This Is What Democracy Looks Like?
April 14, 2004
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 govern themselves.

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 than democracy.

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 2003).

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 left it.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.