W.'s War on the Environment
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
The Clinton Scandals
The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
The October Surprise
Bush & Democracy Hypocrisy
By Nat Parry
December 22, 2003
The capture of Saddam Hussein and the earlier killing of his two sons were public relations coups for George W. Bush, but they have put the U.S. occupation of Iraq in a tricky position. Before those events, the Bush administration could argue that the U.S. army was needed to prevent Hussein’s return to power.
Now, if the Iraqi insurgency doesn’t collapse – and its roots have strengthened during the eight-month search for Hussein – U.S. soldiers will be the outsiders battling a nationalist uprising, which many Iraqis and others around the world already see as legitimate resistance to a colonial power. Bush’s rhetoric, casting his goal as bringing democracy to Iraq, also could become a tinny rationalization if the bloody occupation grinds on.
Indeed, imposing a U.S.-guided “democracy” may always have been just another pitch in the Bush administration’s “selling of the Iraq War.” The much-touted plans for democracy may be no more real than the false claims about trigger-ready weapons of mass destruction or the supposed alliance between the secular Hussein and the Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden. Bush’s concept of “democracy” for Iraq may be just a thinly disguised plan for assuring a future government that’s acceptable to Washington.
Bush and his aides have given a number of speeches this year portraying the invasion of Iraq as part of a noble endeavor to bring democracy to the Middle East. The sincerity behind these assertions has drawn remarkably little press skepticism.
Bush’s Iraq policy often has been compared to Harry Truman’s European policy after World War II. According to this view, the current U.S. efforts in Iraq are the modern-day equivalent of the Marshall Plan, which sought to rebuild a devastated Europe and ensure that democracy survived against the threat of Soviet communism. Today, Bush says, the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is vital to defeat terrorists, who have attacked the United States supposedly because they “hate” American freedoms.
“We're pursuing long-term victory in this war [against terror] by promoting democracy in the Middle East so that the nations of that region no longer breed hatred and terror,” Bush said upon signing the $87 billion spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan in November.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, an African-American, has even equated the administration’s policies in Iraq to the struggles of African-Americans for democratic rights in the United States. Rice argued that African-Americans, especially, “must never, ever indulge in the condescending voices who allege that some people in Africa or in the Middle East are just not interested in freedom, they're culturally just not ready for freedom or they just aren't ready for freedom's responsibilities.”
Rice continued, “We've heard that argument before, and we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it. The view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East.”
Rice’s message appears to be that anyone who questions the wisdom of invading a country halfway around the world and killing thousands of its people for the ostensible purpose of establishing “democracy” is some kind of bigot. Despite Rice’s questionable logic – it certainly seems possible that one could favor democracy and freedom without believing that a military occupation is the way to go – the U.S. news media has largely accepted the Bush administration’s premise.
What little skepticism is shown in the U.S. media usually takes the form of questioning whether Bush is doing enough to fulfill his vision. “In stark contrast to the president’s four powerful speeches this year pledging to promote democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has settled on a combination of gentle nudging and modest funding to achieve its ambitious goals,” said an article in the Washington Post on Dec. 3.
Only obliquely addressing the question of whether Bush was sincere in those “four powerful speeches” on democracy, the Post article noted that the U.S. government has been closely allied with nations that the State Department classifies as among the world’s worst human rights abusers. But the Post avoided any strong suggestion of hypocrisy.
The New York Times sometimes employs the subject heading, “building democracy” in its reporting on Iraq, and MSNBC still uses the caption “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as a logo to its Iraq coverage.
Yet, even in attacking Iraq in the name of “democracy,” Bush has based many of the U.S. military operations in Persian Gulf sheikhdoms with few democratic freedoms. He also has enlisted allies in the so-called “war on terror” who aggressively repress their own people. Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government, for instance, commits human rights abuses on par with Saddam Hussein’s former government, but Uzbekistan hosts a U.S. military base in geo-strategically important Central Asia. So the Bush administration ignores the lack of democracy and even gives substantial military aid to the repressive government.
Still, the U.S. news media rarely acknowledges the possibility that “promoting democracy” may simply be Bush’s latest rationalization, now that most other excuses for the war have collapsed, including the imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s alleged al Qaeda connection.
Virtually never in the mainstream press do journalists acknowledge the possibility that Bush, the first popular vote loser in more than a century to claim the White House, is not only disinterested in advancing any meaningful concept of democracy but is rolling back the principles of open debate and popular rule, both in the United States and across the globe.
Never do Washington journalists ask questions like, “If Bush is so committed to democracy in Iraq, why did he stop the counting of votes in Florida?” Or “why did Bush pollute the pre-war debate in the United States with emotional fear tactics that relied on false intelligence?” Or “why – if Bush so cherishes democratic debate – didn’t he rein in his supporters who repeatedly challenged the patriotism of Americans who questioned the factual basis of Bush’s war on Iraq?”
Without critical and open debate, words like “democracy” and “freedom” are left to those in power to define and apply selectively. The words, much like “terrorism” and “security,” can be rendered essentially meaningless.
In contrast to the credulity of the U.S. press corps, many people around the world reject the notion that the Bush administration is interested in implementing democracy in Iraq, and instead see the occupation as old-fashioned Western colonialism.
This view is buttressed by a long history of U.S. administrations thwarting indigenous efforts at democracy, overthrowing elected governments that are considered suspect, and installing dictatorships that pledge loyalty to Washington.
For example, in Iran in 1953, the CIA conspired to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who dared to nationalize the country’s oil supply. Once overthrown, he was replaced by the Shah, who ruled Iran with an iron fist for 26 years, enjoying substantial American support.
In Iraq itself, the Cold War-obsessed CIA supported the Baathist coup in 1959 and provided lists of suspected communists to the new rulers who used the lists to ruthlessly suppress leftist opposition. Saddam Hussein soon emerged as leader of the Baath Party and Iraq’s dictator. [For more details, see Richard Sale’s “Saddam key in early CIA plot” or Consortiumnews.com’s “A CIA Officer’s Calamitous Choices.”]
Hussein received American backing during his brutal dictatorship, in part because his secular government was seen as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalists who seized power in Iran in 1979 and were on the rise elsewhere. Then in 1990, he invaded Kuwait – after receiving ambiguous guidance from U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie – and suddenly became the world’s No. 1 villain, akin to Adolf Hitler, according to then-President George H.W. Bush. Hussein’s anti-democratic behavior – never a secret among U.S. policymakers – suddenly became a grave concern to Washington.
Still, even as it moved to oust the Iraqi army from Kuwait and reinstall the Kuwaiti royal family, the first Bush administration recognized the pitfalls inherent in a policy of ousting Hussein by force and then seeking to impose democratic institutions on Iraq.
In 1992, when the senior George Bush was under criticism for not “finishing the job,” Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered this defense: “Saddam Hussein is a terrible person … but there is this sort of romantic notion that if Saddam Hussein got hit by a bus tomorrow, some Jeffersonian democrat is waiting in the wings to hold popular elections. You’re going to get – guess what – probably another Saddam Hussein.”
Rather than a flowering of democracy, Powell foresaw only a change of faces. “It will take a little while for them to paint the pictures all over the walls again, but there should be no illusions about the nature of that country or its society,” said Powell, who is now secretary of state in the second Bush administration.
Of course, the neo-conservative policymakers now influencing George W. Bush claim to have seen the error of those earlier ways. They insist they are now so committed to democracy across the globe that they have become what some have called “democratic imperialists,” bringing freedom to the world at the barrel of a gun.
Yet like their predecessors, this new breed puts on blinders when dealing with friendly authoritarian leaders who may provide military bases, as in Pakistan or Uzbekistan, or who offer favorable business deals, as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. On a personal level, the Bush family has long done business with many repressive states, including the communist government of China, where George W. Bush’s brother, Neil Bush, recently disclosed a lucrative business arrangement with Jiang Mianheng, the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Yet, even while making alliances of convenience rather than principle, the Bush administration has tried to distance itself from that historical tendency. Indeed, a disarming part of Bush’s Iraq pitch is to admit past U.S. errors in the support of authoritarian regimes. In a speech in November, Bush acknowledged that the U.S. has too often put itself on the dark side of history by supporting repressive regimes and thwarting democratic development.
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said. Now, the U.S. is committed to democratization, Bush said, without addressing the contradictions in his own inconsistent policies.
The Iraq Experiment
Besides Bush’s continuing alliances with repressive regimes around the world, the “democracy” being implemented in Iraq also resembles many past examples of colonial rule, relying on a handful of hand-picked locals to give the appearance of some self-government. Since the April ouster of Saddam Hussein, U.S. authorities repeatedly have found themselves challenged by grassroots political activism in Iraq that has called for the quick end to the U.S. occupation and a rapid turnover of power to an elected Iraqi leadership.
Indeed, plans for rapid local elections were part of the original strategy devised by the first U.S. administrator, Jay Garner. But his replacement, Paul Bremer, decided that the first step would be U.S. appointment of Iraq’s mayors and administrators. “Elections that are held too early can be destructive,” Paul Bremer said in June, after the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority canceled plans for the local elections.
Bremer promised that as soon as a constitution was written and a national census taken, elections would follow. But the New York Times has revealed that census officials devised a comprehensive plan to tally the country’s population by summer 2004 and prepare a voter roll that would permit national elections in September. However, American officials rejected that idea in favor of an approach that would give U.S. officials more influence over the outcome. [NYT, Dec. 4, 2003]
While many Iraqis want direct national elections, the Bush administration prefers caucus-style indirect elections, in which representatives emerging from the caucuses then select Iraq’s leaders. One effect of this two-stage process would be to avoid having a national leader arise who could claim a clear popular mandate and thus have international standing to contest continued U.S. influence over the government and the economy.
Charles Healtly, spokesman for the U.S. occupation, blamed the need to go slow on the dangerous security situation, which would make taking a census difficult. “Rushing into a census in this time frame with the security environment that we have would not give the result that people want,” he said.
Noah Feldman, a former adviser to Bremer, offered another explanation in November. “Simply put, if you move too fast, the wrong people get elected,” Feldman said.
So the kind of electoral system Bush has in mind for Iraq basically allows the U.S. to maintain enough control over the process to ensure whatever results Bush desires, such as permitting an indefinite deployment of U.S. troops inside Iraq. Even if there were a “Jeffersonian democrat waiting in the wings,” someone with widespread support among the Iraqi people and eager for full sovereignty for Iraq, he probably wouldn’t stand a chance in this “managed democracy.”
Bush’s approach to Iraqi “democracy” recently came to a head in the Iraqi city of Hilla. There, Iraqi protesters converged on the provincial governor’s office with a simple demand: that the hand-picked local governor resign. After three days and nights of protests, the governor, Iskander Jawad Witwit, did just that.
However, the occupation authority simply appointed a new governor in his place, who also was unacceptable to the protesters. They began chanting, “Yes, yes for elections! No, no to appointment!”
Many Iraqis warn these kinds of protests are what to expect on a national level if U.S. authorities follow through with their intention to manage the selection of an Iraqi government through U.S.-managed caucuses, rather than general elections. As one Hilla resident said, “President George Bush promised us democracy. How can you have democracy without elections?”
Freedom of Expression
Besides the electoral system, there are other issues to consider when gauging freedom and democracy, such as freedom of speech, the right to assemble and a free press. In Iraq, these fundamental freedoms are tightly constrained or virtually non-existent.
Protests in Iraq often have been met with lethal force by American troops, occurrences that date back to the earliest days of the occupation when Iraqis staged the first mass demonstrations against the U.S. presence in mid-April. Time and again, claiming danger to U.S. troops, the Americans have responded with deadly gunfire.
In late April, for instance, in the city of Falluja, 13 Iraqis were shot dead by American troops, in an incident that was disputed by the two sides. The Americans claimed gunmen in the crowd opened fire on U.S. troops who returned fire. Iraqis said the demonstrators were unarmed and the jittery soldiers opened fire without warning on a peaceful assembly. The crowd was protesting the soldiers’ use of a local school as their military headquarters. [BBC, April 29, 2003]
More recently, U.S. troops have employed violence against pro-Saddam demonstrators who have been holding rallies in support of their captured leader. In one incident on Dec. 15, four Iraqis were killed when soldiers fired indiscriminately into a protest in a Sunni district of Baghdad, according to an official from the Association of Muslim Ulama.
“The only difference is that Saddam would kill you in private, where the Americans will kill you in public,” commented Mohammad Saleh, 39, a building contractor, after the capture of Hussein.
Raiding of homes also has become routine, followed by U.S. forces placing bags over the heads of detainees who are arrested on the flimsiest of suspicions, handcuffed and forced to kneel on the ground for hours. Sometimes video of these scenes of humiliated Iraqis appear on U.S. television networks, such as MSNBC, over the caption “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Freedom of the press also has arbitrary limits in the new Iraq. In June, the Coalition Provisional Authority drafted a code of conduct for the press that prohibits “unsubstantiated news that will foment social unrest or hostility towards American troops.” The code of conduct drew widespread criticism from press freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Society to Protect Journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists.
Many journalists are concerned that the U.S. restrictions are so broad that even news that gets repeated on U.S. networks, such as smuggled audiotapes that were made by Saddam Hussein when in hiding, could be judged to have crossed the line. The Iraqi operations of Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiyya were shut down in Iraq in November after the channel aired a Hussein tape recording.
Al-Arabiyya News Director Saleh Negm told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he had received a written statement from Iraq’s Governing Council notifying him that Al-Arabiyya's equipment had been confiscated, and that its staff was barred from working in Iraq under penalty of fines and up to one year in prison.
Freedom of speech also is tightly constrained in “liberated” Iraq. Iraqis are not permitted to make statements that are critical of the occupation. As Reuters reported on Nov. 11, American troops arrested a man and placed masking tape over his mouth after he had criticized the occupation. When asked why they had arrested the man, the commanding officer told Reuters, “This man has been detained for making anti-coalition statements.”
The Bush administration’s latest crackdown on suspected Iraqi rebels seems to promise more repression. One of the recent anti-insurgency offensives was codenamed “Operation Iron Hammer,” which adopted the same name used by a military operation carried out by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II.
In the German Operation Iron Hammer, Adolf Hitler tried to cripple the Soviet war industry through targeted bombing. In Operation Iron Hammer in Iraq, U.S. forces have sought to intimidate the insurgents through bombing raids in the Sunni Triangle and other centers of resistance.
Besides Operation Iron Hammer’s bombing attacks, U.S. officials have been developing and employing a variety of other repressive measures that are intended to assert control over Iraq. Some of these strategies are copying measures employed by Israeli security forces in their occupation of the Palestinian territories.
These techniques include surrounding entire villages with barbed wire and issuing identification cards – with information written in English – to inhabitants. Only by showing these cards can residents pass through the checkpoints. Also, U.S. forces have been destroying homes of suspected guerrillas and their families.
On a barbed wire fence surrounding the town of Abu Hishma, a sign is posted that reads in English, “This fence is here for your protection. Do not approach or try to cross it, or you will be shot.”
A battalion commander explained the rationale behind these extraordinarily heavy-handed tactics when he said, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” [New York Times, Dec. 7, 2003]
Even more troubling to human rights advocates is the new U.S. practice of abducting and detaining families of suspected guerrilla leaders with the goal of coercing them into surrender.
The wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former Saddam Hussein deputy, were arrested on Nov. 26 and held, apparently to convince al-Douri to turn himself in. Al-Douri has been accused of organizing guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops and one U.S. official said the prolonged detentions of his family members were “similar to [those of] a material witness,” according to Newsday. Human rights groups said the detentions “violate international law and raise questions about the United States’ ability to highlight human rights abuses by other countries,” Newsday reported. [Dec. 8, 2003]
Indiscriminate repression of an occupied people also can be judged a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was established to protect the rights of civilians in times of conflict and occupation. The Convention states that collective punishments are strictly prohibited. Article 33 says, “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
Detaining family members as bargaining chips also can be seen as a form of hostage-taking, putting the Bush administration in violation of Article 34, which states, “The taking of hostages is prohibited.”
But George W. Bush has tended to brush aside international law as an inconvenience since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He ignored the Third Geneva Convention by holding Afghan prisoners of war at the military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without the protections of POWs or the right to go before a tribunal to determine their status. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Return Unilateralism”]
Bush’s disdain of international law even was evident when he was asked whether a Pentagon ban on anti-Iraq War nations bidding on reconstruction violated international free trade laws. “International law?” Bush responded in a mocking tone. “I better call my lawyer. He didn't bring that up to me.”
Though Bush appears to have been playing to his conservative base with his dismissive sarcasm, the rule of law has always been regarded as a crucial component of any meaningful democratic system. Without law, raw power dominates, which is true both internationally and domestically.
Just as it is a precept of a free society that no one man is above the law, it is also true that an orderly world requires that no one country be above the law.
A logical corollary of that principle also is that once a nation violates legal norms abroad, it is almost certain to do the same with its own population. It follows as well that leaders who rely on empty rhetoric about democracy abroad are likely to treat it with disrespect at home, too.
[For Part 2, Click Here]
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