Can US do a Japan in Iraq?

Why is the US hell-bent on toppling Saddam Hussein? To install a democracy? Don’t make me laugh, many will say. Yet all other explanations look equally laughable.

Some say Bush Jr wants to finish the job his father started in 1991. But that was not unfinished business. Bush Sr only wanted to oust Saddam from Kuwait, not Iraq. He wanted to retain a strong Iraq that would contain Iran, which the US then regarded as a much greater threat.

Others say the US oil lobby wants to grab Iraqi fields. Phooey. The oil lobby financed Bush’s campaign in the hope that he would persuade US Congress to approve oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge of Alaska, something banned by environmental laws.

But all the efforts of the oil lobby and White House have failed to move Congress. An oil lobby that is too weak to get drilling permission in Alaska is surely not strong enough to push the US into a war.

The White House says Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. Probably he has kept some weapons hidden: which ruler would not keep some sort of defence intact, even if forbidden by UN resolutions? But such weapons pose no threaten to the region, or the US.

Left to himself, I cannot see Saddam using chemical or biological weapons. But he will surely use them if the US invades. Far from ensuring that such weapons are not used, an invasion will ensure that they are.

Some Americans claim that Saddam may help al Qaeda. But Saddam has long persecuted and killed Islamic fundamentalists of the bin Laden variety.

If the US pushes him to the brink, he will finally get a reason he has so far lacked to collaborate with al Qaeda. The 1991 US invasion gave new strength to Islamic terror. Another invasion will surely strengthen it further.

No, all these explanations are unconvincing. So, let us return to the first explanation: that the US wants democracy in the region. Security guru Richard Haas says, probably correctly, that democracy will provide internal channels for Arab dissent that today spill over into anti-American terrorism.

So, can the imminent war be seen as a deep game for democracy? Many will instinctively laugh. The US has long discouraged democratic forces in the Middle East, and has long propped up autocracies in the name of stability.

The US has supported sundry dictators in all continents for decades, and not entirely because of Cold War cynicism. So why should anyone believe that the US suddenly regards democracy in Iraq as worth a war?

Second, even if the United States of America is serious, can it actually transplant democracy into another country?

Many intellectuals hold that the impulse for democracy has to be generated internally, and cannot be foisted from outside.

Almost all British colonies were given formal democratic structures when the British departed, but most soon collapsed into autocracy. India remained democratic because of internal support, not because Sir Ivor Jennings gave advice on our Constitution.

Is an artificial transplant of democracy feasible in the Middle East, where any sort of dissent has traditionally been equated with treason?

Most people will say no. History in the last half-century does not encourage the notion that democracies can easily be created out of autocracies by foreign pressure. And yet if we look further back, to the end of World War II, a very different picture emerges.

Japan at the time had long been a militarist autocracy. It aspired to create a mighty empire to challenge Britain’s. Its national ethos was based on unquestioning obedience, not on the dissent that is fundamental to democracy.

Military might was equated with glory.

After winning the World War, the US hunkered down in Japan to try and convert this militarist autocracy into a peace-loving democracy. The ground could hardly have been less fertile.

Yet with time, perseverance and loads of foreign aid, Japan was gradually coaxed into becoming a liberal democracy, and one where defence spending could, by popular consensus, not exceed one per cent of GDP.

Something similar happened in Germany. This, too, was a proud militaristic autocracy, one that took pride in iron discipline and conquest. The brief fling it had with democracy during the Weimar Republic was a fiasco. Here again the US hunkered down to convert it into a peace-loving democracy, and succeeded.

Germany has developed deep democratic roots, and has a strong peace movement. In 1945, almost nobody would have believed that such a transformation possible: it went against all German tradition and history.

And yet, with US goading and dollops of Marshall Aid, a democratic Germany emerged, one with such a strong peace movement that Chancellor Schroeder won the last election by opposing a war in Iraq.

If such transformations would take place in Japan and Germany, why not in Iraq? Should we believe that Iraqis today are less prepared for democracy than Germans and Japanese were in 1945?

No. And yet I am sceptical of the US achieving a similar transformation in Iraq. In 1945, the US believed that its very future was jeopardised by communism, and so was willing to make huge efforts and pour enormous sums into Japan and Germany as part of a necessary international effort.

But today the US looks unilateralist, not internationalist. And in recent decades the US has displayed none of that stamina and generosity that led to the nation-building efforts in Germany and Japan in the late 1940s.

The White House today is, doctrinally, against nation building. Americans have become so inward looking that Bush’s top priority is to cut taxes at any cost, not increase them in order to finance a new Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, Iraq and other new candidates for democracy.

In theory, the US may indeed be capable of converting Iraq into another Japan. In practice, I doubt that it will happen.

Not as long as the White House declares that the US is at war, yet lacks the stomach to impose taxes needed to fight that war.

What do you think?