Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Japan Through Vietnam: Exploring the Limits of American Power in Asia

Even before the extension of the United States' frontiers to the Pacific its political life was linked to conditions in Asia. Indeed, the tax that inspired the Boston Tea Party was conceived to help offset the massive imbalance of payments created by voracious English consumption of Chinese tea. The completion of America's Manifest Destiny, however, accelerated the exchange of goods, people, and ideas between the U.S. and Asia. The impact of this new state of affairs was felt almost immediately on both sides of the Pacific, as in 1852 President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to forcibly "open" Tokugawa Japan to U.S. commerce. Since that historical moment the mutual influence of the U.S. and Asia has deepened, broadened, and intensified, so that it seems clear that in this new century Asia will be the urgent focal point of U.S. foreign affairs. Since the time of Perry it has been a common (though perhaps not universal) assumption among U.S. policymakers that conditions in Asia may be reshaped through the determined application of U.S. power. Since America's future is so inextricably bound to that of Asia, it is important to test this working principal about U.S. power against the record of the past.

The early record of U.S.-Asia relations may be read as testimony to the outstanding success of U.S. power. The Perry mission of 1852 set off a chain of events that led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and set Japan on the path to modernization. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the Chinese Republic" was American-educated (a Christian convert), as was his wife and that of his successor, Chiang Kai-shek. After WWII Douglas MacArthur led a team of U.S. occupiers that overhauled the Japanese government in the image of American democracy while U.S. officials began the task of developing political institutions in newly independent South Korea. In 1946 one could look toward Asia and see a continent bearing the deep impression of U.S. power.

But then it somehow all went wrong. In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong overthrew the pro-U.S. Nationalist government of President Chiang Kai-shek. In 1950 Communist North Korea invaded the South, and despite a heroic defense and an initially successful counteroffensive U.S. forces were fought to a stalemate on the Korean peninsula. Finally, beginning in 1954 the U.S. became enmeshed in a steadily escalating effort to defend non-Communist South Vietnam that ended in withdrawal and the ingnominious collapse of the South Vietnamese state in 1975.

At first glance, the tale of the tape would seem easy to read. The story of U.S. power in Asia is one of initial and significant success followed by sudden and precipitate decline. A graphic representation would show a line beginning in 1852 and rising steadily until 1949, where it would take a sharp turn and move steadily downward. What could have caused such a profound reversal? The influence of communism? The deflation of America's political will? Strategic errors on the part of American leadership?

As simplistic as such analyses may seem, they are (with some nuance and shading) all too often the basis of much American scholarship and policy strategy with regard to Asia on all parts of the political spectrum. Amercian interpreters, both "left" and "right," approach the study of Asia with a latent faith in the efficacy of U.S. power. Under "normal conditions" they would expect Asian affairs to be responsive to American influence, thus the cause of any "intransigence" must be sought either in the changing nature of U.S. power or the variable wisdom of U.S. leadership. If Asian peoples effectively resist American efforts at change, it must be because U.S. power had been depleted or incorrectly applied.

The inherent weakness of these types of analyses is, of course, that they deny Asian peoples themselves any form or degree of agency. This is not a question of ethics but of analytical clarity. Any narrative of Asian history that is not constructed around Asians as its central actors is fundamentally distorted. In order to truly understand the fate of U.S. actors on the Asian stage one must look to the inherent dynamic of Asian cultures and societies. The stark fact is that the current state of Asian affairs has been determined by Asians- the Americans who participated in developments along the way were never (well, very rarely) more than interested bystanders.

This may be illustrated if we adopt, for a moment, the perspective of U.S. strategists in Vietnam. Here the American strategic goal was the preservation of a (preferably) democratic, (unequivocally) anti-Communist state in South Vietnam. A survey of what U.S. power had "achieved" in Asia up to that point gave every cause for optimism. Two particular cases informed American assessments of the achievability of their goals: Japan and Korea. The U.S. had defeated and occupied Japan from 1945-1952, during which time Japan was transformed from an autocratic, radically militaristic absolute monarchy to a totally demilitarized liberal democracy. In Korea, despite a concerted assault by the joint forces of China and North Korea (with the full support of the Soviet Union) the U.S. had managed to effect a (until the present day) permanent partition of the Korean peninsula and the stabilization of a pro-U.S. government in the South. The American task in South Vietnam should have been much easier than either of these cases.

