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Bush’s Alleged Democracy Goal in Iraq
L iberation and democracy came late as an alleged major goal of the Bush administration in its invasion-occupation of Iraq. Despite this lateness, and a vast array of reasons and evidence that at best only a nominal or “Arab façade”democracy was on the Bush agenda, to a remarkable degree the mainstream U.S. media, pundits— including many liberal pundits—as well as the UN and other members of the “international community” quickly accepted the notion of a democratic aim. This, of course, has served the Bush administration well, transforming a major act of aggression and violation of the UN Charter, and a brutal, destructive, exploitative, and illegal occupation, into a pursuit of noble ends, including “stability”—which the invasion-occupation destroyed—as a supposed means to democracy.
This dubious acceptance of a creditable objective was an important feature of the media’s and establishment intellectuals’ treatment of the Vietnam War almost a half century back. The U.S. aims at that time were always treated as benevolent: repelling “aggression,” protecting “South Vietnam,” and helping to give the southern Vietnamese the right to “self-determination.” The evidence that the National Liberation Front (NLF) had mass support whereas the U.S.-imposed client government had very little, that “South Vietnam” was an artificial U.S. creation, and that most of the fighting and killing by the United States was of South Vietnamese in the southern part of Vietnam, that “self-determination” was precisely what the United States was fighting against, and that only the United States was the external aggressor, never caused the media to challenge the claimed noble ends (or to identify this as a case of U.S. aggression).
The client government of the southern part of Vietnam was a classic puppet. U.S. General Maxwell Taylor pointed out in internal communications that we could replace a recalcitrant or ineffective leader with another of our choice whenever deemed desirable. In its later years this government was manned by U.S.-selected former mercenaries of the earlier French colonial regime who openly acknowledged their inability to compete with the NLF on a purely political basis. But the word puppet was never applied to this government by the mainstream media any more than they would use the word aggression to describe their own government’s role.
Things have not improved since the Vietnam War years. The United States fought then to maintain a client government and dependency in the southern part of Vietnam. The Bush administration aimed similarly to depose Saddam Hussein and put in his place a client government and dependency in Iraq. Of course we sponsored elections in Iraq and gave Iraq its “sovereignty” in 2004, but we sponsored elections in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and “South Vietnam” had been declared sovereign by its U.S. sponsor in 1954, and anybody capable of making an independent assessment would have been aware that the sovereignty was purely nominal. Also that the elections were “demonstration elections” designed to prove something to the U.S. public rather than free elections that gave the locals a real choice. Iraq’s election was held under a military occupation and in the midst of a counterinsurgency war that was provoking a simultaneous civil war so that, like the Vietnam elections, it was compromised in advance.
George Bush himself pointed out the incompatibility of a military occupation with an honest election. With reference to Lebanon, Bush stated that France as well as the United States, “said loud and clear to Syria, you get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish.” The U.S. occupation of Iraq has been far more extensive, intrusive, transformational, and violent than that of Syria in Lebanon, but the patriotic double standard applies here and is unchallenged in the U.S. mainstream. Our troops, secret services, control of finances, and imposed structural and legal changes in the occupied country do not threaten “good democracy.” This is strictly a triumph of ideology and statesupportive propaganda.
T he ease with which the democracy objective has been institutionalized as the Bush goal in Iraq is truly striking. My favorite illustration is Michael Ignatieff’s lengthy article “Who Are Americans To Think That Freedom is Theirs To Spread?” in the New York Times Magazine of June 26, 2005. In this article, Ignatieff lauds Bush for putting his presidency on the line in the interest of liberation/democracy (“risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right”). Ignatieff is on target in saying that Bush risked his presidency in his invasion and subsequent lengthy pursuit of some kind of victory in Iraq, but it is obvious that he did this for reasons other than democracy promotion—such as power projection, control of oil, helping Israel, the pleasure of beating up a virtually disarmed state. Furthermore, after getting into the quagmire, Bush may have really put his presidency on the line because of a vain, weak incompetent’s unwillingness to admit a mistake and accept a defeat.
Another important liberal spokesperson for the notion that Bush was pursuing democracy has been George Packer, who like Ignatieff writes often for the New York Times , is a regular in the New Yorker and published a book on Iraq policy in 2005, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq . Like Ignatieff, Packer rests his case exclusively on Bush’s word: “No one should doubt that he and his surviving senior advisers believe in what they call the ‘forward strategy of freedom,’ even if they’ve had to talk themselves into it…. Bush wants democratization to be his legacy. So when his critics, here and abroad, claim that his rhetoric merely provides cynical cover for an American power grab, they misjudge his sincerity and tend to sound like defenders of the status quo” ( New Yorker , January 7, 2005). Given that he doesn’t offer an iota of evidence for this claim or tell us how he measures “sincerity” or stop to analyze what Bush might mean by “democracy” and what kind might satisfy his new dedication, Packer tends to sound like a gullible apologist and willing executioner for “an American power grab.”
