Democracy in Iraq

Can democracy be established in Iraq? Would that then solve our problems, our “gripe,” with that country? Or do we really want democracy there at all?

Die Zeit On-Line is currently particularly rich with opinion pieces which address these issues, and so (in different ways) are natural sequels to Georges Suffert’s assessment in Le Figaro of the American efforts in Iraq which I reviewed here. For one, there is the article by Richard Herzinger which was the subject of my last post: Yes, things are going well in Iraq and democracy is being built, is his view. Anyway, even if they aren’t going well Europeans have their own obligation to help out to make sure that they do.

But then there are a couple of additional pieces sharing homepage-space on the current Die Zeit website which take rather more subtle views. Jens Jessen offers an interesting viewpoint in Die hilflosen Missionäre – “the helpless missionaries.” OK, our objective is to transplant our political system, democracy, into Iraq; it’s also to transplant our economic system (namely capitalism) there. The rationale behind these objectives is that successfully completing them will ensure that Iraq will become a friendly, reasonable sort of state that we can welcome back into the community of nations.

But that rationale needs to be re-examined; things may not necessarily turn out that way. For, in addition to politics and economics, there is a third vital factor in a society: culture. It is the first two which can be changed in a society relatively quickly (pace Georges Suffert), and the expectation is that they will then change the culture along the same lines – so that we can expect in Iraq “tolerance, pluralism, revulsion towards martyrdom, terrorism, and other forms of fanaticism.” “Even more,” Jessen writes, “we even expect the emancipation of women and the liberalization of markets.”

But do politics and economics impact upon and change culture – or is it the other way around? Sure, in the West tolerance, pluralism, revulsion towards fanaticism – and, eventually, even the emancipation of women – arose in our culture as our politics grew more and more democratic, but the West had hundreds of years to develop in this way. There’s no guarantee of any similar result in the hot-house, force-fed society of Iraq under occupation – and culture is one thing that cannot be hurried in its development. Let’s say Iraq is finally sovereign and democratic: it’s easy to imagine, lacking corresponding changes in Iraqi culture, that it will have a state-sponsored church (Islam, naturally; Shiite Islam, probably); that women will still be excluded from many aspects of society, and possibly will themselves continue to find it natural that they are so excluded (we’re talking about cultural changes here, remember, or the lack thereof); that Israel will still be public enemy number one; even (here I’ve got to quote Jessen directly) “that a project for the financing and training of suicide-bombers will be approved by a parliamentary committee.” If all of this truly reflects the decisions of a democratic society, he claims, then we can and we must accept it (although I rather doubt that the Bush administration, at least, would be at all friendly or accepting towards suicide-bomber training programs, whether stamped with a parliamentary seal of approval or not).

If you think about it, Jessen adds, what the West (and America) was so upset at Iraq about was not its economics, or even its politics – murderous dictators apparently don’t automatically earn American condemnation, as so many have been supported by the USA in the past, and even currently (cf. Central Asia). We didn’t like its culture: the exaltation of violence and martyrdom, the Gängelung of women (best translated as “leading-around-by-the-nose”), etc. So our true aim there is to “civilize” the place; put another way, to “re-educate” that society, or basically to get at and change that culture which was what truly threatened us in the first place.

Rather more easily said than done. In fact, if we’re truly serious about this, the “C” word has to come into play – namely, colonialism. And here Jessen is not talking about the mostly commercially-oriented colonialism of the past few centuries of the Dutch, or even of the British, but rather the colonialism that history shows us really turned around cultures – namely that of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, whose spearpoint you’ll recall was not only soldiers but also a corps of true cultural storm-troopers – the Catholic missionaries. (By the way, here I feel Jessen mis-classifies the British colonial experience; true, the religious missionaries associated with the British Empire were not as hard-edged, “convert-or-else!” as the Spanish or Portuguese, but it’s also undeniable that the British did expend effort, and gain some success, towards transforming their colonial subjects culturally, certainly more than what I understand the Dutch did in the Dutch East Indies.)

Now, this is something rather new and interesting. Previously there had been rather interesting commentary connecting the US task in Iraq solely to the British colonial experience; associated primarily with Prof. Niall Ferguson of Jesus College, Oxford and the NYU Stern School of Business, the point was roughly that, in order to succeed in Iraq, the US had to stop denying that it was a colonial power but rather accept that fact – and accept the expenditure of financial and manpower (i.e. military) resources that that fact made necessary. (See US ‘is an empire in denial’ from last June in the Guardian, which you can still get at that link.) Now we hear from this German commentator that, in fact, the US should instead model itself on Hernan de Soto, Franciso Pizarro, and their related bands of merry men (not to forget the friars and other missionaries) who conquered Central and South America in the 16th century and then, over further centuries, succeeded in fully transplanting there an Iberian (which is to say, also to some degree a European) culture.

It’s an interesting premise – and surely Jessen’s prospect of a democratic Iraq which nevertheless hates Israel and sponsors suicide-bombers is thought-provoking. But he doesn’t even stop there, but carries his thought-process to its logical conclusion (the same one you no doubt have in your own mind, dear reader): it’s all impossible. Even if it were true that the US needed to proceed in such a way to truly extirpate the fundamentally cultural threat Iraq posed and poses to it (and if Iraq poses that threat, surely the rest of the Muslim Middle East – i.e. not Israel – poses that same threat?), there’s no way that could work. The American people are really not into embarking upon rebuilding projects on overseas territory that are scheduled to last over centuries, for one. Jessen suggests another problem: Among the cultural values we would want to inculcate would be pluralism – but that itself means tolerating many views of the world and therefore never seeking to inculcate one particular view in another society! As Jessen himself states the inescapable paradox: “One could even say, the last and only value that the West sets as absolute is the demand not to set any values as absolute.”

Bottom line: the American/allied effort in Iraq will never succeed in transforming that land the way we want, the way we think it should be transformed.


But wait: All talk of culture aside, do we really desire even a democratic Iraq? Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst who teaches Institute for Sociology at the University of Ljubljana (which is the capital of Slovenia – that’s that EU- and NATO-candidate nation situated on the Adriatic coast (barely!) east of Italy, south of Austria, and west of Croatia; please do not confuse with Slovakia, also a EU- and NATO-candidate nation – capital: Bratislava – as George W. Bush himself did when on the campaign trail in 2000) sees suspicious signs that we do not, as expressed in his article Zu viel Demokratie schadet nur, or “Too Much Democracy Can Only Be Harmful.” (Once again this article is in the on-line Die Zeit, although it seems it was first published in English somewhere else. I couldn’t find out where.)

“Too much democracy can only be harmful”: it’s a thesis that could be somewhat startling to many, but which nonetheless is not the product of Zizek’s fertile mind alone (indeed, as we’ll see, he does not advocate it), but has arisen in connection with a recent book by Fareed Zakaria (editor-in-chief of Newsweek International) entitled The Future of Freedom and sub-titled Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. I haven’t read it yet, myself; according to Zizek, Zakaria’s thesis is that it is precisely democracy that can imperil freedom, if that democracy is built in the wrong way, in the wrong countries, i.e. in countries not yet ready for it. That “readiness” has mainly to do with economic readiness. Only economically-developed countries, in this view, can truly handle democracy; developing countries trying to become democratic “too early” is a recipe only for the rise of populism (i.e. strongmen and/or charlatans gaining political power from the politically-naïve electorate), with despotism (as these new leaders don’t want to risk the same trick twice) and quite possibly economic collapse soon following.

In fact, to Zakaria, too much democracy can be a bad thing even those those nations which already have it – the United States, for instance. Zizak reports Zakaria’s lament that “American is increasingly succumbing to a simple-minded populism”; “popularity and openness are increasingly the [only] decisive standards conferring legitimacy.” (Schwarzenegger, anyone?) The solution here is precisely to take some of this excess democracy away, e.g. by putting more political and economic decisions in the hands of (unelected) experts, shielded from political pressures, who then can presumably come up with the best, independent course of action for all – on the model of the Federal Reserve or, even more, the European Central Bank.

Anyway: No democracy until you’re “ready” for it. And Zizek naturally immediately draws a link between this body of theory and the policy of the American occupation authorities in Iraq. We thought we were going to install democracy right away, with early elections . . . but then, wait a minute, it was time to think again: it looked quite likely that those bloodthirsty Shiite clerics would win them. (Of course, Shiites do make up around 60% of Iraq’s population – and their level of organization is high, as evidenced by the way Shiite clerics easily moved into the post-war power-vacuum to provide charity, ad hoc court (i.e. justice), and other services evincing a high level of political acceptance – but not everywhere in Iraq, to be sure, not by a long shot). What with all their wild talk about setting up a theocracy on the model of next-door Iran, what we were faced with was elections all right, but for one time only, before the newly elected regime then swiftly moved to re-establish the political system on a basis rather different than elections.

Note that some could judge this a serious prospect; it wasn’t just a propaganda-figment of someone’s imagination. Such “elections to end all elections” have happened before (e.g. Germany in 1933, but also recently in Algeria and in Pakistan). On the other hand, “no democracy until you’re ready for it” does deserve, rather than the benefit of the doubt, immediate and suspicious examination as a statement of policy. Zizek makes a parallel between this policy and that of the American authorities after September 11: Of course, we’re all for human rights, BUT, in light of what has just happened, maybe too many human rights are bad for you, maybe it’s OK to torture suspected terrorists in custody. (That’s Zizek’s formulation: I’m not saying there has been torture. But I would be willing to note the existence of that extra-legal prisoner base at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the due process abuses chalked up by the Justice Department in their zeal to pursue “terrorists” – e.g. violation of habeus corpus by locking up people for months at a time as “material witnesses” to investigations, and the like.)

So Zizek is not very enthusiastic about this “too much democracy is bad for you” idea. Indeed, with somewhat of a bitter tone he maintains that there really was no need for Zakaria to complain about “too much democracy” and advocate “decision-making by experts” in his book – these things have already largely come to pass. Consider the American attempt to strong-arm Turkey into allowing American troops to pass through to form a “second front” for the invasion of Iraq, even though the vast majority of the Turkish electorate was opposed. Oh wait – the Americans ultimately did not get their way on that one. OK then, how about the entire anti-democratic effort by the US and the UK, which obviously did succeed, to go to war against Iraq in the teeth of the opposition of their own populations, not to mention most of the rest of the world? (Here Zizek is again slightly incorrect, in that the assertion that the American people were against going to war with Iraq probably cannot be sustained. The British? Sure.)

In all, Zizek is on the suspicious side, and he’s certainly no friend of the Bush administration. (Indeed, elsewhere in the article he comes up with an interesting metaphor for America: a kidney patient on a dialysis machine – for America is still greatly economically dependent on oil from the Middle East, to fuel all those SUVs, etc. – and the doctor running the machine is unfriendly, if not downright hostile.) Still, it’s probably good to have polemicists around on that side of the argument when it comes to discussing the thesis that “too much democracy is bad for you.” L. Paul Bremer’s administration in Iraq has put off elections this year – and given Iraq the Governing Council instead, where those wild Shiites are at least buffered by representatives from other ethnic- and interest-groups with whom they have to bargain if they want to make any progress – but now promises them for next year. Does Bremer really prefer to postpone them way into the future (Zizek maintains that he wants to wait five full years), or does he perhaps really want to have them as soon as possible – as long as some “safe” result can be assured – so the Americans can then declare victory and get all their personnel the hell out of there? As the world observes the ongoing tale of this balancing act, Zizek’s point-of-view (and perhaps Zakaria’s as well – I need to read his book) could be useful to keep in mind.

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