English

The Denial of Democracy in Iraq

Apr 28 2004

by Aseem Shrivastava; April 2004

America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

­ John Quincy Adams, Sixth US President

“Be careful of what you want. You might get it!” This is the sobering lesson being learnt nowadays with regards to the American enterprise of dictating democracy in Iraq.

“All men are created equal.” But some are more equal than others. The situation in Iraq shows that colonialism, in its most devastatingly compassionate form yet, is alive and well in the Brave New World of the 21st century. So is the accompanying racism. And the repercussions for the world could be catastrophic.

During its brutal suppression of the massive Fallujah uprising in early April ­ which took the lives of over 800 people ­ the U.S. bombed a mosque and killed 40 Iraqi civilians to avenge injuries to 5 marines from shots fired by insurgents, alleged to be hiding in the mosque. These “insurgents” were, till very recently, ordinary civilians. They were not hiding among civilians. They were civilians. In the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah even women have started carrying guns (latest recruits for Al-Qaeda? American democracy gives citizens “the right to bear arms.” Why shouldn’t Iraqi democracy be fashioned along similar lines?) In Baghdad and Najaf, families are giving away all their sons to Shiite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. (One irony escapes the Americans: how did Al-Sadr, whose father was executed by Saddam Hussein, turn against them?) In Basra, relatively “calm” till last week, people poured into the streets in protest against the occupation, after the bombings which accounted for 70 people including many children. This was followed by “suicide speedboat” attacks on coastal oil installations in which 2 American troops were killed.

There are more than a few ­ an Iraqi poet for instance ­ who believe that the U.S. itself has been engineering some of the bombings and blaming it on insurgents in order to justify its prolonged presence. The U.S. has certainly been gunning down all and sundry, including TV journalists from the Iraqi media.

Liberal, arrogant use of U.S. military talent has ended up achieving the precise opposite of what Washington had wished for: that the Shias and the Sunnis would remain divided enough for the U.S. to claim that its long-term presence in Iraq was necessary to avoid a civil war. Minarets from Shiite mosques in Baghdad now call openly for people to donate money and blood for fighters in the Fallujah uprising. There are widespread calls for the U.S. to leave Iraq. Moqtada Al-Sadr, besieged and threatened by the U.S. in Najaf (and whose popularity has made the U.S. military wary of “bombing him out”), calls the Iraqi Governing Council the “Governed Council”.

Arabs in neighboring countries are increasingly considering the parallels between the twin occupations, of Palestine and Iraq, especially after they discerned U.S. complicity in the second open assassination of a Hamas leader carried out by Israel within a month, close on the heels of Ariel Sharon’s return from Washington. In several Arab countries, like Egypt, they continue to burn American and Israeli flags together.

Let’s go back to World War II for a moment. Hitler’s armies invaded and conquered France in 1940, installing a puppet regime, headquartered in Vichy. Thereon, the Nazis controlled the destiny of France, rounding up and executing Jews wherever possible. The French premier, Marshall Petain, provided his cowardly assistance. Finally, the Allies, led by Britain and the U.S., entered Paris in August 1944 and liberated France from Nazi occupation.

The analogy with Iraq is, of course, inexact. In France, an occupying power was removed through intervention by other foreign powers. In Iraq a dictator has been removed by a foreign power which has, in turn, occupied the country. But it is worth pursuing the analogy to some degree. While France’s sovereignty was restored through the liberation, Iraq’s has been lost. If the U.S. had bombed Paris to liberate the French, would any Frenchman have believed that the Allies were interested in liberating France? Wouldn’t they have rightly suspected that the Allies were, in turn, seizing their opportunity of conquering France? Perhaps to gain control of its uranium deposits? Or at least to prevent the Soviets from getting there first?

Why shouldn’t Iraqi people, Sunni or Shia, regard the U.S.-led invasion in similar light? It takes a remarkable crisis of the moral imagination for the West to fail to see how clearly the Iraqi people know the truth about the U.S. occupation. Their intelligence has been rudely insulted. In fact, only fearful delusions and racist assumptions about the inferiority of Arabs and coloured people can make anyone in the West imagine that the Iraqis would mistake the goals of their conquerors, that their “hearts and minds” would be won by bombing them into subservience to American diktat. They have suffered enough from Anglo-American betrayals over the last century. The British promised them liberation from the Ottoman Turks in 1917 and instead seized control themselves. Winston Churchill, as Secretary of State at the War Office in 1919, told the RAF not to be “squeamish” about putting down “recalcitrant Arabs” (who were in fact Kurds) by spraying them with poison gas since it will cause “a lively terror” among “uncivilized tribes.” This has been the legacy of Western racism in the region.

Such has been the sustained pitch of media mendacity in Western countries that, apart from some commendable exceptions, few have dared to challenge the root assumptions of this war of conquest. A whole leg has been amputated in order to heal a wounded knee, and many Western intellectuals still believe that “Iraq is better off without Saddam”! Are chaos and anarchy, bullet-ridden with everyday brutality, better than dictatorship?

