Beyond Demonstration Elections III

Just as there is a “standard set of cliches and patriotic symbols that are mobilized to justify U.S. intervention,” Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead wrote 20 years ago in Demonstration Elections, so, too, there is a standard set of cliches and—if not quite patriotic symbols, in the strict sense of the word—humanitarian and otherwise benevolent symbols that in recent years have been mobilized to justify both unilateral U.S. interventions and the so-called “coalition-of-the-willing”-kind—invariably, interventions driven by American arms, whoever else the Americans manage to drag along with them.

“The mass media pass them along as self-evident truths and use them as the basis on which to frame the news,” Herman and Brodhead continued. “They rarely analyse these truths, and almost never suggest that they have been employed with boring regularity as manipulative devices in the past.” (183)

They then listed a number of manipulative devices, cliches, symbols, and the like. Including (and note that I’m amending them a bit—but only a bit (“The Cliches of Interventionary PR,” 183-192)):

* The Americans’ “natural right to intervene and set things straight”
* The Americans’ opposition to “foreign intervention”
* The risk posed to American “national security” by doing nothing
* The Americans’ support of “freedom” and “democracy”
* The Americans’ opposition to “terror” and “violence”
* The Americans’ opposition to “armed minorities” trying to seize power undemocratically and by force
* The Marxist-Leninists (whom the Americans oppose) are “worse than the mass murderers” (whom the Americans support)
* Any intervention by the Americans “will be a plus for human rights” (axiomatically so, it goes without saying)

Now. The world has changed over the past 20 years—the collapse of the Soviet bloc in particular, and the freedom this collapse—this decline of the “Soviet deterrent,” as Noam Chomsky likes to say—has given the Americans to lash out in ways that might not have been possible before. These, perhaps, are the most important structural changes in the international order over the past 15 years.

Similarly, we’ve also see changes occur in the nature and scope of the demonstration election (i.e., an election staged by the Americans in client states for the purpose of reassuring the captive mind back in the United States that the American subjugation of its client is well received among the people).

As we just observed in the case of Saturday’s election in Afghanistan, the Americans were able not only to militarily invade, occupy, and eventually stage this demonstration election in a foreign country—but the Americans were able to enlist the help of the “international community” in pulling it off. The help of the United Nations in particular.

So, clearly, we need to amend further Herman and Brodhead’s list of the “Cliches of Interventionary PR” from 20 years ago. Of course, what the updated list might look like is open to discussion. But I think that a new list, designed to capture the changes in the international order today, minimally ought to reflect two changes above all:

(a) in the respective agency that is at work behind the process (i.e., in place of simply the Americans, the agency behind today’s interventionary PR and the place of the demonstration election within it calls for some form of agent that goes by the name of the “international community”—and this despite the fact that it is the Americans that drive the whole show); and

(b) in the local or regional demons from whom the intervention sets out to rescue the victim population (i.e., in place of “Marxist-Leninists” and the like, today’s interventionary PR requires any combination of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” or “terrorists” and “Islamic fundamentalists”—or, to repeat the pathetic Christopher Hitchens’ pet phrases, “Islamo-fascists” and “gangs of roving nihilist terrorists”).

One ought to feel free to play with and amend this list as far as one sees fit—emphasizing whichever cliches and symbols one feels important, given what we are observing with respect to Afghanistan 2004 (and Iraq beyond 2004), and dropping whichever one does not. Still. The main point that I want to make here is that with respect to last Saturday’s (Oct. 9) “landmark national elections” in Afghanistan, we simply cannot understand this particular historical and media spectacle, and the overwhelmingly positive reception it has received from both the “international community” (see Beyond Demonstration Elections II for a survey of some of this) and the mainstream news media (see below), unless we recognize that it was a demonstration election in every sense intended by the Herman and Brodhead critique, plus this important development: American Power has grown so considerably over the past 20 years that, these days, the Americans are able to enlist the help of the most “multilateral” of all multilateral bodies to carry it out—the United Nations. At least certain organs within the UN architecture. Hence: Beyond demonstration elections.

