June 4, 2004 | Op-ed

Post-World War II Lessons Show Building Iraqi Democracy is Vital

Authored by Andrew Apostolou    

This weekend, hundreds of thousands will pay tribute at the scores of memorials in Normandy to those who in June 1944 landed on the beaches and dropped from the sky to begin the liberation of western Europe.

Last weekend Americans unveiled a monument in Washington, D.C., to those who served during World War II.

Monuments are a tangible focus for remembrance, but more important is the legacy of war. As the United States and its closest ally, Britain, fight a war in Iraq, it is worth asking what the legacy of these battles should be.

The legacy of the Allied victory in World War II was remarkably broad and impressively enduring. In western Europe the result was democracy and economic prosperity. Not only did the United States and Britain rebuild and revive the economies and societies of their enemies-foes whose conduct had been so vile as to merit no compassion – they also fostered the reintegration of Germany and Japan into the international community.

Peace and post-war American protection gave west Europeans the opportunity for cooperation rather than confrontation. Today, west Europeans take their peace and stability for granted in a way that their grandparents could not.

The positive legacy of World War II is a high benchmark against which to measure the effects of any war. What is notable today, however, is the willingness of some to settle for almost no bequest of which the United States can be proud in Iraq.

Barely a year after liberating Iraq, many commentators have written off all that the United States has achieved and have sunk into a sullen despondency of asserting that no good can come from a continued U.S. presence.

The code words for settling for little from the Iraq war, for abandoning Iraq, are all over the opinion pages. The United States should be “realistic” … “lower its expectations” … “cut our losses now, while they are relatively modest” … “set a date to pull out” … “eat a little humble pie.”

All those phrases translate into a willingness to allow Iraq to fail and possibly descend into chaos as the United States hurries out.

Perhaps the most bizarre proposal is “making do with lemons,” an oblique call for burying Iraq's nascent democracy and accepting a possible restoration of dictatorship, which King Abdullah of Jordan has all but called for.

The gains of World War II, however, were not achieved within a year after its end. For instance, it took three years to introduce the Deutsche Mark in what economists now regard as a model of currency reform.

In Iraq, however, during conditions of ongoing conflict and just six months after the fall of Baghdad, the United States started a currency reform so successful that it has barely been reported.

There was no German state for four years – while in Iraq an interim constitution settled by consensus between five different ethnic and religious groups was agreed less than a year after liberation.

In Germany, security came through democracy: There was no trade-off between the two. As the late British academic Philip Windsor famously remarked, the Bundeswehr had to be strong enough to fend off the Soviet threat but not so strong as to menace Luxembourg.

The same challenge applies to Iraq, where the army had an established record of genocide and aggression. The new Iraqi army will have to defend against possible external threats, but never again be able to commit genocide against the Kurds or Marsh Arabs nor menace the independence of Kuwait.

It is only through the legacy of a democratic Iraq that the country will have an army that will instill pride at home without stoking fear abroad.

The U.S. commitment to western Europe after World War II stemmed in part from the painful awareness that the rapid withdrawal after the victory of World War I had allowed the seeds of conflict to put down roots and grow anew with a vengeance.

The same temptation, to declare victory too early and return home as quickly as possible, is being offered to Americans as sound policy for Iraq.

But that mistake has already been made in Iraq, where the unfinished business of 1991 inexorably led to the costlier war that began in March 2003.

Finishing the job and leaving behind a democratic Iraq is not a wild dream, but part of the best legacy there can possibly be: not to have to send young Americans back to fight and die where their fathers did before them. 

Andrew Apostolou is Director of Research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan Washington-based policy institute focusing on terrorism.