A year into the occupations of Japan and Germany, supporters of World War II should have been having second thoughts -- at least if America then were operating by contemporary rules. In his provocative new book, "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire," historian Niall Ferguson recounts the troubled rebuilding efforts in Japan and Germany that lend perspective to the "disaster" that has been the American occupation of Iraq during the past year.
Has the Bush administration's Iraq occupation been ever-shifting, contradictory, beset by bureaucratic squabbles and undone by events on the ground? So were the occupations of Japan and Germany. Rebuilding a foreign country in the wake of a war is necessarily untidy business, and can only succeed if a wide berth is given for surprises and mistakes.
Ferguson outlines the stark contradictions of our Japan policy: "On the one hand, by a combination of war crimes trials and purges, the Japanese elites were supposed to be cured of their militaristic, undemocratic ways. On the other, MacArthur could not govern Japan without the assistance of the existing Japanese bureaucracy." In the event, only 1 percent of senior Japanese civil servants lost their jobs, so necessary proved their expertise. The echoes of Paul Bremer's on-and-off de-Baathification in Iraq are obvious.
Meanwhile, Japanese reality undercut America's best-laid economic plans. The United States initially sought to weaken the Japanese economy to keep it from ever again funding a military machine and to loosen the grip of huge monopolistic companies. In 1947, more than 300 companies were slated for dissolution. But the need to stoke economic growth to make Japan stronger in light of the budding Cold War waylaid these ideas.
Although purging Japan of its militarism was a significant accomplishment, Japan was hardly made anew, despite our ambitions. As historian John Dower has written, the new Japanese regime was based on a "tripod of big business, bureaucracy and conservative party."
The German occupation had similar fits and starts. As Ferguson puts it: "What was planned did not happen. What happened was not planned."
The administrator of postwar Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, complained: "Nobody talked to me about what our policies were in Germany. They just sent me over there." Hoping to finish his unwanted job as soon as possible, Clay set July 1, 1946, as the date for a handover to a civilian government, a deadline that didn't hold. The initial years of the occupation were marred by an internecine conflict between the State and War departments. Have a familiar ring?
Ambitious de-Nazification was a priority, but created chaos. Clay later called de-Nazification his "biggest mistake," a "hopelessly ambiguous procedure." Germany's democratization occurred almost by mistake. Official policy was that "no political activities of any kind [would] be countenanced unless authorized." But political activities on the ground began almost immediately, despite the policy confusion of the Americans. According to Clay, he couldn't even agree with the State Department on the definition of democracy.
Clay at first was instructed not to take any steps to enhance the strength of the German economy. Clay's financial adviser characterized this policy as the work of "economic idiots." Eventually it was fully reversed, but only after Clay threatened to resign in a dispute with the State Department over it. How messy, how bumbling.
Of course, Japan and Germany turned out to be sterling achievements. The broader argument of Ferguson's book is that America is not naturally gifted at nation-building, and it only succeeds when the United States commits to a country for the long-term, giving it the opportunity to get things right despite inevitable setbacks.
Patience, of course, is now in short supply. By the exquisite standards of today's media and the critics of the Iraq War, the men who rebuilt Japan and Germany were incompetents. They had to muddle their way to success through policy failures and bureaucratic infighting. Incompetence can achieve the same success in Iraq, if it's given the chance.