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Democracy at Gunpoint

taking a second look at the arguments of Condoleezza Rice

Designed to convince people that the invasion of Iraq is justified by having not merely brought ‘democracy’ but by having, so her own wording, ‘unleashed the forces of democracy not merely in Iraq but in the Middle East’, the rhetorical fiction of the US administration reaches a new level of denial as to what is happening in Iraq. 'Unleashing the forces of democracy' by military means is not exactly what someone has in mind when thinking about a democratic process requiring open trust, public debate and above all a basic consensus no violence may be used to coerce others into some kind of decision or vote.

But to begin with from another angle, CNN had a funny banner running Sunday, April 2, 2006 underneath its usual picture of the studio with one of the anchor women reading out the latest world news. It read ‘Rice and Straw in Baghdad’. Indeed, if the diplomatic efforts of the United States and Great Britain in Iraq are reduced to ‘rice’ and ‘straw’, then soon everyone shall go hungry in Iraq. Also in such a gesture cannot be overseen the implicit meaning attached to that rice being the last straw. If the Iraqis still refuse to cooperate, then the last straw of hope would be that efforts to bring about a national government of unity by means of free elections shall certainly fail.

It is the Western credo to identify democracy primarily with a change in power made possible by holding free and fair elections. That promise may mean very little for those who have to suffer daily violence in the streets of Baghdad, but for those in the West it may offer some hope Iraq was not entirely a failure. That hope extends to what business interests associate with a 'working democracy' namely the hope to be able to return to 'business as usual'. The only flaw in this projected hope upon Iraq is that the West engulfed that country in more wars and violence than before Saddam Hussein was disposed. This is not a matter of comparing between the two state of affairs, for there is no interest in establishing which of the two is the lesser evil. Practically it means that the explosive situation in Iraq does not allow assumptions about how democracy ought to work take any roots. It is not as Ulrich Beck would put in scientific terms a 'normative practice', but democracy must be really convincing if to take hold.

What makes it all the more difficult is that the Western invasion underlines the simple fact that violence precedes democracy and can be invoked any time and at will, if there is no will shown to make that experiment work. Above all it should not be forgotten that the Western powers became unbelievable the moment they invaded Iraq. During all the years of the Cold War, they preached non violence as basic value premise of democracy. Communist regimes were criticized for not allowing free and fair elections under the condition to ensure a peaceful transition of power. In the case of Iraq, 'regime change' took place by force.

Once the country was invaded in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein, and the unexpected happened, it meant that the invading army was not greeted warmly as was the case in Europe after 1945. Rather the army confronted a confusing picture. On the one hand, there was an entire army disarming itself with soldiers walking home; on the other, resistance formed itself very quickly and started to become effective as counter force. Consequently the process of occupation engulfed the entire country in a variety of wars. It ranged from violent clashes to new forms of resistance, including car bombs going off at check points or else subversive forces turned the guns inside out. Above all the blunders of an ill conceived invasion put the American forces daily at risk. A further mistake was made by identifying any form of resistance as terrorism. Not seen or anticipated was the risk that elsewhere or anywhere secretarian violence could flare up at any given moment.

Above all the invading forces were ill equiped to comprehend all the layers of historical experiences linked to the existence of an ancient civilization as exemplified by Babylon, but which the army used as camp site and thereby showed its lack of regard for cultural heritage just as would be accused the Talibans when they destroyed those two Buddha monuments. Even the plundering of the archaeological museum in Bagdhad during the initial hey-days of the invasion, and that after two weeks of bombardment, was not exactly what this kind of army was equipped to do. They were trained to topple Hussein and his standing army, but not to safeguard the cultural heritage of Iraq, never mind did the military brass know how to safeguard the Rights of the ethnic minorities while sorting out the difference between artificial and legitimate rulerships. That confusion had already been created by what former Imperial powers and the colonial system  hadleft in its wake when withdrawing.

But to come back to Condoleezza Rice who had just visited around that time Jack Straw’s Blackburn constituency. It was a political gesture of support. While there, as reporters attested later, she did offer some insights into how she thinks to continue defending the invasion of the US led coalition into Iraq.

