President bush is not generally known for his firm grasp of history. But this has not stopped him from using history to justify his policies -- most recently in a speech to U.S. veterans in which he defended his aim to "stay the course" in Iraq by pointing out the consequences of the American withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. But lost in the criticism of that analogy was Bush's mention of the Korean War and the occupation of Japan after World War II as success stories in America's efforts to bring freedom to Asia and, by extension, the world.
Was Bush right to boast of the United States' role in giving Japan, Korea and other places in Asia under American protection their freedom? As he put it to the veterans: "Will today's generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat, and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?"
What exactly did the U.S. do in Asia? The first few years of the occupation of Japan were indeed a remarkable success for democracy. Instead of helping Japanese of the old school restore an authoritarian system, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's administration helped Japanese liberals restore and improve their prewar democratic institutions. Trade unions were given more clout. Women got the vote. Civil liberties were boosted. And the semi-divine Japanese emperor was brought down to earth. Much of the credit for this goes to the Japanese themselves and the idealistic, left-leaning New Dealers in MacArthur's government who supported them.
When China fell to Mao Tse-tung's communists, however, and North Korea got Chinese and Soviet backing for an invasion of South Korea, democratic idealism was stopped in its tracks. In Japan, former war criminals were released from prison, "reds" were purged and right-wing governments led by some of those same former war criminals got enthusiastic American backing. Democracy, instead of being nurtured, was distorted, with active American encouragement, to make sure the right stayed in power and the left was kept at bay.
The South Koreans certainly have much to thank Americans for. Without the U.N. intervention in the Korean War, led by the U.S., the South would have been taken over by Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader," and its current freedom and prosperity would never have been possible. But South Korean democracy was not something the U.S. gave to the Koreans, or even always encouraged. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, Washington played along with, and sometimes actively backed, anti-communist authoritarian rulers who grabbed and consolidated their power through violent coups and the suppression of dissent.
The same was true in the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia, and indeed in the Middle East, where democracy has yet to take root. As long as the Cold War lasted, military strongmen and civilian dictators were consistently favored by U.S. administrations in the name of fighting communism; anything to keep the left down, even the kind of left that would have been regarded as simply liberal in the democratic West.
Now, it is true that for most people, life under right-wing Asian strongmen was, on the whole, to be preferred to life under Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung or even Ho Chi Minh. But to call the citizens under South Korea's Park Chung-hee, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia's Gen. Suharto or Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek "free" would be an abomination. The happy fact that Koreans, Filipinos, Indonesians and Taiwanese did eventually become free, or at least freer, is not so much to the credit of the U.S. as to the people who fought for their freedoms themselves. It was only in the late 1980s, when the communist empires were crumbling, that U.S. governments actively backed democratic politicians and demonstrators in Seoul, Manila and Taipei. The heroes of Asian democracy are not Americans but Asians.
Bush is right to claim that people in the Middle East would like to be as prosperous and free as the South Koreans, but his notion that the war in Iraq is simply a continuation of U.S. policies in Asia could not be more mistaken.
In Asia, as in the Middle East, U.S. strategy was conservative: propping up dictators against communism until they were toppled by their own people. In the Middle East today, it is reckless and radical: invading a country, wrecking its institutions and expecting that freedom will grow in the ensuing state of anarchy.
To confuse these very different enterprises and pretend that they are the same is not only wrong but dangerous -- and deeply disappointing to those of us who still regard the United States as a force for good.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance." He is a professor at Bard College and a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times