Friday, October 01, 2004


Writing in the journal International Security, David Edelstein considers why occupations succeed or fail. Examining 24 historical occupations since the Napoleonic Wars, he concludes firstly that military occupations usually succeed only if they are long - at least five years. This requires not only convincing the occupied people to accept extended foreign control, but also maintaining interest in the face of nationalist reaction and a desire for the occupying power to cut its losses and leave. Secondly, successful occupations are all about "hearts and minds" - about convincing the occupied population not to resist:

Establishing law and order, supplying basic staples, and refraining from the abuse of occupied populations are initial necessary steps toward winning hearts and minds. Such steps signal that the occupying power is dedicated to rebuilding the occupied territory, not just plundering it for valuable resources

Score three massive failures right there.

But the bulk of the article is taken up with an analysis of the three criteria for an occupation to be successful: a recognition by the occupied people of the need for occupation, the perception of a common threat to the occupied territory which the occupier can be seen as defending against, and a credible guarantee to withdraw and turn over power. Judged on these three criteria, the prospects for the occupation of Iraq do not look good:

Whereas war-weary Germans and Japanese recognised the need for an occupation to help them rebuild, a significant portion of the Iraqi people have never welcomed the U.S.-led occupation as necessary. Further, the common analogy between the occupations of Germany and Japan and the occupation of Iraq usually undervalues the central role that the Soviet threat played in allowing those occupations to succeed. Whereas Germans, Japanese, and Americans mostly agreed on the compelling nature of the Soviet threat, there is no similar threat that will enable Iraqis and the U.S.-led coalition to coalesce around common occupation goals. Finally, the Bush administration has had difficulty convincing significant segments of the Iraqi population that it intends to return control to a truly independent, indigenous government that will represent their interests, not those of the United States.

Could the occupation of Iraq still succeed? It depends on how you define "success". But looking at this analysis, the odds are against it.

(Edelsteins data set and selection criteria are available on his home page for those who think he's "cooking the books").