Vindicating American Democracy

By Terrell E. Arnold

Over the past several weeks mainstream American media have practically swooned over the elections of sorts that have occurred in countries of the Middle East and elsewhere. Reflecting comments from official Washington, they have been full of praise for balloting in Iraq, in Palestine, and retrospectively for Ukraine. The prospect of an election in Lebanon has been imbued with virtually millennial significance. Their overarching judgment is that political spring is flowering in the Middle East. Their bottom line is that all of this is the first product of President Bush's promotion of democracy. On a more cautious note, the Economist, a London voice, sums it up with such terms as the idea of "Democracy for Arabs" is no longer "the stuff of foolish dreams" while the idea that the Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate a settlement "is no longer ridiculous."
The primary reason for these rhetorical flights is a desperate Washington leadership search for good news from the Middle East. One reason is an effort to validate the President's State of the Union declaration of a war on tyranny. Another reflects way-paving for future preemptive US/Israeli moves, for example against Iran. A fourth reason is the desire of many people in the Middle East and elsewhere to achieve representative forms of government and better participation in decisions affecting them. But that dream is at least several generations old, and it has been suppressed by, among other forces, the weight of American and European colonial policies.
A "flowering" of the desire for participatory government in countries where self-selected/externally supported elites have ruled for decades could prove, like Aladdin's genii, difficult to put back in the bottle. The acid test will be a demonstration that the United States not only means what President Bush has been saying, but also knows what those statements mean when translated into national forms of governance.
An even harder test may be US willingness to accept whatever "summer" of governance that "spring" leads to. There is, however, virtually no public evidence of such openness in recent American policies and decisions. So, what is driving the liberal sounding promotion of democracy everywhere by a US leadership that up to now has pursued a basically military and unilateral interventionist agenda? There may be no single response to this question, but answers to several related questions are a good place to start: First, what is the much touted Project for a New American Century really about? Second, what were the policy effects of the 9-11 attacks? Third, exactly why did the United States invade Iraq? Fourth, what is the War on Tyranny really about?
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC)
A report called "Rebuilding America's Defenses", prepared by a think tank called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) became the guiding light of the first George W. Bush administration. It still is. Crafters of that report may well have had the key economic facts in mind, but their focus was mainly on defense and military strategy matters. They were looking at an America that was preeminent, but which faced growing difficulties with sustaining that position. Such a perspective could reasonably have been taken as a sign that the United States, with, as the report says, "no global rival", certainly no comparable military rival, had time to cool it for a while and watch developments. The PNAC drafters thought otherwise.
A fundamental situation that confronted the United States at the start of the George W. Bush administration was the prospect that most big global political discussions would be about economic and environmental issues. In that context, most heated debate would likely arise around competition for increasingly scarce materials and, as one of the more than 1300 scientists involved in the just published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment commented, a need to "manage the global economy to produce a fairer distribution of the earth's resources."
A new handwriting had appeared on the wall: To maintain peace and prosperity for the many, world leaders must find mutually agreeable ways of allocating the impact of scarcity. (writer words and emphasis) With increasing world population and a growing number of successful competitors, the United States faced no real choice but to work with others to find some peaceful way to address the resource allocation issues.
However, the PNAC crafters saw the future dominated by variously competitive military challenges, a game in which, in their view, the United States must position itself to maintain total dominance. If the PNAC crafters saw the finite and demanding dependence of military power on assured economic success, that vision is not evident in the report. Aware of the coming economic complications they may have been. Focused on the elements of cooperative economic problem solving they clearly were not. Rather, their "four core missions" were: (1) how to defend the American homeland, (2) how to fight and win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars, (3) how to perform the "constabulary" that is world policeman role, and (4) how to transform US forces to exploit the "revolution in military affairs."
Those missions required the US, as the PNAC report found to: (1) maintain nuclear superiority, (2) reform military personnel strength, (3) reposition forces to respond to strategic needs, (4) modernize forces, (5 stop spending on non-PNAC defense projects, (6) develop and deploy missile defenses, (7) control space and cyberspace, (8) insure US force superiority, and (9) increase defense spending.
That agenda is both bellicose and strident. It translates, as the Economist magazine recently headlined, into promotion of "democracy at gunpoint."
The 9-11 attacks
Numerous critics have suggested that in its early days the new Bush administration was deflected by the PNAC report and its authors and supporters within the cabinet from any real consideration of America's needs, or for that matter the needs of any other country. Growing scarcities of critical materials may have been noted by them, but did not surface in public discussions. The administration acquired instead an imperial agenda, but even PNAC did not keep the President from moving ahead with his tax cut for wealthy supporters. Thus the path to realization of PNAC plans was to wipe out the budget surplus handed on by the Clinton administration and then to build a mountain of debt to finance defense expenditures. Those tendencies were reinforced by the 9-11 attacks that, in fact, presented a glittering new opportunity.