The West, especially the U.S., can only look at the whole Iraq issue from its own solipsistic angle. Two questions are uppermost in people’s minds: Is the world safer from terrorism after the Iraq venture? What is the loss, in terms of men and money, from the whole exercise? The answer to the first question was given by the President of the European Commission recently, when he said that the world was “infinitely” more dangerous one year after Americans moved into Baghdad last year. The answer to the second question is that the losses will continue to mount with each passing week that the U.S. stays in Iraq. Since the Fallujah uprising, it is already becoming clear that Iraq is turning into that dreaded monster ­ America’s next “Vietnam.” The month of April has seen more Coalition casualties than in any other month during the whole campaign, including the period of the official war last year. The first significant public release of American casualty pictures last week has already made the White House put a ban on the press taking photographs of body bags returning from the Gulf. At stake is the outcome of the U.S. elections in November.

That Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with one-third of the military expenditure of neighboring Kuwait, a nation more disarmed than any in history, according to ex-U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, posed a red-hot threat to the security of Europe and America, that the Baathist regime, with a good many Christians in the cabinet, was in league with Islamic fundamentalist Al-Qaeda terrorists, and thus constituted a legitimate enemy in the war on terror, that it was 45 minutes away from delivering weapons of mass destruction to mortal Western enemies, all this was seemingly believed at the highest levels by governments in the West. Worse still, by credulous intellectuals and the general public. The media sold it at a discount. They bought it with greedy glee. Anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 corpses have already paid the price of this unconscionable deceit. If the norms of Nuremberg still mean anything, here is a “crime against humanity” committed in broad daylight, by a hyper-power which seeks moral exemption from all such indictment. Since its goals are, after all, so noble, never mind the dreadful means. “Democracy” will come one day. Meanwhile, the oil can flow.

Now that every week books are being published revealing the elaborate subterfuge of the Bush and Blair administrations, surprise is being expressed (feigned?) all around about the deceptions that have led the mighty West into this shameful impasse. However, the American presence in Iraq is being seen as a fait accompli. It is argued in many quarters that for the U.S. to leave Iraq suddenly would be to invite civil war (a belief long nurtured by opinion-makers in Washington, but belied in obvious ways by facts on the ground: Shias taking refuge from American troops in Sunni mosques, for instance).

What has happened? What has happened is that leaders in many European countries and the U.S. have been systematically lying to and deceiving their own people, and themselves, just what they were accusing the evil Saddam Hussein of sometime back. And true to times of decline in democratic political culture, the lies have been willfully swallowed, suggesting at least gullibility and indifference, if not widespread national self-deceits. Barring some notable exceptions, such as the citizens of Italy and Spain, vigilance, somehow, is not the word that springs to mind to describe the state of public consciousness in the West with respect to events in Iraq. Somnolence or apathy come closer.

Educated humanity in the contemporary Western world likes to believe that it is free. That it thinks for itself, that it feels for fellow-humans suffering in remote parts of the planet. It feels obliged to act, to redress injustices on their behalf. So convinced it is that it is correct in its belief that it means well, that it thinks nothing of moving the United Nations or sending massive armies, bombers and warships to remote parts of the world, not merely to defend freedom, as was purportedly the case in Vietnam, but to extend it, as in the on-going case of Iraq. In the process, given the evil character of the means, and the futuristic remoteness of the good goals, much terror and misery have been brought to numerous hapless peoples around the planet.

The horror of good intentions! What has changed since the days of Conrad and Kipling? The words “Christian mission” and the “White man’s burden” of civilizing the savages can be replaced by “democracy”, the latest Western coinage in an ongoing rape of language. All else remains the same. In fact, the present is worse. With stories of the effects of depleted uranium and cluster bombs growing, the horror of the means is too obvious to detail.

The real reasons for the war continue to be kept in the closet of White House obscurity. The word “oil” is not mentioned too often these days. Nor is it known to too many people that in 2002 Saddam Hussein was in negotiations with Iran and Hugo Chavez of Venezuala to create the basis for trading oil in Euros, a step which, if successful, would have severely jeopardized the position of the dollar in global markets, thanks to the 7 trillion dollar debt that is owed by the U.S. to the rest of the world. So the fact that this war has been centrally about oil and that most of the haste with which the U.S. went into Iraq is to be explained by the urgency of controlling the long-run oil supplies of its key global competitors, Europe and East Asia (since the U.S. itself gets only one out of seven barrels of oil that it consumes from the Middle East, and that too from Saudi Arabia), and protecting its currency from market attack (after an alternative Reserve currency, the Euro had come into existence in early 2002), all this, if it was ever known to parts of the general public in the West, has now been pushed down the black-hole of memory. The media only discusses the “news fit to print”, that is, fictions, about possibilities of “democracy” and hand-over of power.