Anyway. Immediately below you will find eight editorials that I’ve drawn from eight different mainstream print dailies since Saturday’s spectacle. What I find most striking about these eight editorials, whether individually or in their totality, is that not a single one of them has taken issue with the demonstration-election purpose, let alone the demonstration-election effect, of Saturday’s spectacle in Kabul and beyond. Not even so much as hinted at this fact. Under any name. Whatsoever.

* “Afghanistan Votes,” Washington Post, October 10
* “Winning Votes,” The Guardian, October 11
* “It Must Not Be the Last,” Los Angeles Times, October 11
* “Afghanistan’s Proud Day,” Chicago Tribune, October 12
* “Afghanistan’s Anti-Fear Vote,” Christian Science Monitor, October 12
* “Afghanistan Votes,” New York Times, October 12, 2004
* “Afghanistan Votes for Democracy,” Ottawa Citizen, October 12
* “Afghanistan’s Historic Vote,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 12

(Please note that registration is required to access one or more of these links; one or more of them may eventually fail; and so on. So I’m also posting the exact same set of editorials below (FYA).)

Among the many important factors that render Saturday’s spectacle in Kabul a demonstration election are (1) the fact that Afghan national territory is militarily occupied by foreign powers (after an invasion launched by the world’s pre-eminent superpower just 36 months ago, please note well), and (2) the fact that one of the candidates in the election has been the titular President of the various incarnations of militarily-occupied Afghanistan for at least 34 out of those 36 months.

Alone, each of these factors is sufficient to betray to the whole world the demonstration-election nature of Saturday’s spectacle. So that for all eight out of the eight editorials not only to fail to recognize these truths about the election, but to labor as hard as each of them does to paper-over these truths, and to ascribe whatever legitimacy they possibly can to Saturday’s spectacle, leaves me pretty close to speechless.

In this, their performance is essentially no different than the performance of the enforcement-side of the Neocolonial Community currently present on the ground in Afghanistan. (For example, the UN Secretary-General; the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; the UN Security Council; the U.S. Department of State; and the OSCE’s Election Support Team in Afghanistan.) With next-to-totalitarian aplomb, it is worth noting.

“[W]e are not optimistic that the tactics [of the demonstration election] will be exposed as frauds in the mass media, or that the next use of ‘free elections’ to aid a military pacification campaign in the Third World will be met with the instant ridicule and sustained public opposition that it deserves,” Herman and Brodhead predicted 20 years ago.

They concluded:

[W]e see the free election-pacification strategy as a powerful one, likely to be successful in disarming or limiting opposition to U.S. intervention or U.S. support for fascist clients in the Third World….[S]uch elections are designed to appeal to the most idealistic strains in the U.S. political culture, including the right of all peoples to self-determination through peaceful political processes. That such freedoms have been transformed into tools of pacification and chains of enslavement by the intervention strategies of the last two decades needs to become part of the common currency of our opposition political culture. (200-201)

Unfortunately, both for ourselves but even moreso for the rest of the world, we haven’t even come close.

Demonstration Elections: U.S.-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and El Salvador, Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead (South End Press, 1984)

Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky (Hill and Wang, 1992)

The Afghan Victim Memorial Project, Marc Herold et al., University of New Hampshire
A Dossier on Civilian Victims of the United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan, Marc Herold et al., University of New Hampshire

Afghanistan’s Florida-style Elections,” Mike Whitney, ZNet, October 8, 2004

Nation-Building, American-Style, ZNet Blogs (the old ones), June 19, 2004
On A Foot Patrol in Kabul, ZNet Blogs (the old ones), July 18, 2004
Beyond Demonstration Elections I, October 11, 2004
Beyond Demonstration Elections II, ZNet Blogs, October 13, 2004

FYA (“For your archives”): The eight mainstream newspaper editorials.

The Washington Post
October 10, 2004 Sunday
Final Edition
SECTION: Editorial; B06
HEADLINE: Afghanistan Votes

AFTER ENDURING Soviet occupation, civil war and rule by a medieval-minded Islamic militia, millions of Afghans lined up at polling stations yesterday for the first free election in their country’s history. This was an extraordinary event, the more so because it happened in spite of concerted efforts by the Taliban militia and its al Qaeda allies to prevent it. Thanks in part to U.S., NATO and Afghan forces and in part to the remarkable determination of Afghan citizens to launch their democracy, the enemy campaign failed. The turnout percentage for the presidential vote may rival that of the U.S. presidential election.

