How to occupy a country (if you must)

By Frank Schulze

Mike Mozart/Flickr
(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

United States police actions have a cyclical quality to them. Policymakers feel threatened by foreign unrest, begin trickling United States troops into the area to topple the existing power structure, and then start investing in a strategy to prop up a self-sufficient government, friendly to United States interests.

It has not worked. Two years after United States withdrawal from Vietnam, communist forces toppled the government that the U.S. spent 20 years creating and “saving.” Three years after United States withdrawal from Iraq, the Islamic State declared itself a global caliphate and began confiscating territory from the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. Last Wednesday, President Obama told the nation that the United States would not be withdrawing from Afghanistan, delaying the repetition of history for another day.

None of this story is a secret; all of this information is available to those who continuously insist on intervening to mollify an enemy into a regional ally. Why then, does the United States continue to do this? History does have a successful counterexample to an otherwise obvious trend to failure: the postwar occupation of Japan. After World War II, the United States was able to rebuild Japan as an industrial powerhouse and as a stable Pacific ally that never fell to communism or harbored terrorists.

Indeed, former President George W. Bush used Japan to rationalize his long-term plan for the War in Iraq. In a 2005 appearance at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Bush recalled, “Harry Truman … recognized the power of freedom to transform an enemy into an ally. That’s what happened. And so Japan adopted a Japanese-style democracy. And … democracies don’t fight each other.”

Unfortunately, the success of the United States occupation of Japan was largely circumstantial and should not be looked to as a blueprint to justify future foreign interventions.

A legitimate government is a product of its culture. Japan was able to embrace democracy because its people had already hosted elections starting in 1890, despite a brief dance with imperial militants. The people of Japan had already decided, without any external help, that an elected government was one that it could support. By contrast, the media lauded the first elections in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2004 and 2005, respectively, as United States triumphs.

Human beings need to learn to walk on their own, and they will do so when they are ready. By the time U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was given the power to democratize Japan, the nation had already taken its first steps.

MacArthur also realized that the people of Japan highly respected their emperor, Hirohito, and he was a symbolic force that kept the people anchored to their nation. He allowed the emperor to stay in power as the figurehead of Japanese society, but his power was diminished under the postwar constitution Japan would later ratify.

Compare this merciful approach to the immediate toppling of Hussein’s government or the United States’ snubbing of Ho Chi Minh. Regardless of their moral shortcomings, these rulers meant something to the people they represent that Cold War America and War on Terror America fail to understand.

MacArthur’s reforms also included a progressive tax structure, an industrial departure from defense contracting to consumer goods, and a labor-centric economy, all to facilitate the participation of working families in the new Japan. Later reforms have not followed suit.

The stack of United States foreign entanglements has accumulated throughout the last 75 years in pursuit of emulating the success of Japan, but never once was it the United States that “recognized the power of freedom” to develop a stable ally in Japan, it was the Japanese themselves.

Frank Schulze is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]