Japan and Vietnam, in particular, presented a stark contrast. Vietnam had less than half the population of Japan (South Vietnam even less) and possessed a much more modern, industrialized economy and educated populace. The success of the U.S. in transforming Japanese state and society should have been matched or exceeded in Vietnam.

The intrinsic weakness of this analysis is that it gives far too much credit to the U.S. for the shaping of Japan's post-war state. U.S. observers of Japan, noting the dramatic difference between the goverment and political culture of Imperial Japan and that of Japan today, conclude that this disparity must be attributable to U.S. influence. This perspective assumes that the virulent militancy of the Empire and the atrocities committed by its officials and soldiers were all "organic" products of traditional Japanese culture, a congenital weakness in Japanese civilization that had to be purged by its American occupiers. Any close analysis belies this view, however. The extremism and brutality of the Empire were exceptional to the historical experience of the Japanese people and were as odious to many (if not most) of them as it was to foreign observers. These trends were not organic expressions of Japanese "values," but gradually escalating responses to the (not wholly unrealistically) perceived threats of European imperialism and mainland Asian socialism (both the Soviet Union and Nationalist China were, in Japan's eyes, adherents of socialist ideology). The slide of Japan's political culture toward self-destructive extremism was neither inevitable nor smooth, but was only achieved through the brutal suppression of robust voices of cosmopolitanism and liberalism that had largely shaped Japanese political life during the 1920's. The U.S. thus did not impose a wholly alien ethos upon the Japanese people during the post-war occupation, but merely aided them in the dismantling of a dysfunctional regime they found intolerably oppressive and the revival of traditions they had only reluctantly been forced to abandon.

Even if one accepts that the U.S. was far less instrumental to the democratization of Japan than conventional "wisdom" would suggest, the case of Korea would seem to argue that the U.S. mission in Vietnam should have been achievable. The key cause for the failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam was Vietnamese nationionalism. Many Vietnamese were suspicious of Communism. As a whole, though, they remained persistently and violently hostile to U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese state because they viewed them as obstacles to the unification of Vietnam, an ideal that most Vietnamese placed ahead of their allegiance or aversion to a particular political system. If we look at the Korean people, however, we find that they are no less nationalistic than the Vietnamese. The unification of the Korean nation is a dream deferred, one that causes deep anguish on both sides of the DMZ.

Why, then, would the U.S. succeed in maintaining the partition of Korea where it failed in the partition of Vietnam? The answer, of course, is that the partition of Korea would not be possible unless it conformed in some sense to the will of the Korean people. The Koreans are more amenable to the partition of their country than the Vietnamese, and here again the answer lies not in the actions of the U.S. but in the historical experience of the Korean people themselves.

The parallels between the experience of the Koreans and the Vietnamese are extraordinary. Both peoples share the legacy of venerable state traditions that developed under the profound influence of Chinese civilization. The contemporary Choson Dynasty of Korea and the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam were both structured in accordance to the ideology of Confucianism and in immitation of the institutional organization of China's imperial government. Both peoples came to question their traditional political values and institutions under the assault of foreign colonialism. This is where the histories of both nations diverge sharply. Vietnam's traditional government was brought to an end by French colonialism, the Choson dynasty was displaced by Meiji Japan. In both communities nationalism was born and grew within the forces of resistance to foreign colonialism, but significant differences in the experience of colonialism created profound differences between the forces of Vietnamese and Korean nationalism.

