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Dilemmas Of Colonialism:
The Democracy Problem

By Rene L. Gonzalez Berrios

Information Clearing House
22 January, 2004

Being an empire is not so easy these days, as the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters are beginning to see. The problem with empire-building in the modern age is that, in order to partake in it, you have to get by this silly, bothersome, internationally-accepted concept: democracy.

Let's examine the current Iraqi situation. Various arguments exist for justifying the war on Iraq, only a few were publicly stated. First came the argument that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (presumably the remnants of its 1980s, U.S. client-state days) were too terrible a national security threat for the United States, that the internationally-recognized logic of "pre-emption" was applicable (designed to only apply in cases in which a nation had foreknowledge of an immediately imminent attack on the part of another nation, like during Israel's Six Day War). The problem with this justifying theory was that the historical record did not support this theory. Common knowledge among foreign policy experts was that Iraq did not have the delivery systems (a.k.a. missiles) to be able to credibly threaten the United States. It barely had a weak deterrent force of limited small-range Scud missiles, which could possibly only threaten close neighbors. For the record, these neighbors (with the exception of Israel, who had vested interests in an American invasion of an enemy Arab state) were totally opposed to the WMD theory and found Iraq to be no threat to them (in fact, the record shows that most Arab countries were attempting a reconciliation with the radical Arab state). The WMD theory was weakened also by two equally important assertions: that the very WMD Iraq was accused of possessing were given by the United States and other powers during the 1980s and that the possession of WMDs (and the past history of using them). The first assertion illuminated the hypocrisy of accusing another country of possessing WMD that were perfectly acceptable for that nation to have when it was the pet of the United States against fundamentalist Iran in the 1980s. The other assertion illuminated the hypocrisy of demanding WMD removal on the grounds that Iraq had used them against civilians and opposing armies, when the accusing nation (the U.S.) had been the only country to detonate atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (also during a war) and killing vastly more civilians in those terrorist attacks (by the State Department definition). In essence, the question was: what gives the U.S. the right to invade another country for having and using WMD that the U.S. had accumulated as well and had used in its own history? The WMD logic just didn't make sense, except in the uncritical minds of a fearful American public. History would demand that we condemn American justifications of invading Iraq on WMD grounds as complete hypocritical nonsense, but then again, history has never been a popular subject in American society (to very clear consequences for its own society and the world).

The other more far-fetched theory was that somehow, a secular socialist Baathist regime, which had exhibited disdain for Islamic fundamentalism all throughout its history, would now join an "alliance of convenience" with radical Al-Qaeda fanatics. The theory continued that Saddam would provide the weapons and Al-Qaeda would deliver them to its enemies in the West. Again, common knowledge among foreign policy experts was that if Saddam had WMD, he would only use them if threatened with an invasion, not before. If this was so, why did the Al-Qaeda Connection theories gain so much traction among mostly American journalistic circles and some isolated pockets of right-wing thought among the world? It certainly wasn't a product of rational thought or common consensus among foreign policy experts. Quite the contrary. The common consensus in foreign policy circles was that Saddam would never enter to such alliances under normal situations, and would only consider them if his regime was threatened. How prophetic were the criticisms of the Left. The current Resistance is now composed largely of ex-Baathist military leaders, regular Iraqi disaffected nationalists, and some Islamic fundamentalists. The alliance the Bush administration was so fearful of had come true, not from leaving Saddam alone, but of attacking him. The Left was right. And Bush had made America less secure because of it.

This "Al-Qaeda connection" accusation was never stated in such blatant terms, but the administration (in the form of many of its public officials, including the President) were ambiguously sending out this theory in its many public speeches. The effect was to be expected: a fearful and gullible American public bought the lie, hook, line, and sinker. Over 50% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9-11 terrorist attack, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the fact that all hijackers were Saudis (in fact, to this date, no major terrorist "suspect" has been of Iraqi descent. Almost all have been from other, more religiously fundamentalist countries). This theory was discounted from the beginning by critics from the Left, and was confirmed recently by a public confession by Secretary of State Colin Powell that indeed there was NO connection between Saddam Hussein and 9-11. The President would later admit as much in another interview.

In the light of these faltering justification, two others remained in the shadows, to be used when the principle ones were discarded under the weight of rational scrutinity: deposing a human-rights violator and bringing democracy to Iraq. The two were not used prominently for very obvious reasons (or as prominently as the others). The claim that the United States was stepping in to fulfill a noble goal by liberating Iraqis from a horrendous and tyrannical regime was made hollow by the historical fact that the United States was the prime financial, diplomatic, and military benefactor of Iraq during the 1980s and during the times that Saddam Hussein's worst atrocities were committed. Given that historical truth, human rights could not be the justification. It would be politically naive to assume that a state that had such a history of supporting horrendous and brutal regimes (Somoza, Duvalier, Pinochet, Hussein, etc.) would somehow change its ways out of some altruistic higher calling. The obvious question would be: what prompted the change? And was it rationally to assume that this "change" was due to moral, higher law, altruistic motives? Is it rational to actually believe this unproved theory (actually, disproved, with massive evidence of U.S. collusion with dictatorships, to the contrary), and discount the more conceivable and documented theories that the Iraq War was an opportunist election strategy combined with a resource grab of oil? To the average American, the "noble goals" theory might be comforting, but hardly useful for explaining U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. The logic of hypocritical history is too illuminating a light to attempt to hide in the shadows of fighting for "human-rights", when one was once the prime benefactor of the violator himself. To believe such nonsense is to ignore the past and delude only oneself.

