He had been a hero in World War I, and a very young Army chief of staff. As a retired general, he accepted an appointment to the Philippines and was later recalled to active duty. As the commander there, he suffered the humiliation of early defeat and the loss of his force. He fought back, later accepted Japan’s surrender, and, as the supreme commander of the occupation forces, set out to remake a nation. And he largely succeeded.
Under Douglas MacArthur’s tutelage, Japan emerged from the grip of a belligerent military-industrial complex and became a democracy. From an aggressive imperialist power, it was transformed into a peaceful state, using its vast resources to support international institutions and diplomacy around the world.
No wonder many are searching for the next MacArthur, someone to deal with the problems of postwar Iraq. As a model for regime change, it is neater and nobler than the untidy task of sorting out bickering Iraqi factions or relying on Iraqis with obscure or dubious intentions for themselves and their country. And for an administration run by corporate executives, there must be appeal in seeking a latter-day MacArthur to act as Iraq’s chief operating officer. Already last week retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the military’s director of postwar planning, arrived at a Kuwaiti beachside resort with a large team from the Pentagon’s newly created Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
But the circumstances of Japan and its transformation bear so little resemblance to those of present-day Iraq that both the analogy and the pursuit of a new MacArthur are off the mark. Almost nothing from the lessons of postwar Japan can be applied directly to Iraq, and consequently, neither the approach nor the character of a MacArthur are appropriate for the mission in Iraq. Just consider the facts.
By September 1945, Japan was defeated militarily, culturally and economically. No fanatical defense of the home islands could save it from the devastating power America could bring to bear. Its armed forces were whipped, with remnants scattered throughout Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific. Its major cities were flattened, its vaunted pride was broken, and its economy was in shambles. It had suffered millions of casualties.
But Japan was not at odds with itself. It possessed the raw material for postwar reconstruction: an educated, industrious population; some surviving infrastructure; and modern industrial experience. Imperial Japan was also largely free of the problems of large, restive minorities. Twelve years of severe military indoctrination had united the entire population behind the “holy war.” Defeat, when it came, was palpable, complete and unquestioned. As a string of islands, Japan had a strategic buffer from its neighbors. Disputes about Okinawa and the Kuriles weren’t enough to foment the kind of territorial struggles so common elsewhere. Literacy was high, and the culture valued hard work and discipline.
Enter MacArthur. To appreciate how difficult it would be to duplicate his success, it’s worth remembering its many facets. When MacArthur was appointed supreme commander of the allied powers, he assumed immediate control of the old power structures. His priority was the demilitarization and democratization of Japanese society. Using his authority, he destroyed the remains of Japan’s war machine by organizing war crimes trials for 39 leaders, most of them members of Gen. Hideki Tojo’s war cabinet, all of whom were convicted and sentenced either to prison or death. Hundreds of other officers committed ritual suicide. Then, working with the emperor and a new prime minister, he initiated a long list of reforms: rewriting the constitution, ending industrial monopolies and breaking up the industrial zaibatsu, undertaking land reform, liberalizing schools, allowing the unionization of labor and promoting women’s suffrage.
MacArthur accomplished these reforms by capitalizing on the Japanese people’s reverence for their emperor and respect for his authority. MacArthur himself became extremely popular with the Japanese, maintaining a regal style and personal isolation which played to their expectations of a supreme commander. He was a dedicated public servant, never taking a vacation and seldom traveling outside Japan. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted, MacArthur “filled the need for faith, for mystique, for a moral revival in the midst of a moral collapse.”
When it came time for rebuilding, most of the work, from design through laying the final level of concrete, was done by the Japanese themselves, using Japanese resources mobilized under a new government, a new currency and a new economic structure. Japan eventually formed new armed services specifically equipped for and constitutionally devoted to self-defense only.
Almost none of those conditions will be present in post-Saddam Iraq. The country may have been diminished by years of sanctions and low-level conflict, and will have suffered military defeat, but strong groups appear ready to contest authority with the American force. This country has never had a unified national identity — even under the Ottomans it was three distinct provinces. Ethnic and religious animosities have been fueled by the mechanics of Saddam Hussein’s repression. Important regional cultures, wealth to be divided, and the need to resist or appease meddlesome neighbors threaten to tear Iraq apart.
Iraq’s long borders also present challenges. Its Islamic neighbors are anxious to compete for Iraqi loyalties. The Saudis and the Iranians will each be pulling separately, to say nothing of independent charities, some dedicated to fostering the kind of militant fundamentalism that is the source of America’s troubles in the region. And while neither Saudi oil money nor Iranian fundamentalism are quite the forces that they were a decade ago, the international network of terror and mobile bands of experienced, hardened fighters are more challenging to the conventional tools of statecraft and peacekeeping than anything MacArthur faced.
Iraq has no emperor to lend authority and cover for an American regent, who could be trapped in contradictions of our own making. Espousing self-determination for the Iraqi people, he will have to make decisions, order actions and implement changes himself. Each step will bring new winners and new losers. By establishing the institutions of democracy, such as a free press, he will be criticized as an infidel outsider. The American commander will preach the virtues of freedom of religion, while making sure that the mosques do not become centers of political resistance.
One danger: The groups that will appear most sympathetic and capable of assistance will likely be the defeated Iraqi armed forces themselves. Though these forces were former agents of repression, the United States might be tempted to call upon them for help — just as it summoned the armed forces in Haiti and the Serbian military in Bosnia despite their ill repute.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there will always be the impatience of the public, the intensive scrutiny of the international media and the parsimony imposed by competing budget and political requirements. The administration talks of a two-year transition to Iraqi rule. MacArthur spent 51/2 years in Japan.
Finally, there is no five-star MacArthur today — and maybe that’s for the best. We have many highly capable, well-educated generals — and Jay Garner is one of the best — but none of them alone can “do a MacArthur” and shouldn’t try. The search for such a figure is escapism, a desire to turn over responsibilities to someone, give him a title — and few resources — and hope the problems go away. Isn’t this the height of wishful thinking?
It would be far better to recognize, as many are belatedly doing, that victory in Iraq will come not from fighting alone but rather from what happens afterward. And for this we must gather legitimacy from institutions such as the United Nations and NATO. We will need a substantial international military presence there for years. We need resources to rebuild the state structures of Iraq with new faces and skills. And we must exercise the patience to allow democracy to emerge slowly. Above all, we must not use our presence in Iraq as a launching pad for self-glorification, imperial pretenses or further expeditions but as an opportunity to strengthen the international institutions that we have spent more than 50 years developing and nourishing.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark served as commander in chief, U.S. Southern Command and later as supreme allied commander in Europe during the war in Kosovo.
Washington Post, 3/23/03