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Commentary (April 14, 2004)

A fight that does not finish

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

Tokyo's angry reaction to the threatened retaliatory killing by Iraqi militants of three young Japanese civilians taken hostage this week reminds one of how much the impasse in Iraq parallels the 1960s quagmire in Vietnam.

As in Vietnam, we get the same boilerplate platitudes about refusing to bow to "terror" when guerrilla forces of the other side try to end what they see as the cruel and illegal occupation of their country. We see the same inability to realize that desperate people resort to desperate means.

These are not the only parallels with Vietnam. The lies and pretexts needed to prosecute both wars were equally transparent. As in Vietnam, the crudity of the U.S. intervention -- the absence of clear goals, ignorance of the language and the culture, disregard for civilian casualties -- guarantees probable defeat. And sure enough, once again we are being bombarded with the same mindless "fight to the finish," "light at the end of the tunnel" slogans that we saw in Vietnam.

I have some bias in all this. In 1965 I resigned from Australia's diplomatic service to protest Canberra's support for the United States in Vietnam. I managed to get an article entitled "Australia and the Lost War" published in, of all places, Rupert Murdoch's flagship newspaper, The Australian. Ten agonizing years had to pass before I was proved right.

Hopefully, the Iraq war will end more quickly since this time the U.S. is fighting a powerfully fundamentalist religion in front of TV cameras, against a population it once said it wanted to save. But the basic dynamic is the same: For each individual you kill, others emerge who want to kill you. Eventually you give up.

When the U.S. first went into Iraq, the conventional chatter was that the occupation would resemble that of the U.S. in Japan from 1945. In fact, the similarity is much closer to Japan's vain attempt to conquer China after 1937.

In China, as with the U.S. in Iraq, Japan promised an indigenous government (under Wang Ching-wei and based in Shanghai). But then, as now, the weak and obviously puppet nature of that government, not to mention the brutality of the occupation, guaranteed lack of support. The one difference with Japan in China is that the U.S. intervention in Iraq resulted in the overthrow of a brutal and hated regime. But that advantage has already been frittered away.

At the height of the Vietnam war, a Liberal Democratic Party politician, Masayoshi Ohira said Japan should not be too critical of the Americans since they were committing the same mistakes Japan had made when it tried to occupy China 30 years earlier. They were ignoring the force of local nationalism, he said.

At the time, Canberra, as now over Iraq, was keen to see support for U.S. objectives. It denounced Ohira as a "not very important politician," even though he was soon to become one of Japan's better prime ministers. Then, as now, Australia's bureaucrats and politicians had little trouble in matching the ignorance of their U.S. equivalents.

In a recently televised interview, Washington's proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said those who questioned U.S. resolve in Iraq should remember the determination of the Americans who won out in their 18th-century rebellion against British control.

Quite right, but doesn't the Iraqi resistance to U.S. control, which Bremer condemns, parallel almost exactly the American resistance to British control, which Bremer praises?

The naivete of U.S. goals in the Middle East is mind-boggling. Washington wants to impose U.S.-style democracy on a region where it opposes the one emerging democracy -- Iran -- while supporting a range of blatant autocracies.

For strange domestic reasons, it puts almost as much emphasis on having the status of women improved, little realizing that it once worked furiously to overthrow the two Islamic regimes that did try to liberate women -- pre-1992 Afghanistan and Ba'athist Iraq. And so on.

Japan does little better. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi mechanically denounces as "terror" any use of force, no matter how mild, against the Japanese military presence in Iraq. But the same Koizumi is a firm admirer of the far more "terroristic" attacks by Japan's kamikaze pilots against U.S. forces in World War II.

Tokyo is working itself into a lather of indignation over the Islamic militants' demands for the withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defense Forces from Iraq in exchange for freeing the three hostages. If Japan does not want to withdraw its ineffectual soldiers, there is one other simple solution, namely a Tokyo statement deploring the killing of Iraqi civilians -- the key concern of the militants -- and promising to pressure the U.S. on the issue.

But don't even begin to expect that level of humanity and understanding of Middle Eastern events from our one-tracked Japanese friends.

At the height of the 1997 occupation of Japan's Embassy in Lima, Peru, by Tupac Amaru (MTRA) guerrillas, my views as a member of a small advisory committee to the Cabinet secretariat were sought. At the time, there was an equally simple and humane solution -- pressure the Peruvian government to promise improvements in Peru's notorious prison system and maybe even to recognize the MTRA as a legitimate political movement.

I should have saved my breath. The brays of delight when the troops of Alberto Fujimori's brutal regime broke into the embassy and killed all the guerrillas, including the women, some in cold blood, were a reminder that in Tokyo -- as in Washington and Canberra -- force, prejudice and ignorance remain the basis of foreign affairs thinking.

(This article appeared in the April 10, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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