Meanwhile, the Chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer insists that the time is not ripe for handing over real sovereignty to an Iraqi leadership. He claims that even after power is transferred to Iraqis at the end of June, there will be a strong American military presence in the country. One index of the degree of control the Americans wish to maintain is a fact which has not been publicized too much: that the U.S. is planning to build its largest-ever embassy anywhere in the world ­ 3000 people manning it ­ in Baghdad. It indicates exactly how much confidence Washington has in the ability of Iraqi people to democratically govern themselves. It also betrays the fear the Americans feel towards the prospect of achieving their stated goal in Iraq: democracy, for it would be inevitably Islamic and would prefer to make them redundant. Hence the influential Ayatollah Sistani’s question to the Americans: “Thanks for removing Saddam Hussein, but when will you leave?” A Shia uprising once took place against Saddam Hussein, after the First Gulf War in 1991 and was incited ­ and betrayed ­ by the Americans. Now it is the Americans’ turn to face both Sunni (Fallujah) and Shia (Najaf) rebellions.

The liberal abuse of U.S. military might has the predictable capacity to bring about despair in all vulnerable peoples of the world, whether they are from Afghanistan or the Middle East. We have seen this time after time in recent years. What the Western world has been taught to recognize as “terror” is merely the language of the desperate. Evil fanatics merely envious of freedoms in the West (as so many official spokesmen would like the public to take them for) cannot have the mad courage of suicide-bombers. Governments in the West should be very cautious with policies which are likely to dishonor a people and often reduce them to the status of enraged paupers in their own land. Such is the fate of the people of Iraq at this time. The most reliable recruiting sergeant for Osama Bin Laden is the Department of Defense.

This highly self-respecting corner of rational, humane, civilized humanity in the West lets its fogged brains be filled with beliefs that their governments would like them to carry. And still feel that it can do some good for those ruined by their governments! Well, what it can do is to listen to Gandhi: “All that the rich can do is to get off the backs off the poor.”

It is perhaps still not too late to avoid Armageddon in the Middle East, though the Hamas killings, and their endorsement by, among others, no less a figure than the Democrat Presidential hopeful in the U.S., John Kerry, the recent postures adopted by Ariel Sharon towards Yasser Arafat (who is the intended next target of Israeli assassination), growing public discontent and outrage in the Arab world, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the constant provocation of Syria and Iran, make it far from unlikely.

If it has any inkling of the likely future, the U.S.-led coalition would do well to follow the example of Spain. In a pioneering act of statesmanship, the new premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, overturning the decision of his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, has called back his troops (whether or not the U.S. hands over power to the U.N. in June) and has emerged as a leading voice of official dissent in the West against the vast American enterprise of gunboat democracy. He alone, so far, seems to understand the difference between courage and cowardice, in what is otherwise a bleak landscape of savage human folly. There is much worse to follow, if drastic and unfashionable steps towards armistice and peace are not taken soon. Poland, Norway and Honduras are among a growing band of nations who are following in Spain’s footsteps.

Without the termination of patronizing Western imperialism in the Middle East there isn’t even a prayer for reaching anything in Iraq which would be worth regarding a democracy. Success, understood in American terms, would imply a client-puppet government, perhaps the foremost imperial outpost for Washington in the Middle East, after Israel, given the political uncertainties which afflict the Saudi-U.S. relationship, especially after 9/11. It would certainly keep American oil corporations pleased, but it is doubtful if it could ever claim legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi population.

Success in Iraqi terms would imply the West standing firm on its promise of genuine democracy, not as pre-determined by it, but as Iraqi people may conceive it. This would, of course, involve U.S. withdrawal. How can the West claim that it wants to see a democratized Middle East if it is not even willing to trust the political capacities and aspirations of the Iraqi people to do for themselves as they see fit? Herein lie some of the racist assumptions about the innate superiority of Western political culture, when the truth is that, given their long-standing oil interests, Britain and the U.S. have done more than anyone else to undermine democratic possibilities in the Middle East, ever since the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to rule over Mesopotamia after the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Nobody in the West seemed to mind, or even notice (just like they don’t notice Saudi Arabia even today), an un-democratic Iraq for the longest time. In fact the U.S. incited and supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran throughout the 1980s. Following the First Gulf War in 1991 and the genocidal sanctions imposed for over a decade, the U.S. suddenly decided to bomb Iraq to democracy. How did it turn out that democracy wouldn’t come about without going through war?

A third possibility is that neither side backs down and the ensuing stalemate is increasingly violent, leading to unforeseen levels of death and destruction, not merely in the Middle East but, after the Madrid bombings, in the West as well. Where might “Al-Qaeda” (that useful catch-all name for what might be hundreds of “affinity groups”, growing in number and intensity with each American offensive) strike next? Washington? London? Canberra? Rome? Warsaw? Any country which has offered its loyalty to Washington and gone out of its way to interfere illegally in the affairs of Iraq is fair game. The overall situation in the Middle East could easily escalate given the growing unrest in the region especially after the Hamas killings by Israel.

More terrorism would also mean less liberty. If citizens in the West do not catch up with the lies of their governments soon enough, it is doubtful if their own peace and democratic rights will last much longer in the long run. What is at stake in the issue of peace in the Middle East is also the little matter of continued freedom and peace in the West.

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“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

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