Because the French in Vietnam were operating in a land far distant from and culturally vastly different than their own they were never able to exert more than a very limited degree of political control over their Indochinese territories. As the forces of Vietnamese resistance grew the French were incapable of preventing them from operating within Vietnam itself. Even before WWII Vietnamese resistance fighters of all ideological persuasions were able to operate on Vietnamese territory, during and after the war a broad coalition of Communist and non-Communist forces developed that was united in resistance to the French.

By contrast to the French in Vietnam, the Japanese faced far less intense logistical (at their closest points Japan and Korea are less than 100 kilometers apart) and cultural (the Japanese and Korean peoples practice common religions, share a common script, and speak closely related languages) challenges to their colonial project in Korea. They were thus able to much more effectively and exhaustively suppress anticolonial resistance within the Korean peninsula itself, and as a result the resistance evolved almost exclusively in foreign exile. The emergent tradition of Korean nationalism thus grew within movements that were not only ideologically fragmented but also geographically segregated from one-another. Communist resistance to Japanese colonialism was centered almost exclusively in Manchuria, where Kim Il Sung led a Korean Communist brigade as an auxiliary of the Chinese Communist guerilla movement in that region. Non-Communist resistance was headquartered completely in Shanghai, where Syngman Rhee led the Korean Provisional Government under the patronage of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government. The Japanese were never able to completely eliminate Korean resistance within the Korean peninsula, but they were able to effectively (and brutally) preempt the formation of a broad coalition movement on Korean soil such as that which emerged in Vietnam.

Korean resistance thus evolved in an atmosphere of mutual isolation, suspicion and hostility. Hostility was deepened by the animosity between the respective patrons of the the two resistances, Mao's Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (the deadly feud between these forces was particularly vitriolic, fueled by a surprise coup that Chiang launched in 1927 against the Communists, with whom he was then allied). It was further exacerbated by the fact that pre-colonial society in Korea had been much more polarized than that of Vietnam. Choson Korea was led by a hereditary class of yangban aristocracy that enjoyed social privileges far and away removed from the social condition of Korea's lower classes. These contradictions had never been internally resolved within pre-colonial Korean society, thus the ideological divide between Communists and non-Communists was deepened by lingering suspicions of caste bigotry.

The final outcome of the Vietnam War can leave little doubt that there were deep divisions between the various Vietnamese nationalists. At the same time, however, it can not be denied that the period of operational unity under French colonialism laid the foundations for mutual trust and cooperation between Communists and non-Communists that drove events in Vietnam until 1975. Enough Vietnamese on both sides of the ideological divide trusted one-another sufficiently to make common cause in the service of Vietnamese unification. By contrast, the forces of Korean nationalism were incubated in conditions that only reinforced and intensified their mutual suspicions and hostility.

It would be extreme to argue that the Korean peninsula would definitely have remained partitioned in the absence of U.S. power (though this or something like it might still have occurred). It is certain, however, that the necessary conditions of both Korean partition and Vietnamese unity developed prior to American involvement in these nations' affairs. This and virtually all other cases of U.S. policy in Asia present concrete lessons in the limits of U.S. power. Viewed objectively, U.S. power has never been more than a slight catalyst or mild hindrance to developments that Asian people themselves have brought to fruition. The U.S. is not without influence in the region, but it is incapable of dictating the ultimate parameters of what is possible or achievable in Asian politics. This is the principal to which American policy makers should adhere in moving forward: facing Asia one should not ask first and foremost about the state of U.S. power or American political will. Rather, one should inquire first into the natural limits of change determined by the historical conditions of Asian communities themselves.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Why Iraq Will Not Become a Theocracy

It has become almost cliche for political oracles to predict that Iraq will inevitably become a Shi'ite theocracy. While I would not number myself among those who are optimistic about the short-term future of Iraq, I would have to take issue with this blithe assessment. Civil war may well lurk somewhere in Iraq's future, but should that sad day arrive the outcome of such a conflict will almost certainly not be a Shi'ite theocracy.

