Sunday, February 4, 2007

The politics of self-interest

The neo-conservatives may be tied to ideological consistency but it has never been the true driving force of US policy. That, writes Azmi Bishara, is all about money, and nothing will get in its way

Apart from the obligatory exigencies necessitated by the bloody cesspool of direct involvement, US policy towards this region has remained unchanged. Democracy was never a goal of US policy, nor was it the aim behind the Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Palestinian presidential elections or the Saudi municipal elections, all of which are cited as the green sprouts of burgeoning democracy. Elections or no, violence and bloodshed in Iraq has escalated to unprecedented levels, and Washington appears more determined than ever to set target regimes for a bit of "constructive chaos".

The US is still behaving as Britain behaved following World War I, believing it is at the threshold of its historic moment in the region. It has been as liberal in its pledges to Sharon as Lord Balfour was to earlier Zionist leaders, and it has devised plans to redraw the map of the region on a sectarian basis.

Meanwhile, Washington's concern for the destruction taking place in Iraq extends no further than how it reflects upon the US administration. In order to raise morale in the US President Bush unveiled a "plan for victory in Iraq" during a recent meeting with America's military top brass. The idea, so brilliant in its simplicity, is to empower the Iraqi people to defend their regained freedom by building a strong Iraqi army. Bush added that US forces would leave Iraq once that army proved capable of defending freedom on its own.

The US, that had dissolved the Iraqi army by imperial fiat issued by Paul Bremer in May 2003 is the same US that is propelling Iraq towards a sectarian-based confederation, the same US whose policies have encouraged Shia and Kurdish militias to grow more powerful and revered than the standing army, augmenting, in turn, the rejectionist violence in the so-called Sunni triangle. I say "so-called" because such terms were unfamiliar in Iraq until the Iraq-Iran war, one of the catastrophes wrought by Saddam Hussein and supported by all of America's current allies, opposed by all America's current enemies. Since then sectarianism has been politicised as never before. Credit for this is solely due to the US.

American journalists and commentators have been bewildered by how sharply White House statements vacillate between optimism and pessimism regarding the reconstruction of an Iraqi army capable of taking on the "insurgents". After considerable circumlocution Thomas Friedman, in The New York Times of 29 September, asserted that "Saddam's tyrannical rule over nearly three decades conditioned people here never to assume responsibility." It would require "a huge cultural shift" to rid them of this ingrained fear of taking the initiative. Curiously, the famous columnist who takes great pains to remind readers that he is a "three-time Pulitzer Prize winner" reached this conclusion on the basis of a story he was told of how "a boatload of Iraqi sailors decided to take a long lunch break and blew off the afternoon training" because of the heat. Odder yet, however, was the inconsistency of this conclusion with his observation that "after coalition forces introduced jamming devices to block roadside bombs detonated with cell phones, the insurgents started using infra red devices from garage door openers". This "enemy", who "just keeps getting smarter" and who showed "so much ingenuity" certainly lacked no spirit of initiative, and is made up of the same people who are supposedly trapped in the Saddam-bred "culture of fear".

Friedman is probably unable to conceive that there is a vast difference between the members of the new Iraqi army and their adversaries; that the former have little to motivate them whereas the latter is growing more motivated by the day.

Why did this escape him?

Perhaps because all he heard from his US military interlocutors during his visit to Um Qasr was denigration of the culture of their Iraqi allies, much as the Americans disdained their allies in the south Vietnam while simultaneously holding the Vietcong in appreciative awe, even though the latter were as Vietnamese as the former.

Such a self-contradictory mindset stems from the contempt in which the occupier holds those dependent upon him. It is a mindset that finds it difficult to regard the destruction of a national economy, the demolition of a national infrastructure, the spread of theft and corruption, the subcontracting of the building of a new army to assorted commercial and security firms and the fact that this business has become virtually the only available source of income for millions of unemployed Iraqis, as anything less than a perfect motive for fighting.

The situation in Iraq may force the US into closer study of the consequences of direct military intervention in Arab countries. If it does, it will not be because it has altered its policy towards those nations it has slated for intervention. American policy in the region remains unchanged. It is still bent on exploiting the events of 11 September to wreak further destruction. In so doing it will make various pragmatic swerves, out of electoral considerations or to safeguard the US's ordinary global or regional interests. But it will always veer back to the fundamentalist creed that has dominated American foreign and national security policy in these neo- conservative times.

I came across some American military studies published recently and was surprised to learn how deep the conviction is in military circles that armed interventions -- from the Spanish- American war through the occupation of Cuba and the Philippines -- were part and parcel of the process of building a democratic government in the US. Clearly there is a long tradition of ideological indoctrination in America's military academies, predating the emergence of the neo- cons and their foreign policy philosophy. However, it was the neo-cons who took this colonialist ideology, dressed it in a pseudoscientific cloak and boosted it with an unparalleled arrogance and self-confidence in the American mission to spread liberty and democracy around the globe.

