Today, it seems, was "Asian Wars Analogy Day" in the Bush administration, as the president uncorked a whole series of odd historical analogies in defense of his Iraq policy. "In the aftermath of Japan's surrender," he reminded an audience of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Missouri, "many thought it naive to help the Japanese transform themselves into a democracy. Then, as now, the argued that some people were not fit for freedom."
In fact, it seems rather doubtful that any substantial body of opinion actually did argue this about Japan.
Perhaps some people argued that it was more important to the United States that Japan be a reliable ally against the Soviet Union than that it be a democracy. Which, of course, is precisely what American policy was. As former Tokyo CIA station chief Horace Feldman is quoted in Tim Weiner's new book Legacy of Ashes "We ran Japan during the occupation, and we ran it a different way in these years after the occupation," ensuring the Liberal Democratic Party a basic monopoly of political power in exchange for deference to American security policy in Asia. Despite this meddling, Japan did emerge from the post-war occupation with the basic scheme of a liberal democracy in place, which was all to the good. Elsewhere in Asia, however, things didn't work out so well, and countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines were subjected to America-friendly military dictatorships that only became democratic decades later as a result of popular protest.
One points this out not to condemn America's Asia policy of the 1940s and 1950s, but merely to observe that democracy-promotion wasn't especially high on the agenda. This serves, in turn, as a reminder that the United States hardly invaded Japan (or Germany or Italy for that matter) in order to build democracies. Rather, Japan launched a sneak attack on American soil, Germany invaded Poland, both were hell-bent on world domination, and the allies prosecuted World War II as a fundamentally defensive measure. The contrast with Iraq could not be more stark.
Nor, indeed, could the contrast between homogenous, resource-poor Japan and heterogeneous, oil-rich Iraq be much greater. Indeed, though leading war advocate Paul Wolfowitz demonstrated gross ignorance of Iraq when he testified before congress that the country had no history of ethnic strife, he was showing a keen awareness of the fact that a history of ethnic strife would make the country an unpromising proving ground for gunpoint democratization.
All this, however, was but the appetizer for a shocking embrace of a historically illiterate account of the Vietnam war. "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens," Bush said "whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'" While it is of course true that people died in South Vietnam following American withdrawal, millions died during the United States' years of military involvement as well, a great many killed by the American military at enormous expense and with no end in sight. The killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia, meanwhile, were if anything more a consequence of America's destabilization of the region than of America's departure.
Unenlightening as Bush's analogies may be, they do serve as an interesting sign of the times. For years, war-supporters derided any efforts to draw parallels between Iraq and Vietnam as unwarranted, now they're eager to draw them. The reason, most likely, is that while the hawks lost the war in Vietnam and eventually even lost the debate over the war, they believe themselves to have eventually won the larger political battle as Ronald Reagan embraced Bush-style revisionist accounts of the war in southeast Asia as part of his march to the White House in 1980.
For months now, many conservatives have been fundamentally positioning themselves for the post-war era, readying the arguments that will blame the failure of the venture in Iraq on its opponents rather than its architects. That Bush himself has chosen to join them is, perhaps, on some level the clearest reflection of the reality that the president knows perfectly well that the war is unwinnable, and blame-shifting now the best hope for saving his historical legacy.
Matthew Yglesias is staff writer at the American Prospect and author of an eponymous blog. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate and the New York Times Magazine.
© 2007 The Guardian