Why can I state this so confidently? Because the Iraqi people are caught in the jaws of a historical vice, sandwiched between the pressing forces of Shi'a Islam and Arab nationalism. These two forces are little understood in the U.S., but if we are to navigate the turbulent waters of Iraqi politics in the days ahead U.S. leaders had better get a grasp of what they entail.

Sh'ia Islam is most often written off in textbook accounts and encyclopedia entries as the "minority tendency" within Islam, accounting for less than 15% of the world's Muslims. Such a demographic perspective vastly underestimates the importance of Shi'a in the cultural life of Islam, however. Sh'ia and Sunni Islam are not radically schismatic in the manner of Catholicism and Protestantism within Christendom. They are not divided over fundamental questions of doctrine or liturgy, nor is a special ritual required to "convert" from on "sect" to the other.

Two major concerns distinguish the Shi'a community: 1)the belief that the caliphate, or sovereign authority of the Islamic community, should have been retained within the family of the Prophet Muhamed, through the bloodline of his son-in-law Ali; 2)a profound reverence for a regular community of ulama, "doctors of Islamic science" who exercise traditional authority to adjudicate questions of Islamic law. By contrast, Sunni Muslims place much less emphasis upon the bloodline of Muhamed (the last widely acknowledged claimant to the caliphate was the Turkish Ottoman Sultan) and do not rely significantly upon the authority of regular ulama.

This latter distinction is especially important (disputes over the caliphate are for now moot, as the last acknowledged caliph was deposed in 1924). While Sunni Muslims do consult learned scholars of Islamic law, they make no attempt to set fixed or universal standards for their training and acreditation, nor do they establish regular channels for the exercise of their legal authority within the community at large. Where the Sunni ulama are a very loosely delineated and informal community of learned teachers, the Shi'ite ulama are constituted and operate in much the same fashion as the orthodox Jewish rabbinate. The tension between Sunni and Shi'a Islam does thus not reside in a truly theological dispute. Instead, the disagreement between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is a fundamentally political one. Shi'a is not a breakaway "sect" or "heresy" within Islam, but is a movement to organize the ummah (the community of the Muslim faithful) in such a way as to create the closest possible correspondence between divine revelation (the Qur'an) and secular authority. This synergy is achieved through investing sovereign authority in the family of the Prophet (to whom the Qur'an was revealed) and the establishment of a science and community of Qur'anic jurisprudence, so that the filaments of divine revelation may have the maximum structuring impact on daily life.

An understanding of the profoundly political impulses that engender and shape Shi'a Islam help explain the unique cultural-historical conditions of Iraqi history. Iraq is unique in the Islamic world in that it is the only nation (other than Bahrain) that is both majority Arab and majority Shi'ite. This fact is less surprising when we consider that Baghdad was for centuries the seat of the global Islamic caliphate. Though the caliphs that ruled from Baghdad were almost exclusively patrons of Sunni Islam, it is easy to understand why a movement to deepen the political impact of Islamic revelation would acquire great urgency and popularity in and around the seat of universal Islamic government. What we perceive as the territory of Iraq can thus be viewed, from a different perspective, as the staging area for a centuries-long crusade to realize an Islamic utopia.

Reading thus far one might be puzzled. If Shi'a Islam is so intrinsically political, how could anyone predict that Iraq will not become a Shi'ite theocracy? The chief historical example appealed to by predictors of a future "Iraqi theocracy" is that of Iran. In Iran in 1979 the utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam burst forth into violent fruition, resulting in the founding of the world's first Islamic republic. Given that the Shi'ite clergy of Iran have so clearly blueprinted the political trajectory of a Shi'a revolution, why would anyone doubt that the same thing would happen in Iraq under the right conditions?

