Other than the flippant criticisms of our “failure” to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. This reality was the genesis of a rift that goes back to the Gulf War itself, when neoconservatives were vocal in their calls for “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad.” Their expectation is that the United States would not only change Iraq’s regime but also remain as a long-term occupation force in an attempt to reconstruct Iraqi society itself.
The connotations of “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad” show how inapt the comparison is. Our occupation forces never set foot inside Japan until the emperor had formally surrendered and prepared Japanese citizens for our arrival. Nor did MacArthur destroy the Japanese government when he took over as proconsul after World War II. Instead, he was careful to work his changes through it, and took pains to preserve the integrity of Japan’s imperial family. Nor is Japanese culture in any way similar to Iraq’s. The Japanese are a homogeneous people who place a high premium on respect, and they fully cooperated with MacArthur’s forces after having been ordered to do so by the emperor. The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.
In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.
In fairness, if he didn’t say this to you personally it doesn’t really count, so the war’s critics were really all just reflexive pacifists…