Instead of terrorist attacks, a problem more typical of electoral democracies cropped up: Fifteen of the candidates running against the current president, Hamid Karzai, abruptly announced a boycott because of a mix-up at some polling stations about the type of ink used to mark voters’ fingers. Their protest, which U.N. officials said would be considered, could cast a pall over the election’s results. But as Mr. Karzai pointed out, his opponents’ posturing didn’t change the reality that millions of Afghans had braved harsh weather and the threat of violence to cast ballots for the first time.

Elections, of course, are never panaceas, and it would be wrong to overlook the many ways in which Afghanistan’s political and economic reconstruction remains tenuous. Security is still a major problem in southern provinces, where 13 percent of the population lives. There and in the north, warlords have considerably more authority than the central government. The United States and other Western countries have been inexcusably slow to deploy peacekeeping troops around the country. Most threatening of all may be Afghanistan’s booming opium production, which is fueling corruption and providing warlords, the Taliban and probably al Qaeda with a lucrative source of income.

Yet it also would be foolish to discount the advances Afghanistan has made in the past three years. Not only has most of the country enjoyed relative peace during that time, but per capita incomes have doubled, millions of children — including most girls — have returned to school, and infant mortality and other health measures have improved. Kabul and other cities are booming, a national road network is under construction and 3 million refugees have returned home. Mr. Karzai recently ousted two of the most powerful warlords from their governmental positions, and about a quarter of the militia members around the country have been demobilized.

Not surprisingly, polls show that Mr. Karzai is supported by most Afghans — and so is the United States. In a poll sponsored by the Asia Foundation earlier this year, U.S. troops received a favorable rating from 67 percent of the population. A more recent survey by an Afghan human rights coalition showed that 75 percent of voters said they felt free to choose any can- didate in the elections, more than 90 percent said all women should vote and 85 percent believed the election will bring positive change to Afghanistan.

Opponents of the Bush administration both here and abroad often have been loath to acknowledge these positive facts. Sen. John F. Kerry frequently speaks of Afghanistan as if it were just another of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy disasters. But Afghanistan’s reconstruction should not be a partisan or diplomatic football. Instead U.S. and other Western leaders should be pointing out, to each other and to their publics, that nation-building there can work — and that it is consequently worthwhile to continue committing troops and aid to the effort.

The Guardian (London)
October 11, 2004
SECTION: Guardian Leader Pages, Pg. 19
HEADLINE: Elections: Winning votes

Australia and Afghanistan don’t have much in common, other than a vast, arid interior. But as voters in both countries cast their ballots over the weekend, their respective elections will have had an impact on political landscapes around the world. In the case of Afghanistan, the very fact of its holding democratic presidential elections is the most optimistic sign to come from that country for some time. Despite last-minute turmoil when 15 presidential rivals to the interim president, Hamid Karzai, called for a boycott over possible voting fraud, election observers declared the election to be fairly conducted. The sight of long queues patiently waiting outside polling stations on Saturday is some vindication of the international efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan, as is the absence of serious reprisals and violent attempts at disruption that had been threatened by supporters of the Taliban.

The long queues in Australia, meanwhile, were more a reflection of the country’s legal requirement on its citizens to vote than a celebration of the flowering of democracy. John Howard’s victory as leader of Australia’s conservative coalition was a surprisingly strong one, after opinion polls had predicted a tight race. Instead, Mr Howard’s coalition increased its majority in the lower house of parlia ment and looks likely to take control of the senate, making it the first time in 20 years that a government has dominated both houses. This will allow Mr Howard to push through unpopular measures on employment deregulation and loosening the country’s media ownership laws in favour of global goliaths such as Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

Mr Howard’s victory will be closely studied by the incumbents in Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr Howard and his government had been a staunch member of the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq last year, with Australia having 850 troops on the ground. The Labor opposition had boldly pledged to withdraw them by the end of the year, capitalising on winning support from those opposed to the war. But it is Australia’s strong economy, with low unemployment and rising house prices, that appears to have had a greater influence on the election outcome.

