Iraq: War and Democracy


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. 

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

  • 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. 

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.” 

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.

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.” 

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.” 

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

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. 

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.” 

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.” 

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. 

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.” (


March 10, 2003) 

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. 

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). 

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


A Today

the weekend of March 15 says that 50 percent oppose war if there
is no UN resolution. 

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. 

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.  

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 

are many grim predictions about civilian casualties from NGOs and
internal UN documents. Fred Kaplan on


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 

that a report in the London


, 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.” 

war games were reported (


, 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? 

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? 

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.

R. Shalom teaches political science at William Patterson University
in New Jersey. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most

Which Side Are You On?

(Longman), a political
science text book.