Of interest is here that most of the newspapers left out her most crucial reference to 9/11, insofar as she said in her interview to the BBC, that if it is reduced to just a bunch of criminals who had hijacked the planes, then no one would understand i.e. take serious the world wide deadly threat of terrorism! It seemed that she intended to heighten the fear to ensure the war effort was fully justified. Thus she added in the interview a description as to who these terrorists were really. Not mincing her words, she claimed that: "they would kill for the sake of killing and therefore most difficult to stop." Difficult to stop? Was that a slight opening to an admittance that the war in Iraq was after all a failure, especially in terms of being able to stop or not terrorism?

Naturally her argumentation needs to be seen in terms of what could question the invasion of Iraq altogether and thereby rob the US administration of any legitimacy whatsoever. By being vague and inclusive, best done by calling terrorism a world wide phenomenon, she managed to skate around the usual criticism that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attack. Not only that but doubtful proof was provided by Secretary of State Powell who told the Security Council that he had irrefutable proof that Saddam Hussein was in possession of 'weapons of mass destruction'. Once the invasion got under way, no such weapons were ever found. Later, Powell admitted that he had used the method of 'mendacity'. Martin Jay defines the latter as the love of the public lie; it is used to keep the general public in the dark about the real motives i.e. why going to war in Iray was so important at that moment - March 21, 2003.

A much wider and more extensive interpretation of terrorism becomes explicit once the term is used to encompass almost every threat to the power of the United States. Practically speaking, the US administration used the term to sweep under the carpet also such categories of threat whose nature is much more of political defiance or opposition rather than actual military and terrorist power. As said already above, the American and coalition forces in Iraq could not read what is genuine resistance, and took by mistake everything as being just the outcome of deliberate acts of terrorism.

To remind, a prime reason given for wishing to dispose of Saddam Hussein was that he did not show sufficient willingness to co-operate and comply with the international weapons' inspectors. Basically he needed to fulfill what was demanded by the USA and Great Britain, namely that he recognizes 'unconditionally' their authority i.e. power to dominate the world. Instead Saddam Hussein displayed quite a lot of defiance. This provoke more anger in Washington and London. After all, there was still one old bill open for Bush junior. His father, President Bush senior had launched desert storm after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuweit, but once his troops had been driven out, the American forces did not enter Iraq. They stopped short of what should have been then the next step, namely to move into Baghdad for the 'kill'. At least this legacy had shaped the mind of Bush junior when he took office, and this together with the 'Cold War' warriors the likes of Dick Cheney, Wolfwowitz, Rumsfeld etc. It was anyhow curious to see how this American elite would deal with a post Cold War world in which there was no longer Communism available as 'enemy picture'. The presidency of Bill Clinton was in that sense only a short lived happy coincidence in between the Cold and Hot War, the latter being the 'war against terrorism'.

To underline it a bit further, both Bush and Blair demanded from Hussein full co-operation and compliance. They made it into a race with time, and basically put the weapons' inspectors under enormous pressure. Again it was a demonstration as in the case of Kosovo that a peaceful method was not allowed to work. There prevailed almost an over eagerness to go to war, to pull the trigger, as if in the Wild West where you shoot first and only then ask questions. By the same token, their demands became so extreme that such complete co-operation and full compliance could only be given by a dead man, for otherwise a different life would always expressed a difference. If alone America would have been consequential in their project called nation building, they would have granted to Iraq as well an independent sense for what political reality suits their history, culture and composition of people. This was, however, not given by Blair and Bush. Rather they were frantically searching for an excuse to invade.

By not making such a distinction between different kinds of threats and by not explaining why the USA felt threatened by Saddam’s kind of definance, the Secretary of State started in the interview to defend the decision to invade Iraq with the argument of democracy. It is, therefore, interesting what she had to say in Blackburn about that decision.

"I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them, I'm sure," she said. "But when you look back in history what will be judged on is" whether the "right strategic decision" was made.

