The Case for the Iraq War

“Nation-building” is often considered a loaded term in our modern lexicon that sets political pundits and experts alike off on riffs and rants that coalesce around how it has been done incorrectly. Talk of the continuing instability in post-Cold War attempts to assist in the emergence of democratic states in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria dominates the conversation surrounding nation-building. This stigma suggests that nation-building is nearly always a recipe for disaster undertaken with foolish expectations in mind for the host nation. However, nation-building can be done with great success—exemplified no better than the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan—and carries with it lessons to be learned for future U.S. foreign policy initiatives. In this article, I will discuss three major points about U.S. nation-building efforts in Germany and Japan, the failure to emulate those efforts during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and how the situation in Iraq can still be improved and serve as a point of improvement:

Planning for the occupations of Germany and Japan was meticulous, whereas the Iraqi plan was undercut by a lack of consensus. Advanced planning for the reconstruction of Germany and Japan began before World War II had even ended. This comprehensive approach allowed the U.S. to create hierarchical and sensible command structures, and American generals were cautious to revert power back to the postwar nations. Iraq’s management was far less detail-oriented. A failure to understand cultural and economic intricacies undoubtedly caused tensions between different religious and ethnic groups to spiral into intense struggles that threaten the stability of the country to this day.

A sense of national identity in Germany and Japan served as a benefit to the occupation.  The relatively singular cultures of German and Japanese nationals benefitted American planners by only having to consider each culture on its own. Economic and governmental stability were the major focal points of the U.S. nation-building effort after WWII. In Iraq, the U.S. occupation turned chaotic rather quickly due to the neglect of internecine struggles between various ethnic and religious groups. Because there was no singular Iraqi identity, failure to acknowledge these social hierarchies ultimately fostered an environment where open hostility could not be prevented.

There is still a means of achieving Iraqi stability, but the window is closing. As Iraq is mired by internal conflict, a glimmer of hope remains from the examples of Germany and Japan. America’s role as an advisory power may still serve to mediate discussion between different swathes of Iraqi culture, and complete detachment from their political sphere should be weighed by their readiness to govern. Lessons in planning and execution from Germany and Japan should dictate future U.S. policy, and Iraq now serves as a benchmark for improvement for future nation-building efforts.

Nation-building, as a general term, is often interpreted as the occupation and reconstruction of one nation—the host nation—by another with the end goal of making the host country resemble the occupying nation. In the United States, this definition is often associated with the effort undertaken by the U.S. to democratize the dictatorship led by Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. The lack of anticipation of cultural and economic challenges created a stigma that nation-building is nearly always a recipe for disaster undertaken with foolish expectations in mind. However, nation-building can be done with great success, exemplified no better than the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan. American generals overseeing the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan had a detailed command structure in place working in tandem with experts on the host countries; the absence of familiarity with Iraqi political culture would hobble American attempts at nation-building after the 2003 invasion just as the proficiency of German and Japanese political culture had benefitted the American proconsuls in the aftermath of World War II. In addition to the rigidly planned and long-spanning implementation of nation-building efforts in Germany and Japan, the homogenous cultural and societal trends in the host countries also served as a boon to U.S. efforts that was not present during the occupation of Iraq. These diverging strategies ultimately caused two nation-building efforts to chart different courses, but lessons learned in both post-WWII Germany and Japan and post-invasion Iraq now serve as benchmarks of improvement for future U.S. endeavors in nation-building.

Before World War II had officially ended, the United States government had already been hard at work on three stages of preparation that were identical for German and Japan. This period consisted of “the first stage, 1942-43, a time of research and preliminary position papers, the general framework for a new world order and basic principles for the treatment of defeated enemy countries,” “the second period of more advanced work,” and “the third stage of planning [when] political solutions of the Japan specialists had gained wide acceptance.” This punctilious approach was designed in order to create an environment where experts on both host nations would draw upon knowledge of their cultures meant to be incorporated into the framework set up by the postwar governments. In the specific case of Germany, the U.S.-led allied powers “pursued nation-building in Germany by demobilizing the German military, holding war crimes tribunals, helping construct democratic institutions, and providing substantial humanitarian and economic assistance,” and the democratization effort was made easier due to consideration by American experts that Germans of the Weimar Republic had a basic understanding of democratic systems of government. The effort by American planners to create democratic nations that would resemble American structures was expert-driven and required a commitment in time and resources by U.S. military governors in order to keep economic and civil operations stable. Iraq would begin with similar goals of democratization, with Andrew J. Bacevich summarizing the American invasion of Iraq “as the initial gambit of an effort to transform the entire region through the use of superior military power, [and] it not only made sense but also held out the prospect of finally resolving the incongruities bedeviling U.S. policy.” While Iraq had the same general end goals of the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan, the results could not have been more different in Iraq due to inadequate preparation on the part of the U.S. that had been so heavily relied upon in Germany and Japan.

Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003 with the primary goal of unseating Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to create a democratic Iraq that would serve as a benchmark for other countries in the region and encourage them to follow suit. American interests in Iraq were nearly indistinct from the interest in creating stable nations of Germany and Japan, yet Germany and Japan are currently stable democracies and two of the world’s foremost economic powers while Iraq remains mired in intense regional conflict with a weak central government. In the post-9/11 world, there was certainly a desire to see the unpredictability of Saddam Hussein and his threats of possessing WMDs neutralized as quickly as possible. As the arguments of “no blood for oil” also arose in the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, economist Gary S. Becker dismisses this claim with the fact that “the U.S. would be better off if it encouraged Iraq to export more, not less, oil because that would lower oil prices.” In short, if the U.S. wanted oil from Iraq, war would be incredibly destructive to this objective. However, the Bush administration’s handling of the subsequent occupation of Iraq, according to Michael E. O’Hanlon, “surely includes the administration’s desire to portray the Iraq war as a relatively easy undertaking in order to assure domestic and international support, the administration’s disdain for nation-building, and the Pentagon leadership’s unrealistic hope that Ahmed Chalabi and the rather small and weak Iraqi National Congress might somehow assume control of the country after Saddam fell.” Juxtaposed to the time and resource commitment and intense knowledge of host nations by the American military governments present in Germany and Japan, the effort to nation-build in Iraq was negatively impacted by a less precise and incredibly blunt military intervention that dissolved the current structure without a suitable replacement. The failure of the Bush administration to enact a fully developed strategy only exacerbated the potential for chaos in a host nation O’Hanlon concludes as “still plagued by the continued presence of thousands of Baathists from Saddam’s various elite security forces who had melted into the population rather than fight hard against the invading coalition.” Germany and Japan had robust military governments that sought to create stability before turning power over to the host nation, but their homogenous cultural makeup was another major benefit that the Bush administration did not possess and failed to explore during the occupation of Iraq.

Economic and governmental factors played a large role in the bifurcated end results of post-WWII Germany and Japan and Iraq. U.S. proconsuls’ awareness of the need for a stable governing structure in the former cases and the intelligence gap in the latter case was paramount in determining the differences in end result. In post-WWII Germany, “the occupying powers continued to allow the German central bank to operate, but they, rather than the Germans, exercised control over it,” and “in the U.S. sector, General Clay devoted substantial effort and resources to restarting German factories and mines.” The American nation-building effort had taken great care in ensuring an economically stable system would be in place once occupation of Germany came to an end. This was undoubtedly due in part to the fact that economic blight had crippled Germany in the aftermath of World War I and made the people of Germany susceptible to authoritarianism. American proconsuls were right to address this as a primary component of their nation-building efforts as a means of preventing another politically gifted figure from demagogically exploiting the postwar disarray to promote their own ends in the way Adolf Hitler did during the Weimar period. For this reason alone, economic stability was a driving force for American planners during the reconstruction of Germany. Governance in Germany was also tempered, and American generals were cautious to introduce immediate German rule because of concerns that “a civilian would be lost that quickly after the close of hostilities.” American military governors had a command structure in place, and turning control over to the host nation too soon had the potential of resulting in a breakdown of the fledgling democratic system the U.S. was trying to build if pressured too soon. The invasion of Iraq proved to be a nearly polar opposite approach to the one taken in postwar Germany.

After the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the presence of U.S. troops in Baghdad, the politics surrounding economic structures in Iraq immediately came to the fore. Unlike in Germany, socio-economic development was undermined due to a lack of American knowledge of the major economic resource of Iraq—oil—as Anthony H. Cordesman of CSIS points out:

Iraq’s oil wealth has not been used to create the economic conditions for unity, and is a critical underlying problem in trying to heal its sectarian and ethnic divisions. The [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki regime strongly favored itself and Arab Shi’ites over Arab Sunnis, and wavered between efforts to bribe the Kurds and force them to put all petroleum development under central government control.

The failure to understand cultural ties to economic resources in Iraq meant that the United States was already at a disadvantage. Unlike in Germany, American forces had no reliable source to turn over economic control to in Iraq, and the lack of cultural ties to Iraqi economic resources almost ensured sectarian conflict would arise in the absence of the American military. The governing system of Iraq did not fare much better due to the lack of democratic foundation in the country. The nation-building effort in Iraq had the potential to see the new Iraqi government accommodate the multiple sects of its society by “endowing those institutions with popular legitimacy and widespread participation, not merely shifting power and access from one group to another.” Compounded by the insufficient amount of time spent integrating the civilian population into a democratic framework after the military intervention, murky American understanding of the multiple identities of Iraqi society did little to help an increasingly unstable environment.

