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Democratic Constitutionalism after Military Occupation: Reflections on the United States' Experience in Japan, Germany, Afghanistan, and Iraq
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Common Knowledge 12.2 (2006) 181-196

Reflections on the United States' Experience in Japan, Germany, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Stanley N. Katz

In 1943, arguably before it was even clear that the Allies would defeat Japan and Germany, the U.S. government set up training programs at the University of Virginia and at Yale to equip (with the language and administrative skills that they would require) those who might later have to oversee transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. Sixty years later, we read in the New York Times of a senior U.S. staff officer noting that, on entering Baghdad, his division had no further orders whatsoever—no instructions about where to go, who to see, how or what to occupy, what to do.

Among other things, it is the level of forethought and preparedness and levelheadedness revealed by the administrator-training program in 1943 that made the nation-building and democratization experiments in Japan and Germany after 1945 so successful. And it is, I fear, the level of unpreparedness and muddleheadedness that left a U.S. army division without orders in Baghdad that puts at great risk the experiments with nation-building and democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan. But American ineptness with regard to these practical, local, and immediate issues is much less significant than our conceptual unpreparedness: a shortage of both analysis and imagination about the possibility of different, equally legitimate shapes that democratic constitutionalism might take in these places.

In other words, I think that our challenge in promoting postconflict democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan is twofold. First, we may know too little and have made too many mistaken assumptions about the workings of politics, economics, culture, and religion in these places. But second, and more important, we may have too undifferentiated and unsophisticated a conception of what democracy and democratic constitutionalism are and can be under different cultural circumstances. What this second problem means is that the democratization projects in Afghanistan and Iraq would not suddenly become feasible if only we could get better information about these places; there would still remain the difficulty of understanding that democracy and democratic constitutionalism as we have come to know them might simply be bad fits for these countries.

Bearing these challenges in mind, my aim here is to assess the odds that our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan will lead to the happy outcomes that the postwar occupations of Japan and Germany did, and also to evaluate what might be done to improve those odds. I am going to avoid the question of whether U.S. forces should be in Iraq and Afghanistan at all, because it is rather too late in the day. Whatever one's view of the need to intervene militarily in either Afghanistan or Iraq, we should all agree that a democratic nation that chooses to intervene to overthrow antidemocratic regimes carries the burden of leaving a stable and (ideally) democratic constitutionalist state behind it. The minimum required is to provide for the rule of law and for consent-based government of some sort. But I do not believe the Bush administration took these responsibilities seriously enough, and I think that it made assumptions about these regions and countries that were severely flawed.

We must put ourselves in the position of planners for postwar Afghanistan and Iraq. What would have been sound, realistic assumptions for us to have made? What, on that basis, should we have aspired to accomplish? I think that if we can develop an informed and nuanced understanding of what it means to establish constitutional democracy in places that have no history of such institutions, we will be in a better position to pick up the pieces of a failing policy and consider what realistic options there are for political and legal reengineering of the existing interim constitutional settlements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We need, first, to rethink democratic constitutionalism itself—to consider, that is, the different meanings that the concept has and could have in different places. It will be crucial to be careful about mistaking the trappings of democratic constitutionalism for its substance. Constitutional documents, elections, and arbitrary deadlines alone cannot make democratic constitutionalism a reality. My fear is...

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