Gunpoint Democracy in Iraq


The United States is now a formal colonial power in Iraq, and the combination of the Administration's deceptions and the mounting American casualties have dimmed the shine on the colonialists' boots. In March and April, public support for the war was in the neighborhood of 75 percent; by the end of July, it had fallen below 60 percent.

It might have fallen further but for the notion -- peddled by Bush, as well as by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times -- that the reason for the war didn't matter because the United States liberated the Iraqi people and is now building democracy in Iraq.

It is certainly true that the Iraqis are free from the extreme authoritarian brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime; unfortunately, it doesn't exactly follow that the Administration intends to create democracy in Iraq. An Administration that will play fast and loose with the truth on Iraq's putative weapons of mass destruction is entirely capable of doing the same regarding its true intentions for the future Iraqi government.

The question of what sort of society the United States is building in Iraq takes on tremendous significance, since Iraq may be just one of many. "We're going to get better over time," Lawrence Di Rita, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told the Los Angeles Times. "We'll get better as we do it more often."

To get a hint of what the Bush Administration has in mind, it's instructive to take a quick look at its previous effort in democracy building: Afghanistan. Since routing the Taliban, Washington has been propping up some of the most undemocratic forces in Afghanistan, including the various regional warlords, like Ismail Khan of Herat and Abdul Rashid Dostum of Mazar-i-Sharif. A study by the Center for Economic and Social Rights found that one of the most common complaints from ordinary Afghans was about U.S. support for the warlords. Many Afghans, the report noted, "named U.S. policy as the prime obstacle to disarming warlords."

A recent report from Human Rights Watch charges that U.S. support for these warlords could jeopardize attempts to adopt a new constitution and to hold elections in 2004. "Gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the United States and its coalition partners" have "essentially hijacked the country outside of Kabul," says Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

To convey the appearance of democracy, the United States called together a loya jirga, or grand council. Washington essentially deputized the warlords to manipulate it in order to attain U.S. aims. "We delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process," wrote loya jirga delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi in The New York Times. "A small group of Northern Alliance chieftains decided everything behind closed doors." Early on, more than 800 of the 1,500 delegates had called for the election of Zahir Shah as interim president, but he was unsuitable to U.S. interests. "The entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government," the delegates wrote.

After Zahir Shah stepped down, the delegates were presented with a fait accompli. Hamid Karzai, handpicked by the United States, was the only viable candidate (there were two "protest" candidates who were largely unknown). There was no meaningful decision for them to make. In the end, the whole thing was scarcely more democratic than the loya jirga conducted by the Soviet Union in 1987 in order to legitimize its client government.

In Afghanistan, the United States had no particular desire to run the country. Its primary objective, a permanent or semi-permanent military presence throughout Central Asia, was easily achieved. The creation of a pro-American central government helped give a veneer of international legitimacy to its continuing military operations there. But, aside from some economically minor plans for oil and gas pipelines, there are no compelling interests for the United States in Afghanistan -- at least none so compelling that it wishes to risk a significant commitment.

Iraq is a different matter, for several reasons. Its oil reserves, second in the world behind Saudi Arabia, will be increasingly important to the world market. According to the Cheney energy plan, by 2020 Middle East oil may have to supply up to two-thirds of world demand. With virtually no spare production capacity in the Middle East outside Saudi Arabia, this indicates that Iraq's production must be not only restored to prewar levels but dramatically increased. Even before the war, the State Department had convened the Oil and Energy Working Group of the Future of Iraq project. It was peopled with the appropriate Iraqi exile figures, like Fadhil Chalabi (Ahmad Chalabi's cousin), who called early on for "privatization or partial privatization" of Iraq's state-owned oil companies.

Later, The Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of a USAID document entitled "Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Sustainable Growth" that called for "private sector involvement in strategic sectors, including privatization, asset sales, concessions, leases, and management contracts, especially in the oil and supporting industries." Not only will the Iraqi economy be sold off to foreigners, but, according to the Journal, private American contractors will actually play a leading role in the process of selling it off. In June, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the nice term for the occupying forces, issued a call to privatize not only the oil companies but a total of forty state-owned companies.

The Bush Administration has actually gone far beyond the basic goals of controlling the military and taking over the oil industry to implement full-scale "economic shock therapy." As in the case of Russia, it is likely to be all shock and very little therapy. Already, the holiday on import tariffs (except for basic items like those that go into the food ration) has meant that Iraqi industry, crippled by twelve years of sanctions, is forced to compete on equal terms with the entire world market. Outside of the oil sector, massive deindustrialization is a likely result. And those companies that can compete will likely be sold off to foreigners.

Iraq is also the ideal staging area for military "force projection" in the rest of the Middle East. In fact, within weeks of the fall of Saddam's statue, The New York Times reported tentative plans for the establishment of four permanent military bases in Iraq. And the Los Angeles Times quoted unnamed government sources talking about U.S. plans to use the "unspoken but obvious leverage of its new regional dominance." The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, speculated that regime change in Syria and Iran might not require direct military intervention but could be achieved by diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and "psychological pressure" with the U.S. military next door.