Like Ignatieff, Packer doesn’t discuss any structural factors or anything else affecting U.S. foreign policy and he is even more obscurantist that Ignatieff, who at least mentions that historically the United States has often supported tyrannies and that the turn to “democracy promotion” has been recent—Packer ignores both the power structure and history. He repeatedly asserts that this is a “war of ideas,” with freedom versus tyranny the issue, again without the slightest attempt to examine whether material interests might be the driving force with ideas providing the cover. He never tries to explain why the war of ideas doesn’t extend to policy toward Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Israel, and why with ideas so decisive these countries can be exempted from democracy promotion, while “democracy” is aggressively promoted in Iraq and the Ukraine. It’s odd that Bush should literally invade Iraq and threaten to invade Iran to “promote democracy,” but in cases like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt not only doesn’t he invade, but he actually provides economic aid and/or military protection to undemocratic regimes.
There is also the question of reconciliation of democracy promotion abroad with Bush’s steady erosion of democracy at home. In his book The Fight Is For Democracy Packer acknowledges that under increasing business domination and pressure democracy is “atrophying” in the United States itself, but he fails to address the problem of consistency and the challenge this atrophying poses to the sincere and passionate desire of Bush to promote democracy abroad. Could his desired legacy be democracy abroad and authoritarianism at home?
As regards Iraq, what if the Iraqi people reject us and, in fact, want us out badly enough to develop a formidable resistance to the occupation? Packer never addresses this question directly, but the whole tone of his work suggests that it is acceptable to impose a regime on a country by violence if it has a dictatorial government. At one point Packer implies that the idea of “America’s divine right of intervention” is a “bad idea” (“Wars and Ideas,” New Yorker , July 5, 2004), but in reference to Iraq Packer swallows that divine right, given the badness of the Saddam regime. The blatant violation of international law and implicit abandonment of the rule of law doesn’t disturb him, given the provocations and his implicit faith in U.S. motives—and that divine right can apparently be rationalized no matter what the consequences. Any difficulties are a product of an unfortunate mismanagement and perhaps an unappreciative and recalcitrant population.
So if there is compelling evidence that the Iraqi people don’t want us, for reasons of mismanagement or because of their belief that, contrary to Packer, the Bush team is not there to create a real democracy, that is tough luck for the Iraqis—we must stay because “we are committed to this and we have an enormous obligation to the Iraqis” (quoted by Michelle Goldberg, “Dazed and Confused About Iraq,” Salon , October 27, 2003).
In carrying out this crusade for those Iraqis, we have been responsible for the death of several hundred thousand civilians, and deaths have grown in close relation to the character and scale of U.S. intervention. Is it not cynical—or stupid—apologetics to demand more self-generating violence allegedly on behalf of the victims? What kind of hypocrite could prate regularly about “genocide” in Bosnia— which Packer refers to repeatedly—where perhaps 100,000 were killed on all sides while asking for still more violence on the part of his own government in Iraq where the civilian total has already greatly exceeded the “genocidal” total in Bosnia?
For Packer, “The hard question isn’t whether America should try to enlarge the democratic order but how.” The role of critics of Bush should be “not to scoff at the idea of spreading freedom but to take it seriously—to hold him to his own talk.” In short, with Packer we are dealing not with a “cynical” apologetics for a power grab, but with a muddled apologetics that can’t get its lines straight and can’t face up to serious political or historical analysis and evidence. Again, that the New York Times and New Yorker can swallow such tripe tells us a lot about the political culture (Packer has had 30 bylined items in the New York Times , 26 in the New Yorker ).
Ignatieff and Packer are surely not alone. The notion that democracy is the Bush objective in Iraq pervades the New York Times and mainstream media in general, although for the most part it is just taken as a premise, without the padding, windbaggery, contradictions, and evasions that make Ignatieff’s and Packer’s treatment of the issue look so foolish. Of course, the right wing takes the democracy objective as obvious. Robert Kagan even puts it sarcastically—“America support democracy, how novel” ( Financial Times , December 6, 2006)—and Andrew Sullivan states that the neoconservatives “fought a war to construct a democratic polity in Iraq” ( Sunday Times [London], July 23, 2006). It is standard procedure across the board: Stanley Hoffmann speaks of civilian leaders in the Pentagon with “hopes for building a democracy in Iraq that would somehow serve as a model for other governments in the Middle East” (“Out of Iraq,” New York Review of Books , October 21, 2004) and Orlando Patterson writes a long commentary piece in the New York Times to show “the folly of forcing freedom on those who don’t want it” (“God’s Gift?” December 19, 2006), with no attempt whatsoever to show that the forcing of “freedom” was a real objective or that those benighted Iraqis wouldn’t want it if it was really an offer.
Of course Thomas Friedman swallows this as a premise, finding that “the post-9/11 democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is being hijacked” (“The Kidnapping of Democracy,” NYT , July 14, 2006), and the Times editors regularly invoke the democracy objective: “Washington” is always aiming “to build a peaceful, democratic and unified Iraq that could survive without American troops” (ed., “The Road Ahead in Iraq,” October 26, 2006), and Times reporters regularly accept that Iraq has a “functioning democracy” and a “democratically elected government” that is threatened and may not survive (Michael Wines, “Democracy Has to Start Somewhere,” NYT , February 6, 2005; Michael Gordon, “Bombs Aimed at G.I.’s in Iraq Are Increasing,” NYT , August 16, 2006). But throughout the media there is that “push for democracy” (Paul Richter, “Mideast Allies near a state of panic,” Los Angeles Times , December 3, 2006); that “high-profile push for democracy” (David Morgan, “U.S. seen retreating from democracy push,” Reuters, October 12, 2006).
Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books, including Triumph of the Market (South End Press).
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