Sunday, February 4, 2007

Imperialism and its Young Admirers

Democracy talk was a sham, and realists in Washington are getting worried as the vacant character of the neo-cons is exposed for what it is: adolescent, dangerous bravado, writes Azmi Bishara

Apart from the inevitable readjustments necessitated by having become bogged down in a bloody and intractable situation in Iraq, Washington's policy towards the region remains essentially the same. Spreading democracy was not originally one of its aims, and it was not the goal of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Palestinian presidential elections or the Saudi municipal elections, which nonetheless have been cheered as the first tender shoots of a democratic future. Following all these elections, violence in Iraq intensified and spread in new directions. In spite of these elections, the US bore down on regimes that were targets for the policy the US secretary of state dubbed "constructive destabilisation". Meanwhile, Washington's allies in the region have become increasingly bolder in making it choose between accepting them with all their corruption and the spectre of radical political Islam.

The US still acts as though it is at the beginning of a historic mission in the region, as Britain had in the wake of World War I. Bush showered Sharon with promises in an exchange of letters in April 2004 that have a strong whiff of the Balfour Declaration. Then, as surreptitiously as Sykes and Picot, the US began to draw up plans for dividing the Middle East. Although these British and French colonial architects used their pens and straightedges to carve their map onto countries, Washington is carving up countries along sectarian and ethnic lines.

As awry as things have gone in Iraq, the US administration cannot bring itself to look at that disaster in any way other than how it impacts on its popularity ratings or on its allies in the area who are cringing at the prospect of the growing influence of Iran. The destruction of Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people acquire importance only from this perspective. Therefore, the American president sat down with his military chiefs on 28 September to ponder a way to lift the morale of the American public, and came up with the ingenious "plan for victory in Iraq". The "plan" is to enable the Iraqis to defend "the freedom they have won" by building an Iraqi army capable of that aim. Then, once the Iraqi army "stands up" America will "stand down", as the US president so eloquently put it. The "victory plan" is reaping yet more bloodshed and more destruction.

How odd it is that this is the US that inaugurated its occupation of Iraq by dismantling the Iraqi army in accordance with an imperial edict issued by Caesar Bremer the Great in May 2003, as part of its project to build a sectarian confederation. The effect of this project and its attendant policies was to increase the power and prestige of the Kurdish and Shia militias, and the operations and assassinations these militias have carried out have only worked to augment the violent rejection of the new order in so-called Sunni areas. The subdivision of Iraq into sectarian-based political areas was unknown to that country before the Iraq-Iran war, which was one of the disasters initiated by Saddam Hussein with the support of the US and all its then allies, and opposed by all of the US's current ones. However, the sectarian politicisation we see today, which exceeds all bounds of the imagination, is a purely American achievement.

American journalists and commentators have wondered why statements issuing from the White House with regard to the reconstruction of an Iraqi army capable of taking on the "insurgents" have fluctuated so wildly between the optimistic and the pessimistic. In the course of an article recounting his impressions during a visit to Iraq, one American journalist smuggled in his conviction that the real culprit in the whole business is the culture of fear and apathy that had become ingrained under the Saddam dictatorship, and that this whole culture would have to be changed in order to build an effective Iraqi army. (Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, 29 September 2005). The funny thing is that this illustrious columnist, whose epigram regularly boasts of him being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, drew this conclusion after being witness to a single anecdote, during his visit to the Um Qasr naval base, of a boatload of Iraqi sailors who decided to take a long lunch break one scorching afternoon, causing training exercises to be delayed that day. Nor did he catch the inconsistency in the same article between this conclusion, and his admiration for the ingenuity of the insurgents who began to use infrared devices from garage door openers after coalition forces had introduced jamming methods to block the detonation of roadside bombs by means of cell phone signals.

Why did Friedman not pick up on the fact that this "enemy" who "just keeps getting smarter" was made up of the same people who were reared under Saddam's alleged culture of fear and lack of initiative? Why did it escape him that the members of the new army lacked motivation whereas their adversaries had motivation in spades? Because he, like his military informants, has fallen into the habit of regurgitating half-baked truths about the culture of the US's Iraqi allies. The attitude is reminiscent of the disdain with which the Americans regarded their allies in South Vietnam, in contrast to their respectful awe for the Vietcong, even though the latter are as Vietnamese as the former. What is at work, essentially, is contempt on the part of the occupiers for those dependent upon them. It must be this contempt that has blinded them to the reality that the destruction of an entire economy and national infrastructure, the opening of the floodgates to theft and corruption, the subcontracting of the reconstruction of the Iraqi army to a host of greedy private catering, construction and security firms, and that recruitment into this army has become virtually the only source of livelihood for millions of unemployed, does not offer the greatest motives for fighting.

