in Iraq. U.S. military forces, private contractors, aid workers and others operate under conditions of “high military threat,” just as their counterparts did for two decades in South Vietnam. That was never the case after World War II.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s advisers asserted that Iraqi political and economic reconstruction would succeed if the administration made a substantial and sustained commitment to it. They assumed that U.S. military forces would quickly establish a stable and peaceful environment after crushing Saddam’s army.
It didn’t take long to show that these advisers had overestimated the appropriateness of American policies. They were wrong in thinking that the administration could meet its goal of creating a democratic state that would serve as a linchpin of stability in a turbulent region and a model for other leaders in the area to emulate.
With no end to the conflict in sight, it’s understandable why the president Bush continues to refer to U.S. successes rather than the nation’s conspicuous failure in South Vietnam. After all, four administrations in Washington poured billions of dollars into that country without producing either democracy or development.
The situation in Iraq is even more problematic for U.S. policymakers now than it was in South Vietnam 40 years ago. There, U.S. economic aid mollified the urban middle classes and the professional elites, who then restrained their opposition to the often unstable government in Saigon. This enabled U.S. military forces to fight a war on behalf of a client state. In Iraq, U.S. intervention has fanned the flames of civil war, making it impossible to establish a stable and peaceful environment.
Iraqis now suffer a lower level of basic services than they did a year ago, despite our having spent some $20 billion on reconstruction to date. That was scarcely the case in postwar Germany and Japan. And billions of dollars more will surely be wasted as long as the conditions of “high military threat” last. In the current environment, Iraqis cannot hope to enjoy a standard of living that comes anywhere close to matching that of the Germans and Japanese.
Then there’s the matter of the Iraqis’ failure to agree about the direction of their nation’s future. After World War II, America made a sustained and substantial commitment to the rehabilitation of the defeated Axis powers. As important as it was to the creation of liberal democracies and capitalist economies in Germany and Japan, the success of reconstruction in both countries rose above all from the desire and willingness of the people to rebuild their societies.
To be sure, many Iraqis seek a similar outcome for their country. But they cannot hope to realize their dreams until the question of how their country will be governed has been resolved. The circumstances in Iraq are analogous neither to the Allied fight against Germany and Japan nor to the reconstruction efforts that followed.
Like the used car salesman with a familiar pitch, President Bush uses the same analogies over and over to sell the American people a long-term commitment in Iraq. The public should realize that it’s buying a lemon.

Michael R. Adamson is an independent historical consultant and researcher based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

April, 2006