John Dower is the author of "Embracing Defeat," the Pulitzer Prize winning account of Japan after World War II. He says America's goals for Japan "became summarized in a catch phrase – demilitarization and democratization."
Sound familiar? Well, President Bush is now assuring Iraqis: "We will end a brutal regime whose aggression and weapons of mass destruction made it a unique threat to the world. We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens."
Unlike Germany -- where post-war responsibility was divided among the US, England, France and the Soviet Union -- the United States took the dominant role in Japan. Much as it's expected to do in Iraq.
And as for more modern conflicts like Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama, Haiti and even Afghanistan, once the shooting was over, the U.S. never made the kind of long term, full-fledged investment that it did after World War II.
So it's no wonder that some U.S. government officials are looking back longingly at what was achieved in Japan.
Dower says, "It's a real democracy and it has not menaced its neighbors; it's a success."
He notes that there were some important factors that made the Japanese experience unique:
Dower describes MacArthur as a powerful and fascinating figure.
"He was enormously charismatic, and I think it was extremely important. His title was 'supreme commander.' Sometimes I think in his own mind he got confused between being supreme commander and Supreme Being. He really had a messianic sense of his own destiny," Dower explains. "He also very quickly made it clear that although he would be very firm, he would not be harsh and punitive."
Gen. MacArthur and Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers helped the Japanese write a new, progressive Constitution that, for the first time created rights of citizenship.
They said: "If we give the Japanese the basic laws and institutions that will protect the growth of indigenous democracy, they will indeed be able to seize upon that opportunity and move to self governance." And they were right.
Dower believes that a major reason the occupation succeeded is that it had moral and legal legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and the Japanese people themselves.
Japan had attacked the U.S., and Japan's neighbors supported the American presence. That, says Dower, is in direct contrast to the situation in Iraq.
"I think there is no legitimacy in the eyes of the most people in the world, to the way in which the Americans went in," Dower observes. "I understand and truly sympathize with those who say there are moments that there must be humanitarian intervention, but in the eyes of so many people in the world, this was not that moment."
Mamoun Fandy is an Egyptian American who writes a column for an Arab newspaper and teaches Political Science at Georgetown University. He says it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks, as long as the Iraqi people are content.
"The signs are clear that the Iraqis are happy. And if the Iraqis are happy, I don't think it is the right of the French or the Germans or the Russians to tell what the Iraqis should feel or think. I don't think it is the right, even of arab neighbors to tell Iraqis how to feel about America," Fandy says.
But how will the idea of democracy square with Islamic principles in that part of the world?
"I don't think a dictatorship is in keeping with the Islamic principles," observes Fandy. "I don't think injustice is in keeping with Islamic principles. And I see all the signs saying that Muslims in the Arab world, like any great people yearn for democracy, yearn for ending the yoke of dictatorship."
Professor Dower agrees, but he points out that unlike Japan, where resistance was non-existent, some Iraqis are still fighting. And more terrorist acts, like the suicide bombing a few days ago, are likely. In addition, even when civil order is restored, longstanding religious, tribal, and ethnic hostilities will plague Iraq.
"You have enormous factionalism. It has created enormous factionalism within the American government," Dower notes. "The state department, the C.I.A., and the Pentagon all have their different factions that they're backing. You have corporate interests coming in. So who are the people we are going to work with? It is a very complex political scheme."
Fandy takes a different perspective. "If you flip it the other way, you realize that tribalism and ethnicity are signs of pluralism," he says. "It's not the Sunni view. It's not the Shiite view. It's not the Kurds' view. It's a mix of all of that and these are really fundamentals for democracy."
But how much time, money and effort is the U.S. willing to invest in Iraq? America spent six and a half years helping Japan build democracy. The Bush Administration is not saying exactly how long it will stay in Iraq, but has earmarked 19 billion dollars for transition and restructuring. That could be just a fraction of what is needed.
And given the limited post war effort in Afghanistan, Dower says things don't bode well for Iraq.
"America doesn't have staying power. It doesn't have a vision of the complexity of rebuilding civil societies. We're obsessed with visions that are military and security oriented. And there is no one articulating that kind of vision," Dower explains.
But Mamoun Fandy, who has taught at the Pentagon's National Defense University, argues that Iraq is a more pivotal state than Afghanistan.
Does he think the U.S. is willing to spend the time and money to actually follow through in Iraq?
"I think either it would come through with these things in the region or the whole image of the United States will be totally shattered as a superpower, as an important stabilizing power in the world system," Fandy says. "It is really make or break for America."
Once upon a time, the U.S. made and kept a promise to bring freedom and democracy to another nation. The question now is whether that will really happen again.