Thus, once the WMD pretext for its belligerency against Iraq collapsed so reverberatingly that we could call it a "globalised lie", a revamped ideology was poised to fill the void and wielded as though it was the glorious mission of spreading liberty that sets American interventionism apart from all other forms of imperialism. And, to give it some practical foundation, Germany and Japan were cited as examples of democracies that owed their existence to American intervention. Unfortunately, the two countries that comprise the success story of the policy of democratisation by military intervention could not be more different from Iraq. They were both linguistically and ethnically homogenous, they had both experienced forms of democratic rule before the war, and following the war the US sided with the forces of national unity and cohesion rather than against them. In addition, the American presence in those countries was at the time consistent with the need to defend their national interests against what was perceived as an immediate outside threat posed by the Soviet Union and communist China.

The case of Iraq is in stark contrast. It was capitalistically underdeveloped and there had been no democratic experience prior to dictatorship. As a consequence the American presence lends itself to the forces of sectarianism and territorial disintegration, and against national unification on the basis of legitimate sources, democratic or otherwise.

The American experience in Iraq should have called to mind not the exceptions of Germany and Japan, but the rule, as exemplified by American intervention in Cuba, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Cyprus and so on. There were no Marshall plans for those countries and if democratisation was an aim, it failed. To these we can add direct American economic, security and political involvement in the Central Asian republics, where the regimes that emerged under American supervision on the ruins of the Soviet Union are as despotic as they are corrupt.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq its two architects, Bush and Blair, listed various justifications for a military strike: to implement UN resolutions (whether the UN liked it or not), to disarm Iraq of WMD, to guarantee the flow of oil, to rescue the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator, to spread democracy and to fight terrorism.

One after the other these pretexts were exposed as lies. Bush, relying on crib notes from his neo- conservative cronies, still persisted in pushing the connection between spreading democracy and combating terrorism. The theory he expounded was that dictatorial regimes in the Arab world had a proclivity for breeding terrorism and exporting it to the US. Breeding democracy in the Arab world, he asserted, was a question of the utmost importance to American national security.

Soon, however, Washington discovered it was not necessarily in the interests of American national security to push for regime change and democratisation when it could not guarantee the results. Indeed, national security may well require maintaining existing dictatorships vulnerable to American blackmail. The neo-cons, with their radical psychology and their Trotskyist-like belief in "permanent revolution" realised that the US sometimes had to adopt the realism of Lenin, who believed it necessary to establish the communist order in one nation before exporting the revolution to others as an instrument for global domination. In other words, the US had to give priority to building capitalism or democracy at home, regardless if that meant putting the permanent revolution on hold for a while or entering into alliances with non-democratic nations -- as the USSR had once allied with non-communist nations -- if that served the new order.

Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly and a worshipper at the neo- conservative temple, the American Enterprise Institute, laments the compromise.

"Who killed the Bush Doctrine?" asks the headline of an article in Haaretz on 30 September. In his inaugural address of 20 January, 2005 Bush had pledged to "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture". It did not take long, however, for Bush to double track. A year later, Rubin claims, and it has become clear that the Bush administration has betrayed that doctrine and chosen, instead, to support the status quo in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even in Lebanon.

As the passing of this "democratic moment" is mourned studies have begun to emerge refuting the established wisdom about the relationship between the spread of democracy and the fight against terrorism, or between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism. Suddenly scholars have noticed that terrorism in non-democratic China cannot hold a candle to terrorism in democratic India, and 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. Terrorist movements -- they seem to have suddenly discovered -- emerged in Germany, the US, Italy, Israel and Japan.

It is not true, of course, that democracy breeds terrorism. It is true that democracy is the best of all systems of government, or to be more precise, the least pernicious. However, there is no relationship between the trend towards democracy and the halt of terrorism. Nor has a clear relationship been established between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism. (See Gregory Gause, "Can democracy stop terrorism?", Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005). More importantly, terrorism gained a new theatre of operations in Iraq which had been freed from dictatorship.

Odd how China and India can crop up suddenly -- or vanish just as quickly -- when the exigencies of a certain phase require. It becomes clearer than ever that this aphorism that used to be cited in connection with communism -- "the idea is great; the problem is in its application" -- does not hold. The real problem is that an idea -- democracy -- was turned into a doctrine and packaged for export on the barrel of a gun.

But even if some hardcore neo-cons believed this it would be naïve to imagine that the realists among Washington's foreign policy architects designed their policy along such lines. Spreading democracy was never their creed; rather, it served their purposes to exploit 11 September hysteria to further other long-range objectives. Now it serves their purposes for believers in Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to bewail the death of that creed, just as the Israeli settlers' wails have served Sharon's designs.

Ultimately it is self-interest that rules, though as a concept self-interest is less emotional and less ideologically coherent than it appears. It is also less impressive and less dispassionate. It resembles an adolescent acting like a grown-up, or neo-cons pretending to be giants, indifferent to petty details such as the cries issuing from beneath their boots as they stomp their way forward on the historical mission they assigned themselves when they started working as journalists, think-tank scholars, congressional members and under-secretaries.

The neo-cons have a soft spot for such things as ideology, ideological consistency, historical imperatives and imperial missions. They are always taken by surprise by the realists, whose soft spot is in their pockets and for whom imperial destiny is not a religion to be guarded against heresy but an agenda to be realised on the ground, through trial and error and, perhaps, through seemingly contradictory practices, but always proceeding towards the goal of domination and expanding the realm of domination.