From the perspective of Tony Blair, the result is encouraging, a reminder that voters will choose domestic priorities over international affairs. The latest set of opinion polls bears this out, with Labour widening its lead over the Conservatives. Mr Blair’s opponents would be unwise to rely on using Iraq as the sole fulcrum to lever him out of office.

Los Angeles Times
October 11, 2004 Monday
Home Edition
SECTION: CALIFORNIA; Metro; Editorial Pages Desk; Part B; Pg. 10
HEADLINE: It Must Not Be the Last

Afghanistan’s Saturday election had its flaws, but holding it at all was a major success for a nation that little more than three years ago suffered under the brutal grip of the Taliban and offered safe haven to Al Qaeda. It was especially heartening to see long-oppressed women flock to the polls. Opposition-party complaints of irregularities do not seem serious enough to invalidate the election, but they deserve a hearing.

It will take weeks to count the ballots. Interim President Hamid Karzai is expected to win easily, although if he failed to get 50% of the votes he’ll face another round of balloting. Karzai has been the clear choice of the United States, which has surrounded him with bodyguards and expert advisors.

It is a mark of Afghanistan’s continued insecurity that Karzai’s running mate experienced an attempt on his life three days before the election and that several U.N. poll workers were killed in the weeks before balloting. Taliban insurgents were unable to disrupt the election, but they remain a threat to Afghans and the 18,000 U.S. and 8,000 other Western troops in the country. Unlike in Iraq, the nation-building project in Afghanistan is a truly multinational effort, but the increasing violence, record opium crop and undiminished strength of the warlords underscore the insufficiency of international aid and firepower deployed there. The international community now must be sure not to walk away after checking the box marked “democracy in Afghanistan.” When other nations lost interest after the Soviets were forced out in 1989 after a decade of invasion, occupation and guerrilla war, the way to civil war and the Taliban takeover was opened.

Afghanistan was never colonized and prides itself on having beaten back the British soldiers who tried in the 18th and 19th centuries to extend their domain beyond what is now Pakistan. That nationalistic impulse should spur Washington to lean on other countries to spend the money they have promised and to provide more soldiers outside Kabul, the capital.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that only $947 million of the $9.7 billion pledged by international donors had been disbursed by last summer. Spending the money that was promised would grant the Karzai government more credibility and weaken the grip of tribal chieftains and warlords.

The Bush administration pushed hard for the presidential elections so it could boast of a foreign policy victory. It needs to expend the same amount of energy increasing security in Afghanistan and ensuring that Saturday’s election was not the last.

Chicago Tribune l
October 12, 2004
Afghanistan’s proud day

A decade ago, a long line of South Africans snaked across a field outside a polling station in the black township of Soweto. They waited for hours to cast their first ballots as full citizens of a nation that had long disenfranchised them.

The aerial view of those hundreds standing patiently in that winding queue became one of the most enduring images of democracy taking root on once-hostile ground. Last weekend, a similar scene unfolded in Afghanistan.

Just as South Africans defied the naysayers by swarming to the polls in 1994, so, too, the voters of Afghanistan turned out in force. The high numbers of participants and the lower than expected level of violence at polling stations bode well for a nation that desperately needs the rule of law. A land of war and warlords, oppressed for five years by the warped fanatics of the Taliban, has taken a giant step toward joining the community of civilized nations.

Though outside observers pronounced it a success, the election wasn’t perfect. In some cases, poll workers and party hacks apparently intervened improperly. An indelible ink intended to prevent repeat-voting proved to be erasable. Ugly weather tested the mettle of even a hardy people. Fortunately, threats of mayhem turned out to be overstated, though security forces defused at least one enormous truck bomb and several dozen small-scale attacks were staged.

A protest by candidates opposing interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai fizzled when it became obvious their complaints about election-day irregularities were far outweighed by what went right. Having braved bad weather and threats of violence, Afghan voters were not about to stand by while their ballots were invalidated based on some technicality.

