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From Occupation To Democracy?

Helena Cobban

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Fine words came recently from USA President George W. Bush on the need for “democracy” in the countries of the Middle East.  One may ask, of course, whether he is aware of the many disconnects between his rhetoric and the reality of a USA policy that is maintaining a military occupation regime in Iraq, supporting a brutal, actively colonialist military occupation regime in Palestine, and engaging in shady backroom deals with all the actively anti-democratic intelligence services of the region. But let us, for a few moments, take him at his word.  Let us suppose that he really does want to see democracy grow and flourish throughout the Middle East, and that Iraq is to be the first centrepiece and exemplar of this project.

So how on earth can the USA administration in Iraq plan to move from running an occupation to building (and handing over power to) a democracy there?

The invasion was easy. The hard part will be retaining control of Iraq, whilst allowing a semblance of democracy.

The invasion was easy. The hard part will be retaining control of Iraq, whilst allowing a semblance of democracy.

This is a tough conundrum.  At one level, what we would be looking at is the very familiar, and relatively simple, process of de-colonization, as practiced throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in sundry spots around the world.  The colonial power reaches the decision that it needs to withdraw; then, with more or less haste it starts freeing or bringing back all the independence activists whom it had previously jailed or exiled; then, it allows those activists to form the new administration to which, after signing a few brief documents, it finally hands over power.

In a brief but much-photographed ceremony the imperial flag comes down off the flagpole; the new independence flag is raised; and (most of) the colonial troops sail off into the sunset.  (The colonial-era business executives are already circling round, seeking to sign lucrative contracts with the new “independent” government.  But that’s another story.)

Sometimes, de-colonization can be accomplished extremely hastily - as when the entire Portuguese empire collapsed from within in 1974-75 and colonists from Angola or Mozambique had to leave nearly all their belongings behind on the docks of Africa as they fled back to Portugal.

But there’s a key difference between classic de-colonization and what the Bushites say they want to do in Iraq.  That difference is their addition of the goal of “democratization.” This new goal is certainly “laudable,” in the abstract.  But it complicates the de-colonization project in a number of ways:

First, building a robust democracy requires time - and especially in a society like Iraq’s where people have lived under the authoritarian jackboot of Saddam’s Baathism for so long.  Iraq has only an extremely thin experience or presence of political parties and of above-ground, civilian political organizing.  Many of the anti-Saddam organizations that are now predominant are themselves fairly non-democratic.

In South Africa, for example, it took four years from the time the apartheid regime started freeing the political prisoners and allowing open political organizing in 1990, till the time all the country’s political parties had reached agreement on an interim constitution and were ready to hold its first fully democratic election, in 1994.  It took that long, even though South Africa’s black majority already had a decades-long history of political parties and different forms of civilian political life.

How much longer would the analogous transition from repressive rule - in this case, military occupation, preceded by decades of Baathism - to democracy take in Iraq?  Does President Bush have that long of a calendar to act in?  (The answer: clearly, no.)

What kind of democracy locks up dissidents, merely for speaking in public in praise of the previous ruler?

What kind of democracy locks up dissidents, merely for speaking in public in praise of the previous ruler?

Secondly, building a robust democracy requires freedom. This might seem tautologous or trivial - of course democracy requires freedom! - but it certainly is not. If you want to have an election that is part of a deeper move toward the true democratization of society and not just a fake, one-time event organized as part of a hasty “exit strategy” on the part of the colonial power, then such an election requires that parties can organize, that individuals have a huge degree of freedom of speech and assembly (including, of course, freedom to criticize the occupying power), and so on.

It is really hard - in Iraq, as in Palestine - to see how you could actually have all those freedoms in place that are an essential component of building a real democracy at the same time that the people who are undergoing this transition continue to be under a military rule administered by a foreign military organization.  (Actually, in South Africa it was slightly easier.  In 1990 nearly all of the country was under military rule - but a military rule administered by a “local,” if admittedly very brutal, military organization: the apartheid regime’s army.  So once apartheid’s political leaders had decided to open up the system, they could rapidly ramp down the level of military rule and allow the freedoms that the country’s non-white people needed in order to organize for true democracy.  But in Iraq or Palestine, the nature of the pre-democracy rule still has to be military, precisely because it is exercised as part of a “foreign” military occupation?  Maybe those two occupying countries should have thought about these problems before they got themselves into this mess.)

It would be so much easier for the Bushites if they could just “de-colonize” in Iraq in the old-fashioned way: identify an individual Iraqi to whom they would hand over power, do the thing with the flags and the flagpoles, sail off into the sunset, and leave the lucky Mr. X (or Ayatollah X) to deal with all ensuing problems in Iraq as best he sees fit.

That might still happen.  But it is not where the Bushites say they are headed as of today?

And now we come to a third problem the Bushites face as they try to add “democratization” to their de-colonization project in Iraq: basically, the majority of Iraqi people seem to be fairly strongly - and increasingly - anti-American.  So if de-colonization is done in a “democratic” way that reflects the will of the Iraqi people, then the regime that results in Baghdad would be fairly anti-American.  Not what the Bushites expected, or intended, at all!

I imagine that at about this time last year, as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz, and Feith were sitting around looking to their hopes for 2003, they probably thought that by now they would have a very friendly, powerful, and locally popular President Ahmad Chalabi sitting in Baghdad, having already made peace with Israel and handed out huge government contracts to USA and Israeli firms?  “President” Chalabi would be so evidently popular throughout Iraq, they must have expected, that he might already have held his first election, and won it by, oh, about 80 or 85 percent of the votes?

The easy option was always to install an alternative dictator, but is that possible, without arousing yet more derision from domestic and world opinion?

The easy option was always to install an alternative dictator, but is that possible, without arousing yet more derision from domestic and world opinion?

Of course, “President” Chalabi would not still, now, at the end of 2003 be requiring any presence of USA combat troops inside Iraq to consolidate his own “charismatic” hold on the country.  Indeed, nearly all the USA troops who had participated in the glorious “liberation” of Iraq in spring 2003 would have returned home soon after that to a heroes’ welcome back in the U.S?  Just a few high-end American (and perhaps Israeli) combat units would still remain in Iraq, in the military bases near the Syrian and Iranian borders that the grateful and far-sighted “President” would have given to the USA And by now, at the end of 2003, these units would already be preparing for the new offensives of the 2004 spring “season”?

How are the mighty fallen.

Here’s the dilemma for the USA Every day longer the occupation troops stay in Iraq, the more anti-American public opinion there seems to grow.  But (as noted above) true democratization takes time.  How can they square this circle?

I think there’s only one way they can hope to.  If they are sincere about hoping to democratize as well as “de-colonize” in Iraq, then they have to hand control of the entire administration of the country over to a UN “transitional administration” as soon as possible, with the hope - and it is still only a hope - that in that way an authentically indigenous regime can emerge in the country that is (at least, in good part) democratic.  There is no way the Americans can administer this process themselves, though realistically a UN Transitional Administration would still require some American input into supporting roles - but firmly multilateral, UN, control and leadership.

And if the Bushites remain fixed in their ideological opposition to the UN and to multilateralism in general?  Then, they will just have to give up on all their rhetoric about democratization in Iraq and find any way they can to de-colonize from the country - and fast.


Published Saturday, December 13th, 2003 - 03:57pm GMT

Article courtesy of Dar al-Hayat

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