Whether or not the 9-11 attacks qualified as a new Pearl Harbor, as some asserted, the attacks were used to justify launching the War on Terrorism, first by invading Afghanistan. As PNAC enthusiasts saw it, this was the beginning of World War IV (they say that the Cold War was III) or the Long War, an enduring struggle for world domination. The most vital effect of 9-11 in this sense was that it provided the rationale for abandoning defense budget conservatism and, as proposed in PNAC, for increasing defense spending. The American public was too shocked, too troubled by the events and too uninformed about neoconservative intentions as spelled out in the PNAC to pose any objections.
The neocons were off and running. Against no specific national enemy, without a global rival, America would arm to the teeth to deal with a non-state actor, Osama bin Laden, whose forces numbered at most a few thousand. 9-11 not only was a unique American tragedy, it has proved to be an enduring attack on the American system because of the distortions in behavior, law, domestic and foreign policy that have been adopted by the Bush administration in its name.
Why did the United States invade Iraq?
The Bush team itself is responsible for much of the debate about why the United States invaded Iraq. Oil, either access to supplies or control over distribution, was always an obvious rationale. But openly going into Iraq for oil was a universal no, no. Since every country has some interest in the subject, being too obviously predatory and greedy gets attention. Iraq was not and never had been a threat to the United States, so that excuse would not and did not fly. Weapons of mass destruction, guilt for alleged past crimes committed during the war with Iran-when the US supported Iraq, or simply disposing of a despot whose human rights abuses were numerous, would have to do, and they sort of served until the Iraqi arsenal proved to be empty.
Oil aside, the assault on Iraq was a PNAC inspired, neoconservative driven "shock and awe" demonstration of American military power. If you have all that weaponry and never use it, nobody thinks you mean it, and the peace-keeping value, in PNAC terms, the "constabulary" or world policeman utility of it is weak. It is, however, more than passing smart to do that to someone who is not equipped to fight back. Saddam was never loveable, but with the media and official Washington vilification of him that accompanied the run-up to the war, he became a natural for the part.
Not able-or willing-- to tell us why we invaded Iraq, the Bush team chose democratizing Iraq as its political mantra. The people of Iraq, who had been variously bombed, humiliated and starved for more than a decade by the United States and sometimes Britain, obviously deserved better than that. How about turning the place into a democracy? L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, who had been the American administrator of Coalition operations since early in the war, made an incredible move in that direction in the hours before his departure and the handover to an Iraqi interim government.
Bremer decreed a model system: Everybody would be subject to a flat tax of 15%. All economic activities would be fully open to foreign participation and ownership, and of course, repatriation of profits. His rules, declared by fiat, would not be subject to modification by the Iraqis once they took over. In six months the Iraqis would hold a democratic election. That was to be Iraqi democracy to an American neocon heart's desire.
What Bremer dictated was the formation of an Iraq friendly to foreign business and finance. It would have a democratically elected leadership that would accept his scheme without question, and be a friend to Israel to boot. That was a PNAC agenda, but to get there, Iraq was to be an instant democracy of sorts, just as its first election was to be sort of democratic. Many candidates did not identify themselves to the electorate for fear of being killed, polling places were not designated for fear they would be destroyed, and parties did not announce their programs or candidates for fear of being targeted. Those actions were departures from normal election procedure. The Iraqis came out to vote, about half of them anyway, and that was the only democratic decision on the landscape.
US officials talked in a desultory manner about pulling US forces out of Iraq, but in the meantime, the US built at least fourteen very permanent looking bases in Iraq. One view of those bases is that they are a colossal waste. The other view is that permanent bases mean the US has no intention of leaving Iraq, period. The current and next rounds of Iraqi insurgency are stimulated by Iraqi objections to that plan. They want their country back, and some would even take it back with Saddam in power.
What is the War on Tyranny?
Facing a growing body of Americans who want our troops back home, along with growing negativism to the neocon agenda, Bush devoted about five minutes of his second State of the Union message to the new war on tyranny. As much as anything, that was razzle-dazzle to take the public eye off failing strategies in Iraq. He talked about bringing democracy to the Middle East. He talked about ridding countries of tyrannical regimes and about hearing the appeals of believers in democracy whose aspirations have been frustrated in many countries. In that whole discussion, he never mentioned a military threat or an economic problem. In short, he floated the war on tyranny as if it were a thing apart from the leading real world challenges of our time. The war on tyranny was an idealized leadership plan for countries that did not have-and therefore needed and wanted-a western style democracy.