The stakes are high, because so much remains unfinished. Black-turbaned Taliban guerrillas still plague the landscape. Dozens of local officials and foreign workers have been killed this year in a countryside where drug money incites terrible lawlessness.

Given the enormity of the task, it’s surprising that more than a dozen candidates were challenging Karzai for the top job. But that, too, speaks to the power of the ballot box.

As for results, be patient. Ballots were still arriving Sunday at regional counting centers. And while exit polls suggested Karzai would win by a comfortable margin, nothing official is expected for about three weeks.

It’s tempting to view the Afghan vote in light of America’s upcoming presidential contest. Last time, we endured a 36-day legal struggle before the Supreme Court decided the election in favor of President Bush. Those disturbing days served to remind Americans that every vote is precious, and every election makes history.

As the South Africans did before them, the Afghans showed great courage in exercising their electoral rights. Their example stands as a rebuke to any American citizen who finds it just too inconvenient to go to the polls on Nov. 2.

Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
October 12, 2004, Tuesday
HEADLINE: Afghanistan’s Anti-Fear Vote

No one anticipated the ink problem. Before Saturday’s election in Afghanistan, the big concern was not the thumb-staining system to prevent multiple voting, but widespread violence.

For months, Taliban militants had been trying to disrupt Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential election, attacking election workers and intimidating would-be voters with death threats. Allied troops were reinforced and plans made to secure polling areas and cities.

But a massive turnout of voters in the face of snow, rain, and dust storms proved that millions of Afghans were not to be intimidated. The expected widespread attacks didn’t materialize.

The Afghan people’s strong showing seems to reflect the views that voter Zia Jan told Monitor reporter Scott Baldauf on election day: “We are not afraid of any attacks,” she said. “If we are killed, we will still vote.”

It is freedom from fear, far more than voting irregularities, that ought to be the marker of this election, for as Franklin D. Roosevelt warned in 1933, fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

And certainly, Afghanistan still has much advancing to do. While the economy is growing at a rate of 20 percent, girls are attending school for the first time, a national road network is being built, and millions of refugees have returned home, the challenges ahead are daunting. Afghanistan’s opium trade is booming. The Taliban insurgency is not yet quashed; the tribal chieftains’ militias are not disbanded. Not to mention pervasive poverty and illiteracy.

That’s where the election irregularities such as the ink issue come in, because an election polluted by widespread fraud can also sap the legitimacy of a leader to move ahead with change.

Candidates opposed to highly favored front- runner and incumbent Hamid Karzai called for an election boycott Saturday when it was discovered that some polling stations marked voters’ thumbs with removable instead of indelible ink.

The election’s organizers promise an independent panel will investigate this and other irregularities along with the crucial issue of how widespread they were. That appears to have calmed objections for now.

It’s important to remember that the technical difficulties experienced in the first democratic presidential election in a communal and tribal society such as Afghanistan can decrease with each new election. Breaking the grip of fear, however, is a much harder task, and that seems to have been accomplished last weekend.

The New York Times
October 12, 2004 Tuesday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; Editorial Desk; Pg. 24
HEADLINE: Afghanistan Votes

For the first time in Afghanistan’s long history, ordinary people had a chance to vote for their nation’s leader on Saturday, and neither threats of terrorist disruptions nor cynicism about alleged behind-the-scenes deal-making could keep them away.

This is a country where day-to-day security is so lacking in most areas that international aid agencies operate at their own peril, President Hamid Karzai rarely dared to campaign outside his capital, and many voters were exposed to intimidation attempts by local warlords. Yet millions of men and women throughout the country bravely turned out to affirm their faith in a democratic future. Their courage deserves to be vindicated by parliamentary elections, which have been repeatedly postponed and are now planned for next year.

The pacing of the Afghan elections has been to some degree a matter more of political convenience for the Bush administration than of what’s best for Afghan democracy. But the intermission will give the new president — widely presumed to be Mr. Karzai, Washington’s favored candidate — time to correct the technical and organizational problems that tarnished, but did not disable, Saturday’s balloting. These included poor controls over the distribution of voter registration cards and a breakdown in the indelible-ink system meant to be the main safeguard to keep people from voting more than once.