Which leaves the theory of "democracy"; one that has been discredited on various grounds. Some have stated it is impossible to "bring democracy" to a land without a cultural experience in its practice. Others have argued that democracy is not really what the United States want, rather just another rehash of the 1920s British policy of an "Arab facade", a system of loyal Iraqi elites, who repress their people, serve their real masters (the U.S. and private corporations), and hold periodic (and perhaps rigged) elections to justify their rule. In Iraq, this is what was planned. Now, things have gotten ugly.

For courageous Leftists like I, the American occupation has been blatant colonization from the beginning. This is also the majority opinion in the world, if not the U.S. However, whatever shred of legitimacy that has stayed the wrath of a shocked American public is beginning to unravel. The colonization of Iraq depended greatly on the assumed support of the American "nation-building" project by the Kurds and Shiite Muslims of Iraq. These two groups, strongly repressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority, were assumed to rally automatically to the American side, in support of everything Washington was to do in Iraq. The worst scenario (which has occurred) was that these groups would not violently oppose the colonization of Iraq, under the misguided hope that the Americans' plans included genuine, popular democracy. The Kurds to the north have remained supportive of the coalition and its long-term stated goals, but not of the current colonization. Their pre-eminent concerns have been with Kurdish autonomy and protection from central control in Baghdad. The Shiites have been wary of American plans as well, constantly qualifying their "passive" support of the Coalition's efforts to an eventual development of a genuinely elected democracy. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite Muslim figure in Iraq, has led this "passive" support (or resistance, choose your preference).

The dilemma of colonialism has presented itself: proclaiming democracy (or civilization, or upliftment, or whatever other high-noble is given to the venture) while the "liberated" subjects denounce your noble actions. For the Shiites under Sistani's leadership, the colonization's plans are no longer viable. The American plan is to institute a provisional government, elected by a "caucus" system in which regional "notables" will speak for the Iraqi public and elect the provisional government. For Sistani and the Shiites, this is not acceptable. In accordance with elementary democratic belief, a citizenry has the right to transmit its sovereignty to representatives through direct election, one man-one vote. The American plan of "caucus" elections is simply not good enough to be considered a legitimate democratic election. Sistani has drawn a line in the sand, and if he sticks with it, he will win the public opinion of the world. For if the United States democratic claims are true (which they are obviously not), it would have to cede this demand, lest its colonization be recognized as such: an unabashed dash to colonize the 2nd largest oil reserves in the world and use Iraq as a test-case of imperial might for the rest of the world to see. The Americans have tried to discount this "direct-election" demand on the argument that it is impossible to conduct such elections between 5-6 months, but those arguments have been discredited by the articles I source at the bottom of this article.

In vulgar terms, Sistani has Bush's balls in his hands, and should the Americans attempt to humiliate, belittle, or weaken Sistani's democratic stance or his reputation, he can issue a "fatwa" or religious edict, and "squeeze" them in the form of Shiite insurrection against the Coalition (an act that would render the entire Iraq war devoid of any legitimate justifications and display it in all its raw colonialism). Hence, the unusual respect and diplomatic forms of expression that emanate from the mouths of American officials these days, regarding Sistani's demands and/or his credentials. In any other situation, Sistani would be nothing more than some Muslim dissident, to be squashed by the Empire of the day. But, ever the pragmatists, the Americans know Sistani commands the loyalty of the 60% Shiite majority in Iraq and don't want to risk the dissolution of its carefully-crafted (or, better stated, inadequately planned) post-invasion colonial strategy. For the White House, a Saigon-like withdrawal is still a distinct possibility (and one to be avoided all costs, including perhaps scrapping long-term plans of preventing a Shiite-majority government in Iraq).

Which leads me to my message to you, the reader. Of the four justifications for war (WMD, Al-Qaeda connection, human-rights, and democracy building), three have been discredited: WMD (none found, initially given by the U.S. and other Western powers during the 1980s), Al-Qaeda connection (admitted to be false by Colin Powell and other administration officials), and human-rights (rendered hypocritical by U.S. funding and military support during the times of the worst Hussein atrocities). The final one is beginning to unravel with every Shiite who joins official protest rallies in Iraq, and because of the successful, largely Sunni Resistance against the Coalition troops.

The task for the average citizen of the United States (and for anyone truly concerned with truth, justice, and democracy in the world) is to scrutinize the events that occur from this day on. The Bush administration must be forced to accede to Sistani's demands for direct elections. It is the only legitimate form of transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqis. If he does not, he must be held accountable for waging an illegal and unnecessary war and instituting an illegal colonial occupation without any legitimate justification. In the gaze of history, the blame won't remain on him, a complete buffoon at the service of radical neoconservative ideologues. It will be on the American people, who refused to take their heads out of the sand (if not a worse, darker nether region), while a radical President waged this colonial war.

Rene L. Gonzalez M.A. Political Science University of Massachusetts