THE IRAQ WAR brought the issue of military occupations to the forefront of American foreign policy. For the first time since 1945, the United States became engaged in a full-blown military occupation aimed at democratization by force. Key figures in the Bush administration, including Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, drew parallels between the American occupation of Iraq and the American occupation of Germany, the paradigm of a successful American exercise in radical regime change. In both cases, the United States had similar objectives: the removal of an authoritarian, criminal, and antagonistic regime by force and its eventual replacement with a friendly democratic government that would adhere to the tenets of liberal democracy and capitalism. Many policies implemented by Paul Bremer, III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, were purportedly modeled on the American occupation of Germany.
Yet the differences between Germany in 1945 and Iraq in 2003 made the American occupation of Germany an implausible model. The levels of destruction and mayhem were incomparable. By the end of World War II, 3.5 million German combatants and 2 million civilians had been killed--about seven percent of the total German population. The war had reduced most German cities to rubble, and the collapse of the Nazi party and the elimination of its leaders had left an ideological and political vacuum. By the end of the war, the Allies had annihilated the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, and the Gestapo and crushed the German will to fight. American occupation forces did not face active armed resistance. As a result, American troop levels in Germany decreased with time. In 1945, 1.6 million U.S. troops were in occupied Germany, but by the end of 1946 there were only 200,000. (1) Even after the hardships of the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime, and the 2003 war, the situation in Iraq did not come close to the humanitarian crisis that engulfed Germany in 1945. Operation Iraqi Freedom caused minimal military and civilian casualties and scant urban destruction--less than 6,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed. (2)
Furthermore, the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime released Shi'ites and Kurds from the shackles of Sunni dominance, and this translated into retributive violence and tribal confrontations. The Americans never faced this issue in Germany. True, the pre-occupation regimes in Germany and Iraq embraced hypernationalist tenets, but religious, political, and ethnic schisms fragmented Iraq. Hitler had tried to convince Germans of the unity of the volk, and based his nationalist agenda on the exclusion of unwanted minorities and the simultaneous attempt to strengthen German collective identity. Nazi propaganda, the Holocaust, the war, defeat, and military occupation cemented the perception of national unity. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, did not succeed in homogenizing Iraq, and Iraqi nationalism did not suffice to unite Shi'as, Sunnis, and Kurds under a single imagined community. Even anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism have not proven to be unifying currents strong enough to overcome the religious, ethnic, and political schisms in current Iraq.
However, another development was even more significant than the above. The Bush administration did not remember an important lesson of the American occupation of Germany. For a military occupation targeted at radical regime change to be successful, the occupiers must have an accurate understanding of the political situation in the occupied country to develop their agenda without alienating its population. The occupying power must be able to navigate the political waters carefully and garner the support of the occupied population. The ultimate objective is the conversion of the former enemy into an ally, an objective that the United States failed to achieve in Iraq.
Planning what to do with Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich proved difficult and contentious. …