Is What Democracy Looks Like?
By The Plaid Adder
Between Good Friday and Easter, 12 U.S. soldiers were killed
in Iraq. That brought the official total for Americans killed
in Iraq during Easter week to 76. Hundreds of Iraqis were
also killed; nobody seems to be sure about exactly how many,
and probably we will never know. We made it clear when we
invaded Iraq last spring that we would not be keeping track
of how many Iraqis died as a result of our military presence
there. There's no reason to expect the army to start now.
Finally reached for comment after having spent the week
on vacation in Crawford, Bush acknowledged that it was "a
tough week." But not to worry, he says; he knows that what
we're doing in Iraq is right.
Of course, this is the same man who knew that Saddam
Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
The question has come up a lot around the Plaidder household
lately: well all right, so this is horrible, but what do we
do? We can all agree that we should never have been
put in this position in the first place; but given that we
are embroiled in this horrible mess, is there a responsible
- or even a practical - way to get ourselves out of it?
I don't know exactly what the answer to that question is.
But I do know one thing. If we ever want to get ourselves
out of Iraq, we are going to have to abandon some of the illusions
that got us there. Above all, we must give up on the idea
that we are ever going to bring democracy to Iraq.
I feel a tremendous sense of weariness as I start in on
this argument, because I have made it so many times before.
Even a year ago I couldn't believe that I had to work that
hard to get people to understand something I thought ought
to be intuitively obvious. I've never really understood why
people believed that it was possible to bring democracy to
Iraq by invading it. Democracy is government of the people,
by the people, for the people, right? So doesn't that mean
that by definition it is impossible to 'bring' democracy with
you to someone else's country? Doesn't democracy have to arise
from the people themselves?
I mean, taking your army to someone else's country and then
imposing a government on the people there whether they want
it or not is something that unfortunately happens pretty often;
but 'democracy' isn't really the right word for that kind
of thing. Normally we refer to that as 'imperialism,' or 'conquest,'
or something similar.
Bringing democracy to Iraq was never supposed to be the
primary rationale for the war; it was an ex post facto justification
cooked up to replace the WMD pretext. Unfortunately it has
proved to be a lot more durable than the WMD pretext. That's
partly because it plays perfectly to our basic desire to see
ourselves as the good guys. This is a fundamental human need
and we're not the only nation that has led itself into danger,
deceit, and downright dementia by trying to believe that we
are really doing good when in fact we are doing terrible harm.
But it's about time we as a country confronted some of the
ugly things that the Iraq war has revealed about us. And when
I say "we," I'm talking about we the people, because we're
the ones who are going to have to get our soldiers out of
this jam. We'll all be long dead and buried before anyone
in the Bush administration develops the courage and honesty
necessary to understand what they would have to do to clean
up the mess they've made.
First of all, let's take a minute to really get our minds
around the incredible arrogance built into the "bringing democracy
to Iraq" premise. The assumption that we are all making when
we use talk about bringing democracy to Iraq is that it would
have been impossible for democracy to emerge in Iraq through
any other means. Because after all, to say that we had
to invade Iraq - or that we have to stay in Iraq now
that we're there - in order to bring it democracy is to say
that there's no way that democracy might ever emerge in Iraq
without our intervention.
The minute we use this argument we are denying the Iraqi
people the capacity for self-government. We are also constructing
ourselves as the sole owners and proprietors of Democracy(TM).
It's as if we are the founders of this extremely successful
chain of governments, and we are over in Iraq establishing
a franchise. They'll run it and pay all the operating costs,
of course; but it will look exactly like all the other McDemocracies
we have built around the world, and of course they will have
to keep paying us for the privilege.
So right away, any attempt to "bring democracy" to anyone
has to come attached to an attitude that can only come across
as tremendously insulting to the people on whom we are, out
of the goodness of our hearts and the magnanimity of our souls,
supposedly bestowing the gift of democracy.
Then, we run into another thing that always seemed to me
to be self-evident: that a 'gift' offered to someone at gunpoint
ceases to be a gift. I mean, I like chocolate; but if someone
grabbed me in a dark alley, slammed me up against a wall,
put a gun to my head and told me to scarf down one of those
giant Cadbury Dairy Milk bars or else he would blow my head
off, I would have a hard time working up enough saliva to
swallow. Even if I did manage to escape death by choking the
thing down, I would probably have to go around back and barf
it up the minute he was gone. And when I described the experience
afterwards, my first words would not be "Mmm... chocolate."
Why we should assume that the Iraqi people are going to like
a government that has been rammed down their throats with
the butt of an assault rifle, when we know that we ourselves
would never accept any government that was 'given' to us by
an invading army that had bombed our country and sacked our
capital, is beyond me.