A clear example of such murky understanding of the Iraqi political structure came from the slash-and-burn approach coalition forces took in the form of de-Ba’athification, or the dismantling of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq that espoused the principles of socialism and Arab nationalism under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Any restructuring of the Iraqi political environment would require some degree of de-Ba’athification, but the American approach saw an abrupt shift for a nation that was not united under one national identity in the way the Germans or Japanese were and had deep-seated sectarian struggles. The goal of de-Ba’athification was, according to the Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, “eliminating the party’s structures and removing its leadership from positions of authority and responsibility in Iraqi society” in order to ensure “representative government in Iraq is not threatened by Ba`athist elements returning to power and that those in positions of authority in the future are acceptable to the people of Iraq.” In doing so, the U.S. comprehensively rebuilt the Iraqi government on a foundation rooted in—among other things—sectarian struggles that would boil over under the Premiership of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim. As Prime Minister of Iraq, al-Maliki set the stage for the current volatility in the region due to what Council on Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot deemed the “victimisation of Sunnis [and] made them receptive to Isis, which was being reborn in the chaos of Syria.” Swaths of Iraqi Sunnis who were suddenly found out of the job as a result of de-Ba’athification were targeted by mass arrests and suppression tactics under al-Maliki that made them feel isolated and under attack. In 2011, AEI scholar Frederick W. Kagan and Institute for the Study of War President Kimberly Kagan wrote that “Maliki is unwinding the multi-ethnic, cross-sectarian Iraqi political settlement” in part due to his exploitation of the effects of de-Ba’athification. Such a comprehensive reorganization of the host nation’s government with no apparent sensitivity to centuries-long sectarian struggles was a major contributor to the failure to achieve political stability in Iraq.

While Germany and Japan had fairly simple ethnic and cultural breakdowns largely due to a sense of national identity, Iraq was unique in this case due to the fact that “oil, ethnicity, religion, tribes, militias, the insurgency, the Sunni Arab boycott of January 2005 elections, and old-fashioned power struggles combined for volatile post-Saddam politics” that had not been accounted for in Iraq. These cultural intricacies led to complications that were less contentious in the examples of Germany and Japan, and the lack of anticipation on the part of the U.S. for these factors made for a messy reorganization of post-intervention Iraq. In his reflections on the Iraq War, Robert Kaplan surmises that “better generalship and logical command chains would likely have improved the security situation, leading to less financial cost, less loss of human life, less opportunity for Iranian meddling, and thus a better geopolitical outcome.” The U.S. benefitted from a stringent chain of command and more homogenous host country in the case of Germany and Japan, but the inadequate anticipation for the dynamics of Iraqi culture and elite structure threaten to put the entire undertaking in severe jeopardy. There was no clear evidence that Bush administration officials were prepared to grapple with the competing sectarian interests present in Iraq that were absent from the nation-building effort in postwar Germany and Japan, and herein lies the issue. The central key to success for any nation-building effort is that the host nation is capable of creating a unified government, and Professor James M. Quirk appropriately observes that “for Iraq, that included Shiites confident that Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party would not return to repress them, minority Sunnis that they would not be repressed by the rise of Shiites to power, and Kurds that much of their autonomy (and oil assets) would be preserved.” Being attentive to this dynamic was crucial at the time of the invasion, and not having a strategy in place to deal with the intricacies of Iraqi culture ultimately led to intense sectarian violence.

The future of Iraq is one that now seems uncertain with the rise of ISIS and internecine conflict between different regions of the country that are at odds due to their competing identities. While it is uncertain what, if anything, the U.S. can do to turn the deteriorating situation in Iraq around, a suggestion by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)—a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—takes sectarian relations into account in order to “negotiate a power-sharing deal that will give predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar and Nineveh, assurances that their rights will be respected by Baghdad.” Though this is imperfect as a sole solution due to the fact that sectarian divides are not the singular cause of Iraq’s current political instability, Sen. Rubio offers a perspective that incorporates sectarian conflict in a way not seen in the planning for post-invasion Iraq. Future U.S. sensitivity to the cultural identities and awareness of the power dynamics at play are paramount to establishing governmental structures that will in turn function constructively with respect to Iraqi culture. As with Germany and Japan, the U.S. withdrawal of forces in 2011 does not mean an end to advising, but the Iraqis are now—whether they were ready to in 2005 or not—beginning to govern themselves. For the future of Iraq to regain stability despite the instability in the region, the current U.S. nation-building effort should be conscious of the fact that “early difficulties, and even early failures, will not indicate long-term disorder as long as the key representative interests remain committed to this kind of politicking instead of retreating to coups, secession or open advocacy of violence.” The best course of action for U.S. planners in Iraq is to be cognizant of competing sectarian interests while allowing these differences to be dealt with politically as opposed to violently and facilitate discussion where need be.

The post-WWII German and Japanese nation-building efforts succeeded because of a logical chain of command and significant time and resource investments that sought to steadily revert power back to the host countries; Iraq’s failures resulted from a loosely-defined command structure after regime change and a lack of understanding by U.S. planners of the rudiments of Iraqi cultural diversity in a way not seen in the German or Japanese examples. Though the results of poor foundational handling after regime change are seen in modern-day Iraq, there are still lessons that can be gleaned from previous nation-building successes in Germany and Japan. Future U.S. foreign policy—if it is to still be one of championing democratization abroad—would do well to observe the future of Iraq and remember the lack of foundational planning as a benchmark for improvement if future nation-building efforts are to be beneficial to U.S. foreign interests.