The United States, Iraq, and the Middle East

Liberal Imperialism

American Marines in an exercise in Kuwait
Democracy masses on the Kuwaiti border of Iraq (Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP).

Can the overthrow of Saddam Hussein really be the starting point for the creation of a democratic order in the Arab world, as President Bush announced last week, confident of victory? If one thinks this idea through to the end, it means that the people of the region would have to be eagerly awaiting the victorious American invasion forces to conquer their homeland, in the name of democracy—even if it means that this very homeland goes up in flames.

The U.S. government, and with it the overwhelming majority of the American public, simply do not understand that America (the political-military entity, not necessarily the cultural one) is seen throughout the Muslim world as an imperialist power. An arrogant, autocratic, and brutal country. The lack of legitimacy for, and the probable horrors of the war on Iraq might instead contribute to democracy’s being discredited as a form of government in broad sectors of the Arab world. This war nourishes the Muslim fanatics, whose image of the enemy is finding increasing resonance even in the moderate sectors of the population. Radical Islam, which lost many sympathizers in the second half of the 1990s due to its propensity for violence, and which appeared to be an ideology without a future, will make a comeback in these circumstances, far beyond Osama bin Laden.

No matter what postwar scenario plays out in Iraq, there will not be freedom and democracy there. Arbitrary force and lawlessness will instead characterize American occupation, which, in the end, ought to be aiming for just one goal—the re-imposition of peace and order, so far as possible. But that will be possible only through repression and the continuation of the ancien régime, even if under a pro-American leadership. To date, the American government has not decided whether it will merely organize a transitional government in Iraq, or whether it intends to fundamentally transform the country. There is good reason to suspect that when President Bush announced a “democratic breakthrough,” it was more rhetoric than political concept.

Tribal Genealogies

Democracy is a powerful drug. Anyone who prescribes an overdose of it, such as might be administered through military intervention, risks having it backfire. But why are the Arab nations not democracies? Is it because of Islam, which many Western opinion-makers believe is a religion with an innate tendency toward violence and fanaticism?

The frontiers of most Arab nations were drawn arbitrarily on the map by their then colonial rulers, France and Great Britain. A real feeling of “nationality” has not arisen in any Arab state since they became independent after World War II—with the historical exceptions of Egypt and Lebanon. But what distinguishes a Jordanian Bedouin from an Iraqi or Saudi Bedouin? From their point of view, the genealogies of their respective clans, not their passports. Tribal borders do not correspond to national frontiers.

Political loyalty, in such situations, goes less to the government than to the tribe, or, in an urban context, to the clan, the extended family, or, especially for minorities, to the religious group. The Arab countries, therefore, are overwhelmingly artificial creations, without national histories and myths. For the rulers, statehood and power are generally identical. Compulsion, violence, and repression are, given this background, the tools of Arab rule, carried out by the military and secret police. The spectrum ranges from “broadminded autocrats” such as King Mohammed VI of Morocco, to Saddam Hussein.

Not a single Arab country has thus far managed the transformation from a traditional, patriarchal society to a modern, technical-rational state. Outwardly, the cities on the Gulf remind one of big American cities. But social life and political structures there are tribal and unchanged. And even in those Arab countries with more complex societies and more deeply-rooted urbanization, the last few decades have not witnessed the formation of the equivalent of the European bourgeoisie. This means that the social foundations for political reforms that could lead to comprehensive democratization are lacking. The authoritarian clan- and client- based politics of the Arab regimes will apparently endure so long as economic power remains in the hands of government officials who are recruited from the military and the inflated bureaucracies.

Two trains are speeding toward a collision: the yearning of the Arab populations for freedom and democracy and Washington’s imperial will, in which the government speaks of freedom and democracy but means the accomplishment of its power goals. When it serves U.S. interests, any despot is welcome as long as he is pro-American. This is strikingly apparent in the anti-terrorism campaign, where the dictators of Central Asia are treated just as grandly as the military government in Pakistan. These contradictions of American policy evoke deep revulsion in the Arab-Islamic world, which often enough is expressed as blind hatred. And other factors enter in, irrational ones like envy and resentment, inferiority complexes, or an unconscious search for an “authentic” culture and identity.

But there are also very rational causes, among them Washington’s unconditional support for Israel, at the cost of the Palestinians, and American contentment with despotic rulers so long as they keep their Islamists in check and maintain law and order at home. America supports such regimes even though they exploit their peoples and repress political opposition, which is usually secular. As soon as Saddam Hussein is overthrown and American troops march into Baghdad, the conflicts that regime has violently suppressed for decades will probably boil over. Those who have worked with and tortured for the dictator must expect gruesome vengeance—part of the code of honor in the Near East. And the ruling Iraqi Baath Party has a million members. The Kurds in northern Iraq, who currently enjoy broad autonomy guaranteed by the British and Americans, will absolutely not accept the planned occupation of the North by Turkish troops. The Shiites in the South have not forgotten how George Bush I promised them weapons in 1991 if they would rise up against their government—and then left them in the lurch. Saddam Hussein’s troops struck back and massacred more than 10,000 people. Anti-American resistance will come, more than anyplace else, out of the ranks of the Shiites. It would be fatal if the Shiite underground movement allied itself with the anti-Wahabi opposition in Saudi Arabia next door—the political homeland of Osama bin Laden. If that happens, then Al-Qaeda will have millions of sympathizers to move and work among.

In Iraq and the entire Arab world (with the exception of Kuwait) this war is seen less as one of liberation from a despotic regime than as one, first and foremost, directed against Arabs and Islam. The situation is not like that in Germany in 1945. Neither the masses nor the intellectuals have the feeling that they utterly failed, as the Germans did then. The idea that they have only one choice—to start over, with American help—is not a popular one in the Near East. And Iraqi history teaches that Iraqis have never accepted foreign rulers. The British colonial authorities learned this in the 1930s and '40s, and paid for it with bloody losses in officers and men.

Iraq is a tribal society, and the only social foundation that could support a transformation to democracy, the urban bourgeoisie, has been driven—largely by sanctions—into poverty and ruin. The social forces and political minds needed at Zero Hour are simply missing. In recent decades, there has been no room for either intellectual discourse or political initiatives. The Iraq of the future will not resemble either Japan or Germany in 1945. More like Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. Anarchy and endemic violence will be on the agenda, all the more because the Bush administration has declared that it has no interest in nation-building, the creation of durable structures in war-torn lands. This is the case in Afghanistan (the proposed U.S. budget for 2004 contains not one dollar for civil spending in Afghanistan), and it will be no different in Iraq. Ari Fleischer, the presidential press secretary, declared on Feb. 18 that Baghdad will have to pay for its own reconstruction—no Marshall Plan is in the offing.

And finally Iraq is nothing more than another building block in the strategically important Near and Middle East, not to forget the Caucasus and Central Asia. Together, these regions are home to the largest oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. If Iraq produced only dates, then Saddam Hussein and his henchmen could murder his people, with or without democracy, as they pleased. Deposing him may be a blessing for the country and the region, but the method President Bush has chosen is a recipe for disaster. Washington’s “liberal imperialism,” even regarding it as generously as possible, threatens to nourish anti-Western feelings and spark terrorism. The neