Iraqi Democracy and the Limits of Western Idealism
Reacting to the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra last week, Tony Blair said that "The struggle in Iraq today is the same struggle the world over - it's democracy versus extremism and terrorism. And the very purpose of those who desecrate the shrine is to stop the will of the Iraqi people…My response all the way through whenever these difficulties arise is to stand up for democracy, for liberty - whether in Iraq or elsewhere - and to make sure that the terrorists are defeated”.
Since the collapse of the case for disarming Saddam of his non-existant WMD, the self-proclaimed mission to bring democracy to Iraq has been a central justification for the invasion and for the continued US-UK military presence in that country. Here, Blair contrasts his own efforts with those whose “purpose…is to stop the will of the Iraqi people”. Similarly, when retired British general Sir Michael Rose recently called for Tony Blair to be impeached for his deceptions in the build up to war, a Downing Street spokesman responded by saying that, while Rose was entitled to his view, "The government is entitled to point out that there have been three democratic elections in Iraq".
The government is indeed entitled to point this out, just as we are entitled to finish the sentence for them. What the spokesman should have said was that “…there have been three democratic elections in Iraq against our wishes and in spite of our best efforts”. The US-UK attempt to claim these elections as a victory now is perhaps unsurprising given the useful role talk of democracy plays in the political rhetoric of both governments. But the truth is that the elections were a defeat for the occupiers and a victory for non-violent political resistance on the part of the Iraqis.
At the time of the first Iraqi elections in January 2005, renowned Middle East scholar Juan Cole said he was “…appalled by the cheerleading tone of US news coverage”. After all “…the Bush administration opposed one-person, one-vote elections of this sort. First they were going to turn Iraq over to [White House favourite, Ahmed] Chalabi within six months. Then [US proconsul, Paul] Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years. Then on November 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections in May of 2004. The US and the UK had somehow massaged into being provincial and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group.”
“[Shia leader] Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani immediately gave a fatwa denouncing this plan and demanding free elections mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. Bush was reportedly "extremely offended" at these two demands and opposed Sistani. Bremer got his appointed Interim Governing Council to go along in fighting Sistani. Sistani then brought thousands of protesters into the streets in January of 2004, demanding free elections. Soon thereafter, Bush caved and gave the ayatollah everything he demanded…. So if it had been up to Bush, Iraq would have been a soft dictatorship under Chalabi, or would have had stage-managed elections with an electorate consisting of a handful of pro-American notables”.
Furthermore, US-UK attempts to prevent democracy emerging in Iraq are both predictable and consistent with established policy. Any other course of action would have been far more surprising. Noam Chomsky, veteran critic of US foreign policy, points out that “There’s a good reason why the United States cannot tolerate a sovereign, more or less democratic Iraq. Imagine the policies it would be likely to pursue. The Shia population in the South, where much of Iraq’s oil is, would have a predominant influence. They would prefer friendly relations with Shia Iran.”
“Furthermore, right across the border in Saudi Arabia is a substantial, bitter Shia population. Any move toward independence in Iraq is likely to increase efforts to gain a degree of autonomy and justice there, too. This also happens to be the region where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is. The outcome could be a loose Shia alliance comprising Iraq, Iran and the major oil regions of Saudi Arabia, independent of Washington and controlling large portions of the world’s oil reserves. It’s not unlikely that an independent bloc of this kind might follow Iran’s lead in developing major energy projects jointly with China and India.”
“China is already establishing relations with Iran - and even with Saudi Arabia, both military and economic. There is an Asian energy security grid, based on China and Russia, but probably bringing in India, Korea and others. If Iran moves in that direction, it can become the lynchpin of that power grid”.
“Such developments, including a sovereign Iraq and possibly even major Saudi energy resources, would be the ultimate nightmare for Washington.”