Mr. Karzai’s 15 challengers initially called for the vote to be nullified. Now several, including the most prominent, have sensibly changed their minds, settling instead for promises of an investigation by an independent panel appointed by the United Nations. Given the level of public support shown for this election, continuing to challenge the results would have been risky, particularly if the winning margin is large enough to dispel doubts about who really won.

The longer-term success of these elections will depend on whether they confer the democratic legitimacy that Afghanistan’s next president needs to prevail over the Taliban and assorted warlords without the indefinite presence of American troops. The parliamentary elections will be crucial because without a democratic mechanism for brokering differences among the country’s multiple ethnic, language and religious groupings, there can be no functioning national government. For these smaller-scale, more localized contests, higher voting standards and improved security are essential.

The sight of those patient Afghans lined up to vote on Saturday is another reminder that Afghanistan deserves more help than it has gotten to rebuild after the devastations of war and the Taliban. It needs the full concentration of the United Nations and the United States to help it take the additional difficult steps needed to make sure that the brave hopes expressed on Saturday can be fulfilled and the long-term future of constitutional government assured.

Ottawa Citizen
October 12, 2004 Tuesday
Final Edition
HEADLINE: Afghanistan votes for democracy
BYLINE: The Ottawa Citizen

It could take another three weeks to find out who won Saturday’s historic election in Afghanistan, but one thing is already clear: the Afghan people want a future determined at the ballot box instead of on the battlefield.

Democracy and freedom mean more than just being able to cast a ballot. Nevertheless, the fact that millions of Afghans, men and women alike, voted in peace on Saturday is a sign of how far that country has come since U.S.-led forces deposed the Taliban regime barely three years ago.

Not surprisingly, the remnants of the Taliban opposed the idea of an election, trying to disrupt it with bombs and rockets during the period leading up to the vote. But others, even warlords, put down their guns and decided to seek office. They accepted that they might lose, and promised to do so peacefully.

While the threat of a terrorist attack hung over the vote all day Saturday, it may turn out to be something as simple as a bottle of ink that derails this election. The indelible ink that was supposed to prevent people voting more than once didn’t work in some places, prompting most of the presidential candidates to threaten to boycott the result. The United Nations is now investigating what happened, which could delay a final tally of the ballots until the end of the month.

Fortunately, cooler heads appear to be prevailing, as the boycott threat is weakening. Most Afghans seem to consider the faulty ink a minor hiccup in an otherwise extraordinary election. The 10 million Afghans who signed up to vote don’t want to denied their say in who will govern them.

Holding an election is just part of what it takes to be a democracy, and Afghanistan’s transition is not complete. Still, the fact that this election was possible only three years after the Taliban fled Kabul is a major triumph.

The San Francisco Chronicle
HEADLINE: Afghanistan’s historic vote

DESPITE early predictions of widespread voting fraud and polling errors, it appears that Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential election succeeded — an optimistic sign in a nation that has known mostly darkness in recent decades.

Election officials said that millions of voters turned out for the election, far surpassing even the brightest estimates of Western diplomats. And the historic vote wasn’t marred by violence, a defeat for the Taliban militia and other armed groups who had warned that there would be attacks at the polling places.

Although it will take several weeks to tally the votes and allow investigators to look into complaints of some voting irregularities, the election is a key step in moving the country closer to self-determination. If President Hamid Karzai wins a five-year term, in what United Nations officials termed a “free and fair” election, it could provide some stability for a nation he has governed since being installed by a U.N.-sponsored conference three years ago.

Although critics of the Bush administration are quick to discount anything positive about the concept of nation-building, there’s no downplaying some improvements in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. Millions of children have returned to school, health conditions have improved, and there’s been a marked increase in per-capita income. Since Karzai took office, a significant number of militia members in the war-torn country have been demobilized.

The election is no panacea for Afghanistan, which faces daunting obstacles during its reconstruction. But in a country that has endured occupation, civil war and medieval-style rule, a peaceful, nationwide vote is a clear sign of advancement.

Beyond Demonstration Elections III

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