Many around the world are skeptical when George Bush says he wants to use war to help create democracy in Iraq. As a step toward bolstering his credibility, Bush might start taking seriously democracy in the rest of the world, and at home.
U.S. reaction to the weekend news that Turkey’s parliament had rejected a proposal to accept the basing of U.S. troops for an Iraq war only confirmed what has long been obvious: The Bush administration believes democracy is wonderful — so long as it doesn’t get in the way of war.
Let’s remember the basic notions behind democracy: The people are sovereign. Power flows from the people. Leadership is beholden to the people.
If those ideas are at the core of democracy, Bush’s recent reaction to the will of the people suggests he has contempt for the concept.
Bush has a habit of praising as “courageous” those leaders who most effectively ignore their people. In the U.K., polls show more than half the public against the war, and close to a million people turned out for the Feb. 15 protest in London. In Spain, 2 million hit the streets of Barcelona and Madrid, and 74 percent oppose the war. But Bush has praised the courage of prime ministers Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar in remaining fanatically prowar in the face of massive public opposition.
Silvio Berlusconi is another favorite of Bush. The Italian prime minister has to ignore the 80 percent of his people who object to the war, and on Feb. 15 the largest demonstrations in the world were in Rome, where police put the crowd at 1 million and others estimated two to three times that many.
But perhaps the most courageous leader in Bush-speak is the prime minister of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.
The Bush team found that it took some convincing (and $15 billion) to secure the ruling Justice and Development Party leadership’s support for U.S. use of bases for a war. In that effort, as a former Pentagon planner and ambassador to Turkey explained, “the biggest problem is that 94 percent of the Turks are opposed to war.”
After winning over the key leadership, U.S. officials faced another problem: The Turkish constitution requires a vote of parliament to allow those new U.S. troops. With tens of thousands of Turks protesting in the streets during the debate, the proposal failed by a narrow margin.
The State Department, expecting a favorable vote, had prepared a statement of congratulations. Because the initial reports out of parliament suggested the proposal had won, that statement was released and — you guessed it — it applauded the Turkish government for its “courageous leadership.”
U.S. officials hope to reverse the vote later this week. No doubt Bush’s people will be tough negotiators, but the Turks also can expect understanding of the problems that Gul and his party face. During earlier negotiations between the United States and Turkey, one U.S. official explained the process was time-consuming because, “We are dealing with a new and inexperienced [Turkish] leadership that is feeling very much caught by the situation.”
“Experience” in this context means the ability to ignore and override the will of the people, an endeavor in which U.S. politicians have considerable experience.
And what of democracy at home? When asked about his reaction to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who rallied on Feb. 15 to oppose a war, Bush brushed them off as irrelevant. To pay attention to the largest worldwide political event in recent history, he said, would be like governing by focus group.
Of course, political movements — people coming together because of shared principles to try to affect public policy — are not quite like focus groups, which are convened by folks in advertising and marketing to test out their pitches. Demonstrations are real democratic expressions of the strong commitments of people; focus groups are a research tool used to craft manipulative slogans and advertising strategies in order to subvert real democracy. But let’s put aside the president’s confusion and go back to his assessment of how the system should work:
“The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security — in this case, the security of the people,” Bush said.
That’s all well and good, but beside the point. The question is, does Bush think “the people” have any ideas about their own security that are worth considering?
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.” He can be reached at [email protected]