My point here is that to argue about why things "went wrong"
in Iraq is to miss the point. The wrongness that has now burst
into flame all over Iraq is, to use two of Condoleezza Rice's
favorite terms, systemic and structural. We built wrongness
into this situation when we invaded the country. Even if we
had done things differently - even if nervous American soldiers
had never gunned down entire families at checkpoints, even
if Paul Bremer were not stomping through Baghdad issuing decrees
as if he had just declared himself Pharaoh, even if we hadn't
decided to prove our commitment to 'democracy' by shutting
down an opposition newspaper, even if we hadn't responded
to four deaths by vowing "overwhelming" vengeance against
an entire city, even if the 'reconstruction' had actually
been carried out by companies who were interested in doing
something other than profiteering - this would still be happening.
The wrongness is in the principle. Things "went wrong" in
Iraq when we decided that we could and should do a better
job of governing "the Iraqi people" than the Iraqi people
could. Because that decision in itself undermines the basic
principle of democracy - which is that people must and should
Of course the execution of this plan has been terrible too;
but that was inevitable. The real reason we're doing this
job wrong is simply that there is no right way to do it. Our
position as invaders and occupiers structurally prevents us
from producing 'democracy' there. A democracy can only function
when the vast majority of its members accept it as legitimate.
The only way to control a population that does not
accept you as its legitimate government is to enforce obedience
through the widespread use of state violence; and once you
start doing that, you're really closer to totalitarianism
And despite all the contortions the pundits have knotted
themselves into trying to explain why we're now in the position
of having to destroy Fallujah in order to save it, the real
explanation for that is pretty fucking simple. From the point
of view of the indigenous population, a government that has
been 'brought' to their homeland by an invading army will
never be legitimate.
So. The real reason that our mission has not been accomplished
is that it was always impossible.
That was obvious to me from the beginning; and it was always
more obvious in Fallujah than it was anywhere else. Last
April in Fallujah, we brought democracy to Fallujah by shooting
into a crowd of Iraqis who were exercising their right to
free assembly; a day later, when there was a march protesting
the deaths of the 15 Fallujans we had killed at the previous
march, our troops opened fire on that crowd too. This came
on the heels of a rash of incidents in which large numbers
of civilians were massacred at US checkpoints by soldiers
who had been told by their commanding officers that "if you
see an Iraqi in civilian clothes coming toward you - even
with a stick - shoot it" ( Time Magazine, March 31
This is the attitude that you are forced to take as an occupying
army attempting to control a population that does not recognize
your legitimacy. It is utterly, abhorrently, and eternally
inconsistent with the basic principles of democracy.
This April, it has become even more obvious that what we
are establishing over there - or trying to establish, anyhow
- is American control, and not democracy. The most glaring
indication of this is the complete lack of concern for the
actual Iraqi people who are being killed while we quash the
leaders who have risen up to oppose us - and who, even if
they are only supported by a particular faction, still
have more legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people than
we ever will.
When you listen to the generals talk these days, their position
seems to be that actual Iraqi people are basically just sand
in the works - irrelevant debris gumming up the wheels and
cogs of the beautiful machine we're trying to build for them.
Bremer's most recent contribution to public relations was
to refer to the Iraqis we are currently fighting with as a
"poison" that has to be purged from the "Iraqi body politic."
Nothing says 'democracy' like 'purge.'
Now all of this was pretty clear a year ago before we went
to war. It is maddeningly, tragically obvious now. What we
do about that is not as obvious. We are responsible for the
violence currently erupting there, after all. But to argue
that we have to stay there until we have sorted things out
is to make the same mistake that landed everyone in this mess
in the first place: to assume that we are the solution when
in fact we are the problem.
We are not the legitimate government of Iraq; we are not
a neutral third party; we have not even bothered to cover
our naked agression with the fig leaf of U.N. approval. We
are structurally prevented from doing anything over there
except go on making things worse. There is only one way that
we could possibly ever create a democracy in Iraq, and that
is by inspiring the Sunni and Shiite factions to join together
to kick our ass out of their country. That might produce a
happy ending for Iraq, but it would not be a whole lot of
fun for our soldiers.
So this is how I see it: As long as we are there, we can
only take things from bad to worse. There is no point in keeping
the army there until we have 'brought democracy to Iraq.'
We cannot bring democracy to Iraq. We have to get out; and
we have to get out in such a way as to leave behind conditions
that might help a real democracy emerge.
Do I know how to do that? No. I'm not the President of the
United States; I have no military background; I'm not a political
scientist. I'm just a lunatic with internet access. All I
can do from here is tell the truth as I know it; and the truth
is that democracy is only going to come to Iraq after we have
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