Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.04.24

What Was The Sacrifice in Iraq For?

JBpress on April 18, 2014

Tempus fugit. Today few remember that three young Japanese volunteers were freed ten years ago this week in Baghdad, after being held hostage in Fallujah for eight days. At the time there was a serious debate among the silent majority of Japanese over whether Japan should send ground troops to help rebuild Iraq. Were such Japanese efforts worthwhile in the end?

In 2003 Japan lost two diplomats near Tikrit. In 2004-5 three more Japanese citizens were murdered in southern Iraq. Between 2003 and 2009, despite strong criticism inside Japan, the Self Defense Forces sent 550 ground troops to Samawa to help reconstruct the local communities there. Now the silent majority of Japanese seem to have forgotten these things.

In the first half of 2004, I was stationed in Baghdad as Japan's diplomatic representative to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was virtually an occupation government of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had been captured. The constitution was rewritten. Billions of dollars were spent. The Japanese, however, seem to have lost all memory of this.

It is the same in the international community. Policymakers and pundits, whether in Washington D.C., London, Paris or Berlin, are focused on Ukraine, Syria, Iran and Egypt, but have little interest in Iraq any more. The unpopular war in Iraq ended and, despite all the human and economic resources rendered to Iraq, they behave as if nothing has happened in Baghdad over the past eleven years.

What were those sacrifices for? Wasn't the West committed to rebuilding and making that war-torn former dictatorship the free, democratic and prosperous country which the Iraqis deserve? Despite this, the Iraqi quest for democracy continues. They will hold a third general election of their People's Assembly at the end of this month.

The security situation in Iraq, unfortunately, has not dramatically improved. "With elections approaching," says a group of Iraq experts in their latest report, "it is also important to watch for the electoral gains of the political organizations affiliated with the militias." The ability to promise protection may be a decisive factor among competing parties on the final approach to elections.

This, however, would not justify neglecting Iraq. On the contrary, Iraq has been a major power in the Gulf region. With its population of 33 million and rich energy resources, it can contribute to the peace and stability which Japan badly needs in order to secure its vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) between the Gulf and East Asia.

This is not to criticize the Republicans in the United States who started the Iraq War, nor to ridicule the Democrats who ended it. What should be discussed here is the longevity, or I should say, the lack thereof, of our foreign policy attention span. It was just a decade ago when we had a huge debate on whether we should topple Saddam. Now young Japanese ask me who Saddam was.

If we admit that our attention span is not long, we must be very careful in dealing with nations or individuals who can patiently wait for the best possible opportunity to change the status quo by force, coercion or intimidation. They don't make haste. Rather, they take time, say months or years, to achieve their strategic objectives whether in Europe or in East Asia.

Our obliviousness or absentmindedness about the situation in post-Iraq War Baghdad simply shows how vulnerable we could be in confronting deep-rooted nationalistic or sectarian challenges in the world. Each brand of nationalism has its own history and will not go away. Sectarian sentiments are resilient and will not disappear.

We are living in a world which now seems to be characterized by neo-nationalism and sectarian assertiveness and where it is not easy to hold on to the banners of universal values. This requires repeated efforts and continuous education on our side to remind our peoples that nationalism or sectarian claims will not be an ultimate remedy for, or solution to, domestic or international disputes of whatever kind.

The crisis in Ukraine is just the tip of an iceberg of neo-nationalism and sectarianism. History shows that appeasement is an easy solution but will not be an effective one in the end. If we acquiesce and connive at any wrongdoing, we will ultimately have to pay for it. That's why we should not forget about Baghdad and the Iraq War.