US-imposed democracies befit Stalinist Russia Print E-mail
 Monday April 10 2006

Eye on the world

Democracy by choice

By Sunanda k Datta-Ray
The US gives little value to popular mandate and counts monarchs and dictators as its staunch supporters
Leaving aside the tantalising question of who slept where on Condoleeza Rice's special flight to Baghdad, the mission was a re-run of the Cold War phenomenon of "Finlandisation". Jack Straw's presence added as little weight to Rice's purpose as his boss's exuberance does to George W. Bush's mission civiliatrice. But just as the old Soviet Union gave short shrift to any flicker of free will in independent Finland, the US betrays its own noble democratic traditions by insisting on deciding the democratic outcome in Iraq.

The seven-party Shia United Iraq Alliance, which won 132 of the 275 parliamentary seats in last December's free and fair election with a surprisingly high turn-out, nominated the Daawa Party's Ibrahim al Jaafari for a second term as prime minister. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another UIA member, supported Adil Abdullah Mahdi, Iraq's vice-president, who narrowly failed to win the nomination.

The Americans should find al Jaafari eminently acceptable since he fought Saddam Hussein and spent many years in exile. But his exile was in Iran, which makes him suspect in their eyes. His "socialist tendencies" and admiration for the radical American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, makes matters worse. Such credentials condemn him to join Saddam Hussein, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Syria's Bashir Assad in America's West Asian rogues' gallery though Mahdi, the US favourite, calls al Jaafari "courageous" and "wonderful."

There may be many sound reasons why despite the UIA nomination, al Jaafari may not be suitable for the job. Though the 32-seat Fadilah Party of Moqtada al Sadr, the influential Shia cleric with ties to Sunni groups, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shia spiritual leader, want him, four UIA groups do not. Nobody can object if his constituents turn against him.

But American dislike cannot be the reason. Yet, the Rice-Straw mission was to nudge al Jaafari into resigning while encouraging his adversaries to step up their campaign against him. Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador who was previously in Kabul where he was the only man Hamid Karzai ever consulted, set the ball rolling by asking for a government of national unity. That has become a catch phrase, with al Jaafari's adversaries repeating that the Kurds and Sunnis refuse to work with him.

The game started in June 2004 when John Negroponte, now the US intelligence chief, was appointed ambassador ostensibly to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis. As New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles pointed out, Negroponte learned his trade as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s where he was known as "the proconsul" and was accused of "covering up abuses by the Honduran military" - meaning large-scale state terror - which provided bases for the mercenary army, the Contras, through which the US sought to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Ignoring the World Court order to end the "unlawful use of force" -- international terrorism -- against Nicaragua and pay substantial reparations, Washington vetoed two Security Council resolutions affirming the directive and urging states to respect international law. Incidentally, Honduras withdrew its small contingent of forces from Iraq only a few days after Negroponte's appointment, perhaps fearing the repetition of a familiar sequence.

Precedents from South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan and sundry Islamic autocracies highlight the irony of the world's oldest democracy counting monarchs and dictators who rule without a popular mandate as its most staunch supporters in Asia. The treatment of Hamas confirms how little Bush and his neo-conservatives value any popular verdict.

The al Jaafari controversy dangerously mixes politics with religion, threatens to plunge the entire region into sectarian strife. Shias in Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain link the mosque attacks in Iraq with the Danish cartoon controversy, further fuelling anti-Western passion. There are fears of tension affecting Saudi Arabia's oil production. It is a measure of its inability to appreciate the force of Asian nationalism that the US cannot grasp that anything that looks like coercion is exploited by extremists like al Qaeda's Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Washington is probably still surprised that it was not hailed as the liberator from Saddam's oppression. It still mistakes national resistance - Napoleon's "running sore" in conquered Spain -- for terrorism. Such obtuseness arises from what J. William Fulbright called "the arrogance of power" in his eponymous 1966 classic which continues to provide insights into current policy.

"America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it," Fulbright wrote. "Other great nations, reaching this crucial juncture, have aspired to too much and, by overextension of effort, have declined and then fallen. Gradually but unmistakably, America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past."

Thomas Carothers, a historian of Latin America who also served in Reagan's State Department, thought the democratisation programmes were "sincere" but failed because Washington would tolerate only "limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the US has long been allied."

The US succeeded in Nicaragua, but as Carothers wrote, the death toll was "significantly higher" than the number of people "killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the 20th century combined."

Unlike in Nicaragua, there is no systemic conflict in Iraq. Nor any threat to US security. But that's not enough.

As in Palestine, Bush's mission civiliatrice demands that the voters' choice must be handpicked by the US. It's a definition of democracy that befits Stalinist Russia, not the land of the free from which the world expects moral and material leadership.