When asked a day later to give examples of the mistakes, Rice replied:

"First of all, I meant it figuratively, not literally. Let me be very clear about that. I wasn't sitting around counting," she replied. "The point I was making to the questioner ... is that, of course, if you've ever made decisions, you've undoubtedly made mistakes."

She added:

"The important thing is to get the big strategic decisions right, and that I am confident that the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqi people an opportunity for peace and for democracy is the right decision."

"The other point I was making to the questioner is that I'm enough of a historian to know that things that looked brilliant at the moment turn out in historical perspective to be mistakes, and the things that look like mistakes turn out to have been right decisions."

At this point she would emphasize that Saddam Hussein had become a ‘threat’ (e.g. for not obeying over ten years one UN resolution after another): “I believe strongly that it was the right strategic decision since Saddam (Hussein) had been a threat to the international community long enough.”

Interestingly enough, Rice pointed out as well that democracy in Iraq will not stabilize under the shadows of guns. She admitted indirectly that Saddam was overthrown by force, but then tried to give it a democratic twist, by expressing the following: "It's not at gunpoint that democracy is taking place in Iraq - at gunpoint Saddam Hussein was taken out of power but the Iraqies did not go to the polls at gunpoint," she said, while conceding "the birth of democracy is sometimes difficult." Whatever she implied, it was not as clear, but as to her second admittance, namely that the birth of a democracy may sometimes be difficult, here she adopted the military version things were never smooth for reality is always messy. That is a loose way of putting away, for example, all the deaths of innocent civilians.

Going back to her acknowledgement that the United States had made "thousands" of tactical errors in Iraq, Rice insisted that these errors did not concern the strategic objectives which Washington had set itself when it intervened in Iraq. Even though mistakes have been made, she insisted that it was not a mistake to overthrow Saddam Hussein. To this she added in the interview given to BBC the extra thought, namely that "it was not a mistake to unleash the forces of democracy in the Middle East." Out of this it is possible to conclude a wider strategic objective was to bring about a transition to democracy not only in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who has been playing host to Rice in his Blackburn constituency since Friday, shared her analysis of the situation in Iraq. "Not everything worked out afterwards as anticipated but I am absolutely clear that without that military action you would never have been able to unleash the forces of democracy not only in Iraq but ... Across the Middle East," he told the BBC.

So lets trace for a moment the source of that metaphor ‘democracy at gunpoint’. It stems from a book written by the late Andreas Papandreou, PASOK leader and who became Prime Minister of Greece after his election victory in 1981. He had been arrested by the military junta which overthrow the government of Greece in 1967. It was thought that this pre-emptive strike to prevent an election victory of Papandreou’s father, George Papandreou could not have taken place without the backing of the United States. Once released from jail Andreas Papandreou resumed teaching duties at York University in Toronto, Canada (he had taught already at Berkeley) and there he wrote this book called ‘Democracy at Gunpoint’.

It is interesting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should pick up that title and apply it in a reverse manner to Iraq. For she argues Saddam Hussein was disposed by force but the people of Iraq could go to vote not at gunpoint but out of their own free will. This argument is hard to follow. Latest after Falluja and the sweep of that town by US forces, it is clear that dead civilians shall not be able to vote.

Moreover, three years after the invasion on March 21, 2003, violence has continued and the death toll is climbing. It is said that by now more than 30 000 Iraqis have been killed. Even though President Bush thinks these are sacrifices worth while on the way to democracy, it is hardly a justification of bringing democracy at gunpoint to Iraq and thereby destroying almost everything that society had in terms of cultural heritage, dignity and self governance even and despite of Saddam Hussein. And more so people's lives should never be sacrificed for an abstract idea. That is as bad as Stalin's agricultural reform; something similar happened in China in the early 1950's when ill advise was followed and millions died of starvation. It is simply not allowed to experiment with human lives, nor to demand from people to make such sacrifices. That is the worst possible rationalization of war, especially if these civilian deaths do not count, but the life of one American soldier can set off alarm bells.

