Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


November 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argues that the Bush administration's policy in Iraq is similar to the one the United States pursued in Germany and Japan after World War II. Her point is that, given enough time, America can also remake Iraq's society along democratic lines.

The issue is: how much time, troops, and money will this process take?

My wife and I recently visited Korea and three Japanese cities, and there is no doubt that both countries have thriving modern economies and fully democratic governments. No one who views cities like Pusan, Nagasaki, and Osaka can deny that American efforts at nation building in both countries were remarkably successful.

The same is true for Germany where we lived and visited on numerous occasions since 1946. Recent parliamentary elections demonstrated that a united Germany is not only Europe's economic powerhouse, but that it has a vibrant democratic system.

However. there are three significant differences between the situation in Iraq today and the ones that prevailed in Germany, Japan, and Korea after World War II.

+ Germany and Japan were totally defeated by American and allied forces in 1945. No armed opposition arose to challenge the US-British-French occupation of West Germany or the sole U.S. rule in postwar Japan. Soviet troops occupied the eastern part of Germany and imposed a brutal rule. In 1945, Korea was divided between a Soviet-imposed communist regime in the north, while the United States occupied the south. The Korean people welcomed American troops as liberators from the Japanese, who had controlled the country before the war.

In Iraq, American troops were not hailed as liberators in 2003, and within six months an insurgency against them erupted in Baghdad and elsewhere. The death toll for Americans is now over 2,000, and casualties exceed 10,000, with no apparent end in sight.

+ Germany and Japan were ethnically homogeneous societies in 1945, exhibiting many years of nationhood and national identity. Christianity was the dominant religion in Germany, as Shintoism was in Japan. South Korea too was a homogeneous society with a strong sense of nationhood. Germany and Korea were divided countries by agreement among the allied powers, and Soviet-dominated regimes ruled in parts of both.

Compare this with the ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq. The Shiia brand of Islam prevails in the heavily populated southern part of the country, and enclaves in Baghdad, while Sunni Muslims dominate the western and northwest regions. Kurds, not ethnically Arab and possessing their own religious traditions, hold sway in the northeast.

Iraq's present boundaries were created by Great Britain after World War I when it inherited control over Mesopotamia from the defeated Ottoman Empire. Iraq has been a sovereign state only since the 1930s and has never experienced democratic rule..

+ It took four years of allied occupation in West Germany and seven in Japan before a democratic constitution was written and approved by the electorate Thereafter, many allied forces remained to help them build free institutions.

In South Korea, its war with North Korea in the early 1950s slowed progress toward democratization. But after a succession of military-led governments, free elections were held in the 1980s and democratic government has prevailed there since.

At present, Iraq is doing reasonably well attempting to establish a national parliament and a freely elected government. Upcoming elections in December will show whether the Sunni areas, from which most of the insurgency emanates, will support a government in which Sunnis are the minority. Under Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, the Sunnis controlled the entire country.

Nation-building in any country without a long democratic tradition takes years to accomplish, as experience in Germany and Japan after World War II attests. Critics of U.S. policy in Iraq are saying that American troops should be withdrawn as soon as Iraqis have a new government and full sovereignty in 2006. They argue that nation-building is too costly, in financial and human terms, for the United States to bear for ten years or more.

But the alternative to building a democratic government there would be worse. Without continued American and United Nations involvement to support the new Iraqi regime, the specter of civil war is real.

If Iraq disintegrates into chaos because of an early withdrawal of all U.S. forces, the impact on the Middle East will be devastating to American interests. This is particularly true regarding future access to Persian Gulf oil at reasonable prices.

Americans have not yet grasped the reality that our country has a vital economic stake in Persian Gulf oil and that the invasion of Iraq resulted from a strong desire by both presidents Clinton and Bush to oust Saddam Hussein's anti-American regime from power.

It is time the American public is told the blunt truth about this country's dependence on Middle East oil, for the economic well-being of our country.

File last modified on Saturday, 24-NOVEMBER-2005 8:13 PM EST

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