Vindicating American democracy
American democracy has been badly used, indeed mauled in the Iraqi experiment. Iraqis know that they had an election in January, but the run up to the election was anything but peaceful, and the validity of the outcome, partly due to the non-participation of the Sunnis, was questionable. Moreover, the election process was dampened by the belief of many that the outcome had to be a government that both accepts and tolerates an enduring American presence. Bremer had pretty well sealed that impression with his last minute decrees.
That question-whether the US forces will stay or leave-- is hanging in midair. As the Shi'a and Kurd dominated national assembly tries to form a government, already weeks overdue, it is under obvious, constant pressure to avoid asking the US and other Coalition forces to leave.
The problem is that conventional results of a democratic election would yield an Iraqi government ruled by the Shi'a in cooperation with a strong Kurd minority, possibly leaving out the former ruling Sunnis. Just below the surface lies the prospect that this government could easily be Islamic, if not necessarily fundamentalist. Thanks to the Baath and in great measure to Saddam Hussein, Iraq has the largest secular element in Middle Eastern politics. Though a secular government appears unlikely, the secular elements appear to have enough influence both among Shi'a and Kurds to moderate the Islamic influences on governance. That kind of outcome could be reached without US involvement. Whether it would emerge in the US presence is another matter. In fact, concerns about or real objections to a US presence may well drive the outcome toward Islamic extremes, because Shi'a firebrands such as Moqtada al-Sadr may call the tune.
However this turns out, it appears unlikely to be a victory for American style democracy. It is more likely to present an amalgam of influences including the newly elected representatives (candidates selected by tribal, clerical and communal procedures), the tribal chieftains, and the clerics, basically a transitional Middle Eastern system of governance.
Vindication of American democracy and a demonstration that ridding the world of tyranny is a genuine US goal can result from the Iraqi experiment if Americans in the Green Zone and in Washington give the Iraqis enough room to work this out. However, the factors that now interfere with selection of an Iraqi leadership and a full-fledged meeting of the new assembly center precisely on whether that government will be receptive to and cooperative with American plans. If those plans include retention of control over Iraqi oil, US bases, and selection of an Iraqi leadership that will go along with such an outcome, American democracy, in Iraqi and other Middle Eastern eyes, will stand as a farce, not different from other colonial gambits to get and keep control.
The real trial in Iraq centers on whether the Bush team and its neocon/Zionist supporters will risk losing control of both Iraqi oil and a dominant military position in the region. It is obvious they believe they can lose both by letting the Iraqis themselves decide what they want and what form of government they want to obtain it. Viewed in this light, it is not American democracy that is on trial in Iraq, but American leadership intentions and the integrity of the Bush team.
There are two possible outcomes on the table: If the American players in Iraq insist on one that curtails Iraqi control of their country, democracy will lose in the Middle East and elsewhere by default, no matter how the situation is explained. On the other hand, if American players are prepared to support creation of a genuinely independent Iraqi government and to work out ways of doing business with it, democracy will be vindicated in many minds everywhere.
The global challenges
On a global scale, the vindication of American democracy depends on how US leaders decide to deal with the growing scarcities of key resources. That means not only how they deal with the major resource supplier countries such as Iraq; it also means how US leaders, both business and government, will agree to deal with the allocation of scarce resources among potential users. The PNAC approach is preemptive in its intent and in the anticipated organization of the United States to deal with this future.
The formula is pure, old fashioned "beggar thy neighbor" economics, enforced by superpower military dominance and implemented with superior buying power, granted, with borrowed money. Acceptance of this formula by the world financial community is probably the key item on the Paul Wolfowitz agenda as the new head of the World Bank. Its key elements are high materials prices, low wages, and burgeoning American debt. That formula attracts resources and wealth to the rich, while delegating low income and poverty to the poor, and scaring the daylights out of people who carry the debt. It avoids any concept of equity, and it will place the United States increasingly at odds with the rest of the world, as well as increasingly at risk of economic failure.
The situation calls for processes of adjustment that are not now clearly on the Washington agenda. However, there is totally sufficient knowledge of the actual and pending world resource situation to make sound judgments about future distribution and use of all key resources. If the outcomes are pre-emptive or even aggressively assertive through buying power, then both American leadership and American democracy will be impugned. If it is reckoned that all potential users are equal, and some equitable system is developed, then American leadership will be vindicated and with it American democracy.
At issue are how the world's only superpower should adjust its lifestyle, and how it should adjust the trappings and uses of its power to accommodate the needs and interests of others. Democracy indeed could flower if the answers are any good. But the answers have to conform to the dictates of America's founding fathers: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" Honest and even-handed carrying out of that principle would surely vindicate American democracy, proving that it is not only a way to run elections but also the way to conduct fair dealings among equals.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He is a regular columnist on He will welcome comments at



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