As a matter of fact Western Civilization had always prided itself to stand above human sacrifices thought to be only acts of extreme primitive societies. Hence for the president of one of the greatest democracy in the world and in history to say something like this, namely that human sacrifices are worthwhile for democracy to be installed in Iraq, astonishes. Why the Western Press remains silence on this issue of ‘sacrifice’ may require some further analysis, but certainly in military and other heroic legends the term ‘sacrifice’ does make its appearance e.g. how many American GIs died to free Europe of the threat of Fascism. Still, to use this to belittle the death of innocent civilians who were meant to benefit from this democracy brought to them by a violent regime change, indicates to what primitive level this US administration has sunk in terms of its ability to uphold and to safeguard human dignity at home and in the world.

Given some of the arguments presented by Dick Cheney and Ronald Rumsfeld, it is conceivable that this primitiveness is due to ill conceived concepts they have about the nature of war and how they can deceive themselves, the President and the American people with allusions to forms of greatness when in reality even one death of an innocent civilian would be enough to realize something has gone badly ‘wrong’. But like the statistical figures of the unemployed, the death toll is perceived as not amounting to much more than a dent in a Humvee.

When one adds the latest news coming out of Iraq, namely that more than 40 000 people have been displaced countrywide as a result of ongoing sectarian violence, according to the spokesman Sattar Nawruz from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, then Iraq is no where close to become a stable democracy, but quite the contrary on the best way to what Thomas Friedman has described (International Herald Tribune, Sat.-Sun. April 1-2, 2006, p. 7) under the title “The 11th hour of Iraq as ”a downward spiral of killing and vengeance. Add fear and the spiral will intensify the downward trend until people no longer know whom to trust, including those in uniform and pretending to be from the government."

If there is no government in Iraq to speak of, then because ‘regime change’ fails especially if formed by violent means or indirectly by threats of violence. Even if everything is done in the name of democracy, the coercion of power should not be allowed to dictate how people wish to vote. It had always been the value premise of the West during the Cold War that democracy has value because it allows for 'peaceful' changes in power. Certainly democracies do not require violent overthrows, if free and fair elections guarantee equality and justice for everyone – something having come increasingly into doubt even in the United States after the election by Bush in 2000 and 2004. If not voting machines that are rigged, Republicans have shifted boundaries of electoral constituencies to their advantage. But this was not the issue back then, during the Cold War, when the West saw how power struggles within Communist regimes meant conspiracies and back stabbing. Their leader(s) lasted as long as the First Secretary was not poisoned and until he could die a natural death. There was no such ruling as the President of the United States being allowed to serve only two terms in office.

Clearly that value premise was thrown overboard once the USA and Great Britain decided to invade Iraq after they had already got a taste of things after having overthrown the Talibans in Afghanistan. By all noble arguments to be doing this for the sake of freeing the people of a terrible dictator, one thing is repeatedly blended out in the case of Iraq. By invading, outer forces would supersede the people of Iraq and thereby rob them of the chance to make their own experiences in terms of emancipation from dictatorship. Democracy in Iraq is therefore not the result of political maturity as brought about by the Iraqis themselves but by what Adorno called ‘die Erziehung hin zur Unmuendigkeit’ – the education towards illiteracy. Like parents that rob children of very much needed experiences they need to make, in order to grow up in a world not just a Walt Disney entertainment park, but a reality filled with many different people and interest groups, the USA always thinks it can dictate time and pace of democratic developments in the world. It never seems to dawn on Condolleezza Rice that democracy requires the freedom to do things in one’s own time and this with such human measures as are appropriate to both the culture and experiences of the people of that land. Democracy is not doing things according to the dictates of someone else.

‘Democracy at gunpoint’ is, therefore, an apt metaphor to describe the real situation in Iraq. Reports coming out of Iraq say that the construction work going on at military bases follows the aim to make them become more permanent and endurable i.e. secure against all kinds of attacks. It means, however, that the military is digging in to stay much longer than originally presumed. That is the best indication that no government in Baghdad can stay in power, if it ignores the real power residing in those military bases. Contrary to the gossip of a troop reduction or troop removal, the military presence is taking on a permanent feature as it did in Germany after 1945. And no wonder, after all, America is putting a lot of money into Iraq and they are not flimsy when the time has come to pay back under USA terms. War is after all a profitable business for some.