One would think that the situation in Iraq would have compelled the powers that be in Washington to give much more careful study to the problems inherent in direct military intervention in other countries of the Arab world -- Syria for example. However, American policy has not changed. Indeed, it appears to be growing more obsessive in its intent to exploit the 11 September aftermath to settle old grudges, thereby keeping the train of destruction in motion. In so doing, the Bush administration wavers between the pragmatism needed to cater to domestic public opinion, so as to ensure that this is not the last Republican administration for a long time, and also needed to cater to international opinion in order to keep America's overseas interests up and running, and the fundamentalist idealism that characterises America's foreign policy creed under the neo-conservatives.

While reading some American strategic studies recently, I was struck by how deeply the conviction runs in those circles that the aim of US intervention in the world since the Spanish-American war and the occupation of Cuba and the subsequent occupation of the Philippines was "nation-building", by which is meant spreading democracy and representational government. Clearly there has been some heavy ideological indoctrination going on in America's military academies, well before the neo-cons rose to power and imposed their philosophy on US foreign policy. Somewhere along the line, neo-con theorists, their consummate zeal and arrogance cloaked behind a façade of academic detachment, dressed the pretexts for colonialist intervention in pseudoscientific jargon and forged them into a fully-fledged theoretical underpinning for an evangelistic drive to export democracy and defend the American way of life, using the word "liberty" as its clarion call.

Therefore, when the weapons of mass destruction pretext for invading Iraq collapsed with the reverberating ignominy that this "globalised lie" deserved, it was no great feat to pull "democracy" out of the hat. All that was needed then was some swift footwork to present this as the unique and noble characteristic that set American interventionism apart from all other forms of imperialism across the ages. As part of the packaging, the democracies of Germany and Japan were touted as renowned successes of this policy. What was not said, of course, was that this two-nation list that is always dragged out as ostensible proof of how democracy can be won by military occupation, forms the exception not the rule. Germany and Japan had already passed through a phase of modernisation and liberalisation not long before the American occupation of those countries. They had a strong unifying nationalist movement with which America could ally against divisive forces, and they were also relatively homogenous, linguistically and even ethnically. The American presence in those countries at the time also conformed to the commonly held domestic perception of the need to defend national interests against an outside threat emanating from China, the Soviet Union and East Germany. By contrast, in economically underdeveloped Iraq, which had not experienced democracy before the onset of dictatorship, the American presence encourages the disruptive tendencies, sectarian fragmentation, disunity and the building upon illegitimate sources of authority as opposed to legitimate ones that existed beforehand, even if these were not democratic.

The American experience in Iraq should bring to mind not the exception but the rule, as exemplified by Cuba, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Cyprus and other countries that had not had the luxury of a Marshall Plan, and in which most of America's "democratisation drive" met with dismal failure. Frequently overlooked, too, is direct American involvement in the security, politics and economies of the Central Asian republics, where the regimes that are being constructed with American supervision on the ruins of the soviet system are corrupt, despotic and anything but democratic.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, when the new American creed was being developed, Bush and Blair cited different reasons at various times for intervening militarily in Iraq: UN Security Council resolutions had to be enforced, Saddam had to be stripped of his weapons of mass destruction, the flow of oil had to be guaranteed, the Iraqi people had to be rescued from a cruel dictator, the democratic forces in Iraq needed support, and terrorism had to be fought. When one after the other of these myths toppled, Bush, reading from the neo-con script, continued to insist on the link between spreading democracy and fighting terrorism. The dictatorial regimes of the Arab world had the tendency to breed terrorism and export it to the US, he said. Therefore, breeding democracy in the Arab world was nothing less than a US national security imperative. Washington soon discovered, however, that after the fall of the Soviet Union -- after it was no longer necessary to maintain the status quo of dictatorial regimes if the status quo was in America's favour -- it was not necessarily in America's interests to promote regime change and impose democratic forms of government. After all, not only might the newly bred democratic governments prove unpredictable, sometimes it might better serve American security interests to keep existing dictatorships at the mercy of American blackmail.