The answer is simple. Such "right conditions" will never come, because the very powerful hold of Shi'ite ideology upon Iraqis will always exist in irresoluble tension with the equally powerful hold of Arab nationalism. The nature of Shi'a jurisprudence and the Shi'a ulama preclude the Iraqi Shi'ite community from disaggregating itself from that of Iran. The Shi'a ulama are not a sacramentally sanctioned heirarchy like that of the Roman Catholic Church, they are a consensual community held together by appeal to precedent and tradition. The jurisprudential procedures adhered to by the Shi'a ulama rely upon a broad body of learning, decisions and precedents akin to the Jewish Talmud. Just as with the Jewish Talmud and rabbinate, the expansive community of Shi'a ulama that produced and continues to interpret this ever-widening body of jurisprudential lore does not recognize political boundaries, it flows freely over the national frontier seperating Iraq from Iran. The two great centers of Shi'a learning (which house the institutions that set the standards of training and accreditation for the global "Twelver" Shi'a ulama) are Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Virtually all Shi'a ulama of any stature have studied in both centers of learning (Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini spent most of his formative years in Najaf, while Iraq's Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani spent his in Qom). The Iraqi Shi'a ulama are thus all deeply enmeshed in networks of patronage and authority that tie them inexorably and inseperably to their counterparts in Iran (and vice-versa).

Before the 20th century this did not pose a major problem (though even then it did cause some tension), as the political communities in which Muslims then lived did not function as the nation-states of today. Prior to the 20th century most Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, lived in dynastic realms such as the Ottoman Empire or the Qajar Regime of Iran. These dynastic realms were not seperated by clear territorial boundaries, they excercised variable claims to their subjects' loyalty and service that attenuated the further those subjects lived from the seat of dynastic power. At the frontiers between dynastic realms (like Iraq) people could, without major contradiction, offer political fealty (in varying degrees) to both the Ottoman Sultan and the Qajar Shah (this was sanctioned by the sovereigns themselves, as the Turkish Qajars occasionally paid nominal deference to the suzerainity of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul). In this climate the close functional ties between the Arab and Persian ulama did not create a major political dilemma.

This situation was permanently altered by developments of the 20th century. Not only were political boundaries redrawn after WWI to clearly demarcate (majority Arab) Iraq from (majority Persian) Iran, but the new ideology of nationalism fundamentally reshaped the way people throughout the Middle East conceptualized the political communities within which they lived. Nationalism was embraced by the people of the Middle East in angry defiance of European colonialism. In the views of many Turkish, Arab, and other leaders, these groups had been left prey to foreign domination, oppression, and economic exploitation in part because, unlike their European antagonists, they were not sufficiently united. In response to what these leaders perceived to be a catastrophic crisis they embraced the ideal of nationalism as the last hope for the salvation of their people.

A nation-state differs conceptually from a dynastic realm in that it operates within clearly identifiable demographic and territorial boundaries. Membership in a nation, unlike that in a dynastic realm, is not a matter of degree (so that it was possible to be part-Ottoman subject, part Qajar subject), it is an all-or-nothing proposition (one is either Iraqi or Iranian, never both). A nation offers its citizens unequivocal protection against foreign enemies, but demands from them unequivocal loyalty.

The profundity of this mutual commitment leads naturally to the question of which criteria determines membership in a nation. If membership in a nation were wholly arbitrary one could hardly expect a robust commitment to its flourishing from its citizens. This fact has posed a real challenge to the fostering of nationalism in most majority Arab countries, as these countries did not, prior to their founding, have long histories of independent existence. The frontiers of most Arab nations were set by European diplomats in the wake of WWI, "national" identity was thus an almost wholly arbitrary product of historical circumstances. In these conditions, the fact of shared Arab ethnicity has taken on profound significance in the conceptual architecture of nationalism in many Middle Eastern countries. The saga of the Arab people and their struggle for autonomy and dignity (even before the onset of European colonialism many Arabs were forced to live under the political domination of non-Arabs such as the Ottoman Turks) provides much more compelling soil for the roots of personal commitment and loyalty than the shallow and somewhat arbitrary narrative of states like Jordan or Syria. Most Arabs are loyal to their nations, but this loyalty is founded on the assumption that the nation itself serves (at least in theory) the cause of Arab advancement.

