Was Putin right?
' 'We do not have the right to forget the causes of any war, which must be sought in the mistakes and errors of peacetime.
''Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing,'' he said. ''They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.''Comparisons with Hitler are a third rail in American political life, and let me, as Richard Nixon would have said, make one thing perfectly clear. I do not believe that American foreign policy since 9/11 can be fairly compared to Hitler's. I do think, however, that our policy in the Middle East since 9/11 has a good deal in common with that of Japan in Manchuria in the early 1930s, and I want to explain why. Those of us who believe in world peace and in the need for governments to observe impartial rules simply cannot excuse their own rulers for violations of the standards in which they believe. Indeed, I have always thought that true patriotism consists in holding one's own nation to a higher standard, and I have always been a proud citizen of a country whose Constitution protects the right to criticize one's government. And like Frederick Douglass in the 19th century and Willy Brandt in the twentieth, I regard myself not only as a citizen of my own country but as a member of a broader western community of nations within which some nations have helped others along the democratic path. I am indeed somewhat chagrined that while Putin--no real democrat himself--has criticized us freely, most European leaders have been too polite to remind us of our shared values.
The Japanese in 1931 were the major power in the Far East, just as, one could argue, the United States has been for some time (and certainly since 1990) the major foreign power in the Middle East. Since their victory over the Russian Empire in 1905 they had effectively controlled Manchuria and stationed troops there to protect the Chinese Eastern Railway, but Manchuria was technically under Chinese sovereignty and actually ruled by a warlord. Chiang Kai-Shek, who had come to power in south and central China in the early and mid-1920s, was threatening to try to extend real control over the whole nation, and younger Japanese officers in the Kwantung Army (stationed in Korea) decided to secure their position. On September 18, 1931, a railroad bridge was blown in Mukden--an act of terrorism which the Army leaders seized upon as a pretext to restore order in Manchuria. Japanese troops rapidly occupied the whole province, and in the following year, the Japanese proclaimed the independent state of Manchukuo.
What makes all this quite similar to the war in Iraq was the violation of international law and international treaties which it had embodied. The Japanese and Chinese were members of the League of Nations and signatories of the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war among nations. They had unilaterally violated China's territorial integrity and created a new state. Similarly, the United States took it upon itself to overthrow and replace the government of Iraq. Both nations used pretexts--a supposed breakdown of order in the Japanese case, non-existent weapons of mass destruction in the American case. And both nations hoped that these steps would eliminate threats and give them new power in a region they regarded as critical to their security.
Paradoxically, while the Japanese received harsher treatment from the world community, they were initially far more successful than the US has been. The League of Nations created a fact-finding mission, the Lytton Commission, to investigate the situation and report. In 1932 it did so, finding that Japan had acted illegally, that the new government in Manchuria depended on the presence of Japanese troops, and that it therefore had no legitimacy. Japan in early 1933 announced that it was leaving the UN as a result. The United States, on the other hand, tried and failed to get the United Nations Security Council to endorse the war in Iraq, but then went ahead anyway. So much greater is the prestige of the United States that the UN took no steps to condemn that act, but merely hoped for the best. Yet despite international opposition (and the American refusal to recognize Manchukuo), the Japanese occupation went much, much better than the American occupation of Iraq has. That reflects fundamental changes in the world strategic situation in the last 80 years. The Japanese made their move in the era of draftee armies (theirs was quite large), and before the widespread use of motor vehicles, the invention of car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and the general availability of semi-automatic and automatic rifles. They also used brutal methods. All this enabled them to secure and maintain control of Manchuria and make their puppet government reasonably successful--exactly what the United States, with much smaller volunteer forces in a more highly developed environment, has not been able to do.
These two crises have something else in common: both aggressive initiatives involved the circumvention of the normal procedures of the governments that undertook them. The Japanese political and even senior military leadership in 1931 was still quite cautious internationally and anxious not to antagonize the western powers. They had repeatedly given in to western pressure during the previous 35 years, most recently in a naval agreement many regarded as unfavorable in 1930 and in the decision to withdraw from Shantung province (a former German sphere of influence in China which they had occupied during the First World War) in 1922. But younger officers of the Kwantung Army undertook the Manchurian campaign on their own and dragged the government in their wake. Similarly, the American military leadership, the Department of State, and the CIA all had the gravest doubts about the Iraqi adventure, but the neoconservative clique at the highest levels of the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office simply rode roughshod over them, rewrote intelligence, and got their way. (New evidence of this is about to surface. The Washington Post reports on the imminent release of two intelligence studies in late 2002 that predicted the disastrous results overthrowing Saddam.) The results have been disastrous but the Bush Administration still does not seem to be listening to the bureaucracy.
It is the sequel to the Manchurian crisis, however, which looks most troubling today. Having seized Manchuria to secure their railway and their position in Korea, the Japanese in succeeding years began extending their influence further southward to secure Manchuria, reaching the outskirts of Beijing by 1937. In July the Japanese Army manufactured another incident that set off a full-scale (though never declared) war with China. While they advanced all the way along the Chinese coast during the next three years and committed horrible atrocities, that conflict proved intractable. Eventually in 1940-41, the Japanese tried to encircle Chiang-Kai-Shek by occupying French Indochina. That in turn led to an American oil embargo, and to Pearl Harbor.
Alas, having created chaos in Iraq, the Bush Administration has intermittently been talking about removing the remaining "threats to peace" in the Middle East as well--Syria, and especially Iran. Iran has just announced that its centrifuge program has taken a new and big step forward. I have no private information of any kind but for some time I have told friends that I regard the chance of an attack on Iran as 50-50 before Bush leaves office. I still think so. I have already argued here that that would lead to long-term chaos in the region and grave dangers for Americans in many parts of the world.
It is not too late to avoid catastrophe and get the United States back on track as a supporter of international law and order. The Democratic Congress should renew its attempts to rule out war against Iran, which many reports suggest our military leaders strongly oppose. But there is no point in denying that we have become an enormous threat to the vision of a world ruled by law that we had been promoting ever since the First World War. That is why, in my opinion, it is critical for the next Administration definitely to repudiate what this one has done.