Thus it was that some neo-cons, in spite of their Trotskyite-like radical temperament (in the opinion of this author, radicalism is as much a psychological state of mind as it is a political position) and their belief in "permanent revolution", discovered that there were times when the US would have to adopt the realism of Lenin. If Lenin felt it necessary to build the communist order in one state before exporting the revolution as an instrument for global domination, and to ally himself with non-communist states in order to better secure that state, neo-conss reached the conclusion that they had to give priority, for the moment, to building the capitalist democratic state in one country, temporarily give up the idea of permanent revolution and ally themselves with non-democratic nations if that better served their interests. Not all neo-cons welcomed this shift. In his article, "Who killed the Bush Doctrine?" appearing in Haaretz of 30 September 2005, Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, laments the compromise. A worshipper at the neo-con temple, the American Enterprise Institute, Rubin reminded his readers that Bush, in his inaugural speech of 20 January 2005, had pledged to support democracy and freedom around the globe. Rubin suspected that some clique had "got to the president or got around him," for nearly a year later it had become clear that the Bush administration had chosen to betray the "Bush Doctrine" and chosen, instead, to support the status quo in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Lebanon and Syria.

Now, as we mourn the death of democracy, leaving only desolation, the spread of terrorism to other countries such as Jordan, and the growing Iranian influence in Iraq through the Iraqi elections, studies have begun to emerge refuting the established lore about the relationship between the spread of democracy and the fight against terrorism, or between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism. Suddenly, scholars have observed that terrorism in non-democratic China pales next to terrorism in democratic India; that democracy in Britain did nothing to dampen the resolve of a group of native-born British youths to mount a series of terrorist acts, and that domestic terrorist movements emerged in democratic Germany, America, Italy, Israel and Japan in the 1970s, 1980s and up to the end of the last century. It is not true, of course, that democracy breeds terrorism. It is true that liberal democracy is the best of all systems of government, or more precisely, the least pernicious. However, there is no relationship between democratisation and ending terrorism. Nor has a clear relationship been established between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism (see Gregory Gause, 'Can democracy stop terrorism?' in Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005). More importantly, terrorism has gained a new base of operations, in dictatorship-free Iraq.

Odd how China and India can crop up suddenly -- or vanish just as quickly -- as the needs of proponents of the theory of exporting democracy to fight terrorism dictate. Liberal democracy is better than dictatorship because it is a more humane system of government, not because it is more effective in fighting terrorism.

It is clearer than ever that this aphorism that used to be quoted in connection with communism -- "the idea is great; the problem is in its application" -- does not hold in the case of neo-con dogma. The problem is that the idea was turned into a creed of action, which is to say that it could no longer be distinguished from practice. The idea -- democracy -- was packaged for export and placed at the end of the barrel of a gun. The problem also resides in the belief that America's non-democratic allies who toe the line with US foreign policy are capable of building democratic governments just because they know which side their bread is buttered on. In addition, it is naïve to think that just because some hardcore neo-cons believe in exporting democracy, the pragmatists among US foreign policy architects designed their policy in accordance with this doctrine. Spreading democracy was not initially their creed. Rather, the creed served their purposes at a time in which they were drumming up support for a certain plan of action and exploiting the post-11 September hysteria towards this end.

The constant in US foreign policy planning is imperial interests. Imperial interests may dictate that some of the young zealots who believed in Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld bewail the death of a doctrine, just as the tears shed by Israeli settlers at the time of disengagement served Sharon's designs. The bottom line is that national interests prevail. The concept is less emotive and less ideologically coherent than it appears.

Its proponents are also less grandiose and less prone to feigning a worldly callousness than they appear, unlike adolescents trying to act as grownups and certainly unlike those neo-con intellectuals who had never fought a war in their lives, yet who swagger around spouting their notions about the greater picture. These self-styled intellectual giants are indifferent to petty details, such as the cries of misery issuing from the death and destruction below, as they stomp relentlessly forward to fulfil the historical mission to which they appointed themselves ever since they started working as journalists, think-tank scholars, congressional members or under-secretaries. The realists share this insensitivity to the suffering of others, of course. However, their insensitivity is real, not a pose, not the bravado of the university grad who prattles on blithely about the necessity of war, bloodshed, the displacement of people and the partition of nations.

The neo-cons have a soft spot in their heart for such things as ideology, doctrinal consistency and the historic mission of imperialism. They are always taken by surprise by realists whose soft spot is in their pockets and by others for whom imperialism is not a religion, or a substitute for religion, or a logically coherent ideology to be used against heresy, but something to be implemented on the ground, with all the conflicting demands this makes, with all the trial and error that is required and with all the concessions to imperial interests that are needed in order to consolidate and expand the dominion of hegemony.

This is why the realists in Washington have begun to recalculate their strategy. They realise that they have to keep the increasingly fidgety home front under control, and that they have to make some concessions to opinion abroad now that the disaster they wrought in Iraq has made the international situation so much more complex.

The war against terror has produced only one result so far, which was to expand the range of terrorism. Nor has exploiting terrorism to expand the realm of American hegemony had any sure-fire results apart from having opened the gates of hell. And the Iraqi model of democracy has few buyers; indeed, it is repellent even to Syrian opposition forces.