This is especially true in Iraq, a "nation" cobbled together out of the territory of three Ottoman imperial provinces. In thinking about Iraq past and future the wonder is not that Iraq might be headed toward civil war, but that it has maintained its territorial integrity from its founding in 1920 until now. The Iraqi people are deeply divided along ethnic (75% Arab, 20% Kurd, 5% Turkoman, Assyrian et. al.) and sectarian (65% Shi'ite, 32% Sunni, 3% Christian) lines. The only force that has kept Iraq from disintegrating is Arab nationalism- the belief among Iraq's Arab majority that the nation stands for the furtherance and protection of Arab rights. Arab nationalism in Iraq is rooted in the same experience of colonialism that engendered it throughout the Arab world. It is deepened and intensified, however, by the fact that (unlike many Arab nations) Iraqis live in close proximity to (and under threat from) many non-Arab peoples along their borders. To the north are the Turks who were their former imperial masters, to the east are the Iranians with whom they fought a brutal eight-year war.

This last fact demonstrates especially well the hold of Arab nationalism among Iraq's people. Like Iraq, Iran is a majority Shi'ite nation (89% Shi'ite), and as I noted above the Shi'a communities of both nations are inextricably intertwined. Under the Ba'ath regime of Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), the practice of Shi'a Islam was brutally repressed (in large part because it's free practice requires interaction between Iraqi Shi'ites and their coreligionists in Iran). If Iraq's Shi'ite majority did not feel some loyalty to their nation there is no way to explain how Iraq could hold out for eight years against Iran, a nation with almost three times the population of Iraq. Had Iraqi Shi'ites sided with the Shi'a ulama in rising against their own government Iraq would certainly have been defeated by Iran. Iraq's strategic stalemate with Iran would not have been possible unless some significant portion of Iraqi Shi'ites had remained (at least provisionally) loyal to their nation. Since that loyalty ran completely counter to their religious sympathies, it dramatically illustrates the powerful sway that Arab nationalism holds over all Iraqi Arabs, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Against this context, one can appreciate the terribly ambiguous situation of Iraqi Shi'ite leaders such as Grand Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani. On the one hand the intrinsic political utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam make the establishment of an Iraqi theocracy strongly appealing to a man like Sistani. But given the inherent dynamic of the Shi'a ulama (its inexorable tendency to bleed across the Iraqi-Iranian frontier) the functional establishment of an Iraqi Shi'ite theocracy independent from that of Iran is a practical impossibility. As Shi'a ulama in Iraq and Iran are already functionally inseperable, a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq would perforce become united with (and most probably dominated by) that of Iran. This is a situation which the vast majority of Iraqis (even Shi'ite Iraqis) would not tolerate, as it would violently offend their deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism. The only other alternative would be a radical schism between the Shi'a ulama of Iraq and that of Iran, a possibility that would no doubt horrify a Shi'ite leader of Sistani's prestige and commitment (and which might, in any case, be impossible).

These considerations taken together cast much light on the very ambivalent stance of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who though he has kept an active hand in Iraqi politics continues to avow that he would not want Iraqi ulama to hold the same type of political authority that they do in Iran. One might doubt his sincerity in this regard, but Sistani is no fool, and he is no doubt aware of the forces and contingencies outlined above. There is nothing to guarantee either that Sistani will remain consistent in his stance or that some other Shi'ite leader (such as the notorious Moqtada al-Sadr) will not attempt an Islamic revolution like that of Iran. But given the powerfully paradoxical forces that hold sway within Iraqi culture and society the viablity of such a revolution would be very, very tenuous. Were Iraq to fall into civil war a faction would almost certainly emerge geared toward creating a Shi'ite theocracy, but given the irresoluble contradictions between that goal and the imperatives of Arab nationalism such a faction would not likely succeed in gathering the numbers and support it would require to prevail. There are many contingencies about which to worry in contemplating the future of Iraq, but the creation of a Shi'ite theocracy must be ranked very low on the list of probable outcomes.