But whilst the Iraqi elections, and the resulting success of Shia political parties linked to Tehran, undoubtedly constitute defeats for the US-UK occupation, we should be cautious of reaching the conclusion that the ultimate goals of the neo-colonialist project cannot now be realised. The occupiers still have a massive military presence, including permanent bases, at the heart of the world’s energy producing region. At a point in history where extraction of the world’s finite oil reserves may soon peak and fall away, just as the economies of two of the world’s most populous nations – India and China – are growing at breakneck speed, thus putting massive new demands on those dwindling resources, control over energy reserves constitutes “critical leverage” over one’s rivals, in the words of former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, or “veto power” in the words of Cold War era US diplomat George Kennan, and is therefore a prize that Washington cannot afford to lose if it is to fulfil its aim of maintaining permanent global dominance, as set out in its 2002 National Security Strategy. Securing a long-term military presence in Iraq, which has the world’s second largest oil reserves and lies in the centre of the principal energy producing region, constitutes a decisive step towards achieving that goal.
Understanding these fundamental points provides us not only with a means by which to measure Washington’s ultimate success or failure in Iraq, but also, as we shall see, with a decisive test of its commitment to democracy in that country. For if Western military adventurism in the Middle East, and foreign policy in general, were driven by a principled desire to spread democracy, surely any strategy to maintain or extend global power would be strictly subordinate to those operative democratic principles? Events have proven the theory to be an easy one to test, both decisively and to destruction.
Poll after poll in Iraq has shown that the public there overwhelmingly and unambiguously demands the end of the US-UK occupation, opposing the presence of coalition troops by majorities as high as 82%. Furthermore, at the recent national reconciliation conference in Cairo, representatives from the whole of Iraqi civil society and across the political spectrum united around a statement that called for a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupying forces. On 8 December, this call was reiterated in another national conference attended by all the significant political representatives of the Iraqi people. Iraqi opinion on this issue - the only opinion of any material relevance if Iraq were truly a democracy – is beyond dispute.
Admirers of what the Boston Globe described as George Bush’s “messianic mission to graft democracy onto the rest of the world” and Tony Blair’s respect for “the will of the Iraqi people” should note the occupier’s response to these developments. Both leaders immediately rejected the timetable for withdrawal that Iraq had demanded. In a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush said that conditions in Iraq would dictate when American forces could withdraw and that setting a withdrawal timetable is "not a plan for victory". Not, at least, a victory for democracy since it is clear that the wishes of mere Iraqis will not be one of the conditions in Iraq that dictate when the American military will leave. The debate on the merits of withdrawal continues amongst the political classes on both sides of the Atlantic, as though the Iraqis themselves had not expressed a preference one way or the other, but remained silent, trusting the superior classes in Washington and Whitehall to decide what is best for them.
In the Observer, former editor Will Hutton laments the fact that “worldly, cynical Europeans just don't get American idealism over democracy”. The evidence he cites as proof of this idealism is nothing less than his own impression that “the American political class talk democracy and freedom with an enthusiasm that cannot be denied”. PR delivered with a sufficient level of “enthusiasm” is, it would seem, enough to convince this veteran political commentator that the speaker is sincere, rendering the factual record surplus to requirements.
Having proven the sincerity of the American political classes, Hutton goes on to make the case for democracy, describing numerous practical benefits of the system (though he neglects to mention that the inalienable right to participate in the democratic governance of one’s country is also an end in itself). However, Hutton admits that before his conversion he had initially been concerned that “after Iraq, you would have thought that the US would have learned that exporting ideas like democracy is likely to backfire. Democracy has to grow from within a national community rather than be imposed from outside and unless buttressed by supporting institutions, culture and social factors, not least a middle class, is likely to fail”.
Having pondered these issues seriously, as he clearly has done, Hutton may of course have taken a different critical view of US PR, however enthusiastically delivered. After Iraq, and the strenuous, ongoing attempts of the neo-colonialists to deny the will of the Iraqi people, commentators like Hutton might have learned that faith in the illusion of a US-UK campaign to export democracy has no basis in fact. The barrier to democracy in Iraq is, as we have seen, not a defective Iraqi society lacking “supporting institutions, culture and social factors, not least a middle class”. Rather, a principal barrier is, and continues to be, the US-UK occupation.