Above all there are the oil reserves which are most important to USA interests, probably more than anything else. It was also the oil ministry in Baghdad which was first occupied before anything else. That speaks a clear language. No public diplomacy can make people forget that. Any government in Baghdad will be constituted at gunpoint. For the permanent US military bases in Iraq are directed at any real wish for democracy by the Iraqis. They may wish to find a way out of these difficult circumstances, but from day one they are forced to make such compromises needed to accommodate the presence of American troops on the soil of Iraq.

The current Iraqis politicians intermeshed with the religious leaders cannot challenge openly the American dominance. They can do it only indirectly and crafty as they are, they will stall as much as they can, in order to let time work for them. Here then the West has made a huge mistake. After all those who were brought to power in Iraq with the help of the American forces once they had invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, they ascended not in agreement and by support of the people of Iraq but are hieved into these posts. Coming back out of exile, they did not go through all the direct suffrage under Saddam Hussein. And most of them came back to Iraq after having been in exile sometimes for more than 25 years, Oil minister Chalabi a prime example. He had been charged with corruption which forced him to flee the country. Since the West has its due share as to whom it supports, who not, it will be interesting to watch what power games are being played (the President of Afghanistan was a former vice president in Dick Cheney’s company and therefore received practical training beforehand in how Western democracy works in the interest of large companies).

One wonders really what sort of democracy is meant when puppets are installed or those ousted if they do not follow orders from Washington? By the same token, Chomeiny was protected by France while supporting at the same time the Shah in Persia. This was due to the Shah's eagerness to buy more and more F 104 planes and to keep an expensive security force to suppress the opposition in Iran. It means the political game being played, entails supporting potential candidates for future reigns of power. It is at best contradictory and highly ‘immoral’, but highly clever, both politically and philosophically speaking. The most apt term for all of this is the Western constant meddling in the affairs of other countries. It is done although being something they would forbid anyone attempting to do likewise in their countries – see the prospects of US harbours being sold to an Arabic company or how many political rights immigrants are granted.

But let us come back to Condoleezza Rice’s admittance that the USA has made perhaps a thousand tactical mistakes even though the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was a right one or at least so she claims. She added due to her analytical mind a sophism, namely that what may look right now as the right decision, may prove to be wrong once seen out of a historical perspective. That means also vice versa what seems to be wrong right now may well prove to be right one in the long term. By this she and with her Jack Straw mean ‘the unleashing of democratic forces.’ They believe in this even though it is done explicitly by using military force. As if soldiers could play the messenger boys of the West that finally democracy has come to their land, there is something highly naïve about this, but equally dangerous. That danger is already indicated when an administrative official (it should be kept in mind that Condolleezza Rice is not an elected politician but has been appointed by the US President and was ratified by Congress) use the word ‘unleashing’. Without them realizing it, that does underline their basic misunderstanding of democracy.

Democracy has nothing to do with force; rather it is a peaceful development requiring calmness and thoughtfulness as much as dialogue and plurality of opinions freely expressed before the most convincing arguments can be sounded out for the common political future. The mistake of the USA is to think democracy can be installed at gunpoint. It is not talking to people, but frightening them into submission, that is if they wish to remain alive and have survived already the first rounds of attacks both from the air and then on the ground. By negating culture and dialogue, and replacing it with all the military might such a superpower can muster, the USA could overran in very few days Iraq, but three years later that tool has proven to be deadly, poisonous and above all callous since it includes torture, violation of human rights and bribery leading on to still further corruption.

Unfortunately the USA continues to think everyone has a price, that is he or she can be bought in the end and thereby be won over. This cynicism has transformed the American version of democracy into a sellable commodity whose price has to be accepted at gunpoint. It requires little imagination to know the only answer of the Iraqis to such kind of exchange democracy for weapons made in the USA is that of ‘no thank you’!

Hatto Fischer


This article was orginally published in heritageradio: category 'reflections'

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