Dimensions of Democracy: the US and Iraq

Far too early to tell what the Iraqi elections mean and what the outcome will be – hopefully good. To be sure, the US has developed to a high art the management of opinion in electoral systems, and when necessary, flat out manipulation and cheating to get the desired result. Boris Yeltin’s 1996 election perfectly illustrated that, and what the Bush forces they pulled at home in 2000 represents a more nuanced example. Indeed, the whole process represents nothing more than a continuation of employing Edward Bernays’ and Walter Lippmann’s application of public relations to democracy. Bernays began the task in WW I, when Wilson wanted to get the US in that war despite public opinion against it. Bernays wrote that most Americans were “dumb Jacks” (a reference to his reputedly dim chauffer) lacking the sophistication to form their own opinions and so had their views had to be “manufactured” (to use the vernacular of the day when the US still made things) by their betters. Bernays accomplished this by first setting agendas with the media, whom he held to be only marginally smarter than his driver. This contempt for the public was not new, however, unfortunately it extends back to many, perhaps most, of the nation’s founding fathers, who held a John Locke conception of democracy that intended self-rule only for a small minority of talented property owners. Indeed, owning private property, conveniently, was seen as a reflection of possessing talent.


It appears clear the US has no intention of leaving Iraq. It has 14 military bases there and plans to even more firmly establish itself throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Additionally, with the extension of NATO bases into Donald Rumsfeld’s New Europe and the maintenance of its bases in East Asia, Russia is finally surrounded. It is cut off from ever forging an alliance with Berlin and France, feared by the US since Russia began exporting energy directly to West Europe. Also, the second biggest prize to Iraq in terms of energy, the Caspian region, has now been severed from Moscow and nw linked to the US. Given the active role of America in assisting the Rose Revolution in Georgia and its Orange variant in Ukraine, the US has secured the loyalty of these two vital transport zones for energy.


Moreover, with the invasion, it immediately defined a program for Iraq that ensured the public would have very little control over its economy. It designed a neoliberal dream, privatize everything program, with some exceptions on the politically sensitive issue of oil, that was rammed through without Iraqi input, and in fact, intentionally fast so they could not impart their views. Who cares what leaders are installed as long as they ensure Iraq is open for foreign investment? Well, not all foreign businesses of course, only those that supported the US war. Before charges of cynicism are lodged, remember, the architects of this regime were the former supporters of Saddam in the Reagan and Bush administrations – the very people that Nelson Mandela referenced as “dinosaurs” and implored us to recall their role in keeping him, a real democracy advocate, behind bars in South Africa.


Think Orwell. We have always been at peace with Oceania; we have always been at war with them…. Also recall that during the Iraq adventure the US was working to overthrow Venezuela’s elected leader, but had to back off after the failed coup, as further intervention would have only have too revealed its duplicity on “democracy.” Granted, the US departure from its two Saudi bases was a relatively, and one of the few, enlightened moves by this administration. The litmus tests for US support for other nations, however, has simply been whether they support America or not, period. George Bush articulated after 9/11 what has always been the country’s policy: you are with us or against us. Nothing new there, just the explicit statement of fact. The historical record there is clear enough to liberate us from having to rehearse it here. While sometimes a surprise to Americans, it is well-known abroad.


Conversely, sometimes democracies (the term gets used so liberally as to give elasticity entirely new dimensions) have served US interests, and it has supported them against tyrannies. Since the 1990s the US has, as a general rule, supported electoral democracies; especially in East/Central Europe and Latin America, which, once the old regimes are gone, can be converted into “polyarchies,” or elite-run systems requiring some democratic support to give them legitimacy and the public a sense that there is no alternative (TINA).


The thinking has been that these governments are more stable than dictatorships where typically one person becomes the personification of a nation’s ills and therefore serves as a symbol people can organize against. Moreover, a democracy of elites is much better at protecting that class’s interests than a dictator, and indeed, that was precisely what the thinking of many of the Federalists of American revolution. And, so it is today: better to have more pluralistic (within limits) governments that can be more easily controlled by their need for capital, etc. One can then regulate their economies through the exigencies of IMF/World Bank policies, and when necessary a capital strike to bring about a more “friendly” government.


And, so we are brought to democracy in Iraq. This administration displays the rank tendency to congratulate itself at every turn. It claims to be vindicated that the invasion of Iraq was justified because that decision brought the result of courageous Iraqis having the opportunity to cast a democratic choice. This “vindication” raises the concern of an American leadership marked with a renewed arrogance — “we made the right decision despite the critics” — with a dangerous disregard for the opinions of the rest of the world that did not support the invasion, nor, likely even many of those who voted in Iraq. Anyone daring to mention this in the US can expect a good spanking at the hands of the American press. Many in the media, have become rather well-trained ideologists than journalists and inveigh against any perceived “anti-Americanism.” Indeed, some have become a veritable emboldened class of brown shirts or commissars serving to ensure correct doctrine. From the commanding heights of their media outlets, this populist pundocracy is paid in the millions and more for those at the top of their game. They typically turn their attention to professors and other dissenters in the tradition of the McCarthy years, with people’s careers ruined and the unpleasantness of death threats that often ensue.


But, there is nothing unusual or unknown to any informed observer about the above interpretation of US policy, despite the efforts by the American media to police. You can more or less find it in the writings of America’s strategic planners, such as Henry Kissinger, or the much more enlightened Zbigniew Brzezinski. It would be comforting to think our soldiers and all these Iraqis have not died in vain. But, it is too early to tell. Afghanistan has elections, and to be sure, some groups in Kabul have seen their lives improve, but the rest of the country is in chaos and they are back to producing record levels of opium. The promised Western aid was not delivered and as long as they cause no trouble they can be conveniently forgotten.


Who knows what the future of Iraq holds, but perhaps the whole Middle East would be quieter had the US not overthrown, with the British, its first democracy in 1953 with Iran, installed a dictator there, then support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and then fanned the flames of fundamentalist Islam, including working with the mujihadeen in order to “given the Soviets their own Vietnam,” as Brzezinski put it. It would be nice to think the US has learned from its errors, and in part, this is driving the move away from the US habit of supporting dictatorship. Functionally, it has outlived its usefulness.


But, the question yet to be answered is, what kind of democracies and how much real freedom will they have? To be sure anything suggesting that power ultimately resides with the public is good. It remains to be seen whether the US is really willing to tolerate this, or is so confident of its ability to manage democracy that it is willing to roll the dice and gamble that this strategy is the best to achieving control of the region.


What’s clear is that from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Georgia, to Ukraine and the Balkans, the US is supporting a kind of democracy in order to promote stability in what are all vital either energy producing regions, or pipelines for its transit (present and proposed). One hopes it leads to genuine democracy. Time will tell.


Most are aware of Mahatma Gandhi’s refrain on Western civilization. When asked his thoughts about it, he responded, “it would be a good idea.” One could almost say the same about America and democracy, but that would be too cynical. The US revolution, along with the French and Haitian ones of the late 18th century evoked democratic stirrings, which while at times controlled through counter-revolution by their elites, represented the recognition that the public confers legitimacy on rulers not the reverse. Moreover, when people organize politically, or at the workplace – where they spend much of their waking hours – they exercise real control over their lives and bend power to the democratic impulses that have animated the past two centuries, alternating with tyranny. To be sure, given human foibles defined as early as the Old Testament of the Bible, democracy will never come easy and even when the form is in place, will always experience pressures to have it serve the powerful special interests against those of the public.

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