In essence, the United States went into Iraq with clear, if unstated, goals: controlling Iraq's oil, privatizing the economy, establishing a permanent military presence, and dominating Iraq's foreign and defense policies. The Bush Administration set the policies of the Iraqi government first and then went about creating a government that would implement them. It hoped such a government could quickly control Iraq internally, at which point all would hail the triumph of democracy.

But creating such a government is a tortuous process, largely because Iraq came along with the baggage of numerous political groupings, not all of them independent (many of the standard "Iraqi opposition" groups, for example, were taking CIA money after passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act), but many of them too independent for U.S. wishes. At every stage, Washington artfully combined the threat of exclusion from the political process with inducements to enter it.

The first round of the "democratization" process began while major combat operations were still proceeding. The U.S. military convened a series of meetings in Nasiriyah, where carefully selected Iraqi political figures were supposed to start the ball rolling on creating an interim government. There was no meaningful international participation -- not even a fig leaf, as there was with the Bonn conference for Afghanistan.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main "Iraqi opposition" groups, initially boycotted the meetings, calling for immediate withdrawal of the troops. According to The Washington Post, the Americans deliberately excluded the Iraqi Communist Party. Across the political spectrum, from Adnan Pachachi, former foreign minister of the pre-Ba'ath 1968 Iraqi government, to the Communist Party, there were calls for the United Nations to sponsor the conference instead of the United States, because many participants felt that U.S. control of the process deprived it of legitimacy.

Popular opinion echoed that feeling. In April, there were mass protests in Baghdad, Mosul, and across the country, including 20,000 in Nasiriyah at the site of the talks, saying, "No to Saddam, No to America, Yes to Islam, Yes to Democracy."

In May, Bremer briefly postponed talks on creating an interim government. Then he announced that instead of allowing Iraqis to form the government, Bremer himself would appoint a political council of twenty-five to thirty Iraqis, who would then oversee further steps toward creating a government. He also stressed that this council would be strictly advisory and that he would veto decisions that "are fundamentally against coalition interests" or against the "better interests of Iraq." John Sawers, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's special envoy for Iraq, justified the plan on the basis that Iraq's political culture was "too weak" for democracy. Shortly thereafter, Bremer cancelled all local elections.

Major Iraqi political groups denounced Bremer's plans, and many signed a letter of protest against them. Amir al-Basri, the spokesman for the Islamist al-Dawa Party, said they "create the impression that the Americans are not very serious about getting out of [an] interim period and arriving at an Iraqi sovereign government."

And yet, when the council came together on July 13, all the major parties had signed on to it. Bremer formed the twenty-five-member council with careful attention to ethnic and religious balance: It has thirteen Shia Arabs, five Kurds, one Turkoman, and one Assyrian. Three members are women. Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's favorite for future leader of Iraq, is a member, as is Adnan Pachachi, who has emerged as the State Department's favorite. The council also has a member from the Iraqi Communist Party, a member from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and a member from al-Dawa.

But the council's first action gave a taste of the degree of political servility it is likely to show. It not only declared April 9, the day of the fall of Baghdad, a new national holiday, but it canceled the holiday of July 14, the anniversary of the anti-monarchist, anti-colonialist uprising in 1958 that ushered in the most progressive government that Iraq ever had. There is a widespread understanding that it has a limited mandate, and that, in particular, the big three of military policy, foreign affairs, and oil are essentially out of its hands. Bremer did throw participants a bone: The council is not explicitly an advisory one, and members have rejected the idea that Bremer has a veto over decisions. In practice, however, it seems clear that participants know how far they can go and what lines not to cross.

Manipulation of the press has followed the same general trajectory. There is more openness in the Iraqi media than in the past thirty-five years, but Washington controls the spectrum of discussion. In May, Major General David Petraeus, the military governor of northern Iraq, seized control of Mosul's only TV station because of its "predominantly nonfactual/unbalanced news coverage." While admitting this was a blatant act of censorship, he justified it because of the need to keep from "inflaming passions." Washington has also prevented the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Media Network -- one of many new "democratic infrastructure" projects -- from airing programs that are critical of U.S. policies.

In early June, Bremer issued an order against "inimical media activity." He listed nine different possible reasons for shutting down a media outlet. For example, putting out news that is "patently false and calculated to promote opposition" to the occupation authority is verboten. Promoting "civil disorder, riot, or damage to property" is also a no-no. Punishment for such an offense can include a prison term of one year.

So far, Bremer has shut down two newspapers and one radio outlet. Reporters Without Borders has called for immediate action to replace "restrictive media regulations" in Iraq.

Democracy was never Bush's goal in Iraq. The goal was establishing U.S. dominance, not only militarily but also economically. The council Bremer has set up is designed to ratify that dominance, not usher in genuine democracy.

Many Iraqis understand this. Their recognition of Bush's cynical motives -- along with the brutality and ineptness of the occupation -- is spurring the protests in the streets and helping recruit the guerrilla army that even the U.S. military now recognizes it faces.

Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective. His latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

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