The president recently restated his goal: to transform Iraq into democratic-capitalist modernity, much as Germany and Japan had been transformed during the military occupations that followed their defeat in World War II.
But Iraq is an Arab country, and no Arab country has yet been able to consolidate democracy, and that includes Jordan and Lebanon, the two that are most developed. Literacy rates illustrate the difficulty of modernizing Iraq: in 2003/04, 57 percent of women in 15 Arab countries were literate. World Bank data show just 30 percent of Iraqi females as literate in 2003.
And, of course, democratization in Iraq is vastly complicated by the longstanding hostility between the majority Shiite and the minority Sunni, and between those two Arab sects and the Iraqi Kurds.
By contrast, Germany and Japan were highly developed industrial nations with fully integrated and educated populaces. And their governments had both surrendered unconditionally.
Our military occupations of three underdeveloped countries in the Caribbean basin in the early decades of the 20th century may have far greater relevance for Iraq.
Motivated chiefly by concern over German presence in unstable Caribbean countries at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal, President William Howard Taft ordered the military occupation of Nicaragua, which lasted from 1912 to 1933. Woodrow Wilson followed suit in Haiti (1915-34) and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).
As in Iraq, these interventions combined elements of realpolitik and what Franklin Roosevelt's Latin America expert Sumner Welles subsequently described as the role of the Evangel: to reform the conditions of life and government of the sovereign republics of the American hemisphere.
But Mr. Welles concluded with respect to US-imposed democratic reform, "All sense of proportion was lost."
The dubiousness of the Bush credo "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society" is underscored by the aftermath of those prolonged military occupations:
Nicaragua: The US Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and attempted to install democratic institutions. But the occupation provoked an insurgency led by Augusto César Sandino, who became a symbol of resistance to US intervention. In step with Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy, the Marines left in 1933.
In 1936, Nicaragua's National Guard commander General Anastasio Somoza García initiated a dictatorial dynasty that would last for 43 years. A successful revolution led by the leftist Sandinistas – "children of Sandino"– forced Anastasio Somoza Debayle into exile in 1979, leading to another US military intervention through aid to the contras in the 1980s. Democratic continuity was established in the elections of 1990, but it is fragile and marred by extensive corruption.
Haiti: The Marines' occupation of Haiti also provoked a militant reaction – the "Caco" insurgencies. The first insurgency was put down by the end of 1915. But a second insurgency, prompted in part by abuses of the US-trained Haitian Gendarmerie, erupted late in 1918. The Gendarmerie was unable to contain it, but the First US Marine Brigade succeeded in ending the uprising.
Atrocities committed by US military during the second Caco campaign led to Senate hearings during 1921-22.
The Marines left Haiti in 1934. Haitian politics soon returned to the authoritarianism, exploitation, and corruption that had characterized most Haitian governments going back to independence in 1804. The American military returned in 1994 to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – and again in 2004 to escort him out and help try to make order out of chaos.
Dominican Republic: The democratic institutions installed by the United States soon started to unravel after the Marines left the Dominican Republic in 1924, and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who had been groomed by the Marines to lead the Dominican National Guard, assumed dictatorial powers in 1930 that would last for more than three decades. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. The instability that followed precipitated another US military intervention in 1965 motivated principally by concern that the revolution would lead to a "second Cuba" in the Caribbean. The crisis passed, and democratic continuity was more or less established in 1966.
These three examples demonstrate how good intentions expressed through military force and money can be frustrated by cultures that are not congenial to democratic institutions. The Bush administration's idea that "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society" ignores the lessons not only of these three cases, but also of the more generalized problems of democratization in the Islamic world, Africa, and Latin America.
Surely past and present Bush advisers such as Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice have read Alexis de Tocqueville's classic "Democracy in America." But they – and Senator McCain – must have forgotten its overriding lesson: When it comes to the viability of democracy, more than anything else, culture matters.
Lawrence E. Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. His most recent book is "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself."