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Iraq: War and Democracy
I support regime change. I support it around the world, including in Iraq, where a dictator holds sway. The question, however, is whether we should support regime change by the United States military and whether there is any reason to believe that a U.S. invasion will lead to democracy for the people of Iraq, let alone for the wider region.
There are many good reasons to be skeptical that a U.S. military assault will result in any sort of meaningful democracy. First, one only has to look at who the supposed agent of this democratic flowering is to be: George W. Bush, who rules the United States illegitimately, having stolen the 2000 election, and who presides over the most serious assault on the basic democratic rights of the people of the United States in over half a century. Second, one should look at the long record of U.S. foreign policy.
- At the turn of the last century, during the debate over the annexation of the Philippines, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge declared, if justice requires the consent of the governed, “then our whole past record of expansion is a crime.”
- Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his devotion to democracy while sponsoring interventions in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
- In 1949, the CIA backed a military coup that deposed the elected government of Syria.
- In the 1950s, the CIA overthrew the freely-elected, democratic government of Guatemala and blocked free elections in Vietnam.
- In the 1960s, the United States undermined democracy in Brazil and in the Congo (the first scrapping of a legally recognized democratic system in post-colonial Africa).
- In 1963, the United States backed a coup by the Ba’ath party in Iraq—Saddam Hussein’s party —and gave them names of communists to kill.
- In the 1970s, the CIA helped to snuff out democracy in Chile. As Kissinger told a top-secret meeting, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
- In 1981, vice-president George Bush Sr. told Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, “We love your adherence to democratic principle.”
- Consider Indonesia, ruled by a dictator, Suharto, who killed more “of his own people” than did Saddam Hussein (with U.S. arms and, again, with lists of names of Communists to liquidate). In 1997, the year before the Indonesian people drove Suharto into exile, Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that “any balanced judgment of the situation in Indonesia today, including the very important and sensitive issue of human rights, needs to take account of the significant progress that Indonesia has already made and needs to acknowledge that much of this progress has to be credited to the strong and remarkable leadership of president Suharto.”
- Consider the report written for Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu in 1996 by a group of U.S. neoconservatives, many of whom hold prominent positions in the current Bush war administration (Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser). This report recommended restoring the Hashemite monarchy to power in Iraq.
There has been little acknowledgment of just how deep U.S. opposition to democracy has been. So even a New York Times article by Todd Purdum in March, admitting that the U.S. has not always been a champion of democracy, says the following: “The first President Bush protested when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected leader of Haiti, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but was far less exercised around the same time when the Algerian Army canceled the second round of elections that seemed certain to put an Islamic fundamentalist regime in power.”
Purdum is right about Algeria, but his account of Haiti is terribly misleading. In fact, the U.S. had all sorts of ties to the coup plotters in Haiti and did all it could to sabotage efforts to remove the junta.
There are other reasons to be skeptical about the democratic impact of this war: oil contracts, bases, Kurds—plans are being made by the Bush administration on all these matters, matters that even minimal notions of democracy would leave to Iraqis. Bush, writes Thomas Powers in the March 18 New York Times , “will have virtually unlimited power...far greater power, for example, than Queen Victoria’s over India in the 19th century.”
U.S. officials say the occupation will last at least two years. Powers notes that the U.S. troops will remain until U.S.-Iranian differences “are resolved by diplomacy or war, which ever comes first.”
The claim that the U.S. wants to bring democracy to the region is preposterous. Imagine what democracy in the Middle East today would mean. Is it conceivable that a Saudi Arabian government that reflected the views of its people would be providing bases for Washington’s war? Would a democratic Egypt allow U.S. forces to transit the Suez canal? Would democratic UAE or Qatar or Bahrain be aiding the U.S. war effort?
Consider Turkey: the U.S. was outraged at a parliamentary vote, which was consistent with the views of 94 percent of population. (The cabinet had earlier been pressed by Washington into approving a deal before details were even worked out, hardly a model of democratic practice.) The Turkish military said it had avoided making a statement before the parliament’s vote because it knew that would be undemocratic, but after the failed vote it didn’t refrain from pressing for a reversal, with U.S. backing.
A February 26, 2003 classified State Department report was leaked to the Los Angeles Times (March 14, 2003). The thrust of the document, according to a source, was “...this idea that you’re going to transform the Middle East and fundamentally alter its trajectory is not credible.”
“Even if some version of democracy took root—an event the report casts as unlikely—anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States and Electoral democracy, were it to emerge, could well be subject to exploitation by anti- American elements.”
Bush refers to his “coalition of the willing” and many analysts have noted that it is a coalition of the coerced and the bribed. But it’s also a coalition of the undemocratic. It is a coalition of governments whose views do not reflect the views of their people—the basic, minimal definition of demo- cracy.
As Colin Powell proudly put it: “We need to knock down this idea that nobody is on our side.” Many nations share our view. “And they do it in the face of public opposition.” ( NYT , March 10, 2003)
Britain, Spain, Italy: in all these countries overwhelming majorities of the population are opposed to war. Nor are things any different in the “New Europe.” In Bulgaria, for example, the one Security Council supporter of the U.S.-UK-Spanish position, a January poll showed 59 percent of the population opposed to war in any circumstances and another 28 percent opposed to war without Security Council backing, with only 5 percent favoring a unilateral war by the United States and its allies.
The only country in the world where a majority of the population supports war is Israel and this is the one country that is not officially part of the coalition of the willing (for fear it will drive some of the willing into becoming unwilling).
In the United States, there is no decisive voice for war. While the latest polls seem to show majority support for war, the same polls show that 60 percent believe the U.S. should take into account the views of its allies, more want the U.S. to take account of any UN veto than don’t, and 52 percent want the inspectors to be given more time (CBS/NYT poll, March 7-9). A US A Today poll the weekend of March 15 says that 50 percent oppose war if there is no UN resolution.
The CBS/NYT poll also shows that 62 percent think the Bush administration is not telling the public important information it needs to know, but a plurality believe, contrary to any evidence, that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. This poll data suggests considerable confusion, which is not surprising, given the government lies, forgeries, plagiarism, and press self-censorship. (Would public opinion be different if the U.S. press had given prominent attention to the U.S. spying on the UN or the suppressed testimony of the Iraqi defector?) Democratic backing doesn’t automatically make a war right, but this will surely be one of the most undemocratic wars ever waged.
Some have argued that U.S. policy has yielded democracy before, specifically in the case of Japan following World War II. The analogy, however, is unconvincing.
First, U.S. policy makers maintained the emperor in power, planning to use his authority to enhance their own control over Japan and to make sure that they determined the pace and extent of change. This meant that criticisms of the emperor had to be suppressed. Thus, a left- wing film critical of the emperor was banned by American officials in 1946. Anything negative about the emperor was kept out of the Tokyo war crimes trial.
In the first few years of the occupation, some genuine democratic reforms were introduced in Japan: there was land reform, unions were promoted, the new constitution included a “no war” pledge, some right-wing militarists were purged, and some of the zaibatsu, the corporate behemoths of the Japanese economy, were broken up. But these reforms were carried out by New Dealers, the most liberal U.S. government in history, while in Iraq we can look forward to rule by the most reactionary U.S. regime in more than 70 years. By 1948, as Washington came to realize that China was not going to become an anti-communist bastion and that a powerful alternative was needed, U.S. occupation policy in Japan underwent a “reverse course.” Japanese economic power would now be rebuilt as part of an anti-Soviet alliance and many of the early reforms were weakened or repealed. War criminals were released. A threatened general strike was banned in 1947 and over the next three years imposed laws severely weakening the labor movement. In 1949, there was a mass purge of Communists, using regulations originally designed for ultra- right militarists.
Japan’s dominant conservative politicians were allowed to maintain their grip on power by the U.S. Occupation authorities and were secretly bankrolled by the CIA through the 1960s.
The U.S. occupation lasted seven years (and two decades longer for Okinawa), but before it ended U.S. officials took two more steps to consolidate Japan as Washington’s key ally against communism in Asia. First, the U.S. obtained military bases in Japan, which they maintain to this day. Second, they got Tokyo to agree that it would not trade with the Chinese mainland. For the latter to be feasible, U.S. policy makers determined that Japan would need to seek what State Department planner George Kennan called “an empire to the south.” U.S. government officials frankly spoke of sponsoring a new “Co- Prosperity Sphere.” This meant U.S. subversion, counterinsurgency, and massive attack to keep Southeast Asia in Washington’s global economic system. Thus, the war purportedly fought to defeat aggression and militarism in Asia led to U.S. policies of aggression and militarism in Asia.
One final indication of the U.S. view of democracy is its attitude toward the UN: the organization must follow U.S. orders or Washington will do what it wants anyway; that the U.S. has the right to openly bribe other nations to secure their votes; that Washington alone has the right to interpret UN resolutions; and so on.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says that he favors war despite the odds that things will turn out horribly because he thinks it’s worth the long-shot chance for democracy. So even if the likelihood of democracy emerging is small, isn’t that better than nothing? Shouldn’t we take the chance, even if there weren’t many tremendous costs of going to war, such as:
- It will destroy the fragile institutions of international law built up over the last few decades. (Already Turkey is saying that if the U.S. can intervene in Iraq to preventively protect its national security, why can’t Ankara?)
- It will increase recruiting for Al Qaeda, as reported in a recent New York Times
- It will increase, rather than decrease, the spread of weapons of mass destruction
- It places immense numbers of Iraqi civilians at risk
There are many grim predictions about civilian casualties from NGOs and internal UN documents. Fred Kaplan on Slate is right that these are just guesses, with no solid proof. But the rosy predictions of the Bush administration are no less guesses and there are reasons to be concerned
Consider that a report in the London Independent , February 2, 2003, stated, “The Ministry of Defence yesterday admitted the electricity system that powers water and sanitation for the Iraqi people could be a military target, despite warnings that its destruction would cause a humanitarian tragedy.”
U.S. war games were reported ( NYT , October 22, 2002) to involve 10 percent casualties among the attacking force in urban warfare in Baghdad. Can one imagine how many civilians the U.S. will put at risk to minimize the dangers to its own forces?
Bush has warned that Saddam Hussein has been interspersing troops and military targets among the civilian population and that any harm would be Saddam’s fault. But if Bush intends to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam, then presumably he views them as hostages, and who would want hostages liberated by U.S. cruise missiles and MOAB munitions?
So even if we were sure that war would bring democracy to Iraq, the costs would be too high. But of course, we are not at all sure. While one doesn’t know what the future will bring, whether the U.S. will install some sort of democratic facade or keep General Tommy Franks as the local proconsul, one thing is clear: there won’t be real democracy for the people of Iraq.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Patterson University in New Jersey. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently Which Side Are You On? (Longman), a political science text book.
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