If there’s one thing we know for certain about the American occupation of Iraq, it’s that it won’t be headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Or anyone else with stars on his collar: Nothing gets the Bush administration in denial mode like comparing the postwar reconstruction of Iraq to MacArthur’s seven-year occupation of Japan after World War II. Pentagon and State Department officials repeatedly insist that turning Iraq into the cradle of Islamic democracy will take no time at all in terms of a military presence. Thirty days! No, 90 days. OK, six months. Well, maybe a year and a half. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman estimated before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that the entire process of reconstruction would take two years. But no more! Maybe a little more.
There are laudable reasons for the administration to want to distance itself from the MacArthur analogy and the idea of a long-term occupation. For one, it’s not a very popular proposition among Iraqi exiles. The leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim exile community told MSNBC.com this week that appointing a U.S. general to oversee Iraq could spark a “religious war.” For another, as John W. Dower details in Embracing Defeat, a history of the American occupation of Japan after World War II, the initial steps toward Japanese democratization weren’t very democratic. Japan was given no sovereignty, no diplomatic relations, its citizens were barred from traveling abroad, and its flag and national anthem were banned. Actions like those were acceptable because Japan had waged a war of aggression and surrendered unconditionally. But they would be odd steps to take after an American-led war against Iraq that was sold as a war of liberation for the Iraqi people.
So, it makes sense to point out the differences between 1945 and 2003. Different times, different eras, different wars. But the ongoing discussion of how Iraq’s postwar reconstruction will be both similar to and different from MacArthur’s occupation of Japan has obscured a different question: Who is the Bush administration going to appoint to run Iraq? Gen. Tommy Franks will control U.S. military forces for as long as they are inside Iraq—the Pentagon is asking for enough funds to pay for a year of reconstruction after a war. But the project of creating a new Iraqi government will likely last much longer than that, and someone other than Franks will be in charge of it. In a blueprint leaked last Friday to the Washington Post, the Bush administration revealed that it would take unilateral control after a war, and the creation of a new Iraqi government would be directed by a “yet-to-be-named American civilian.”
Who is this ruler to be named later? The administration has been silent on the possibilities, though sources told the Post that it would be an American “of stature.” Unfortunately, the idea of a former governor or ambassador—the requisite job experience mentioned by the Post—running Iraq inspires hilarity rather than confidence. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge could fold the job into his duties as Homeland Security czar, setting up a Web site that encourages Iraqis to load up on duct tape. If you’re looking for a respected American of international stature, you could do worse than Bill Clinton, who loves to govern and has a lot of time on his hands. Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat who has a lot of experience running client states, could be a good fit if he could be convinced not to plot to assassinate himself.
Serious nominees are hard to come by. There’s been some speculation in the British papers, but then again, the British papers aren’t shy about speculation. London’s Observer declared that former Sen. George Mitchell is a “front-runner,” but the Bush administration prefers “civilian” Norman Schwarzkopf. Both seem highly unlikely, but Mitchell would be an interesting selection, if only because he’s part of a type—other examples include Warren Christopher, Jimmy Carter, and John Danforth—that Slate’s David Plotz dubbed “free-lance holy men.”
The Financial Times floated an intriguing choice, though it conflicts with the Post’s report that a civilian will get the nod: Lt. Gen. John Abizaid. The 51-year-old Abizaid works out of the U.S. Central Command field headquarters in Qatar as a deputy to Gen. Tommy Franks. An American of Lebanese descent, Abizaid is fluent in Arabic, which means he has the rare ability to communicate directly with the Iraqi people. Abizaid’s education—he studied at the University of Jordan and holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard—makes him eminently more “qualified” (if such a thing is possible) to oversee Iraq than MacArthur was to rule Japan. Prior to the occupation, MacArthur’s knowledge of Japan consisted of a “mixture of prejudice, presumption, and grand bromides,” according to the historian Dower. But the Bush administration has repeatedly stated that the military should not be involved in nation-building (or “post-conflict reconstruction,” as it’s sometimes called), so it stands to reason that Abizaid will help direct the military side of the occupation—finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction and hunting down terrorist cells—rather than the civilian side.
No matter who gets the job, the duties will be fairly clear. Maintaining security will be the most important goal—ethnic tensions may lead to violent reprisals by the Shiite majority against Saddam’s ruling Sunni elite, and the Kurds are already threatening to do battle with Turkish soldiers who will be allowed to enter Iraq from the north. “No one should think we are bluffing,” a Kurdish official told the Washington Post. “There will be conflict.” Furthermore, a Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis estimated that 150,000 Iraqi troops, plus a reserve force, will be needed to prevent a postwar invasion by Iraq’s neighbors. That leaves 200,000 Iraqi soldiers who will have to be integrated into civilian society. There will also be an immediate humanitarian crisis set off by the war and the likely destruction of Iraq’s civil infrastructure. A program of “de-Baathification,” similar to de-Nazification, will have to be carried out. One way to limit the power of Saddam’s Baath party and to increase the number of regional voices that will be heard in the government would be to create a bureaucracy that is as decentralized as possible, giving power to local governments all over the country. Finally, Iraq’s economy will have to be rebuilt, especially if Saddam torches his country’s oil infrastructure.
How will we measure the success of such an enormous project? Here’s a barometer from the MacArthur occupation. Less than 20 years after its unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, Japan had rebounded from the perception that it was a hopelessly militaristic nation bent on colonizing all of Asia, and the world threw a party to celebrate: Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics. If there’s a Baghdad Games in 2024, you can declare the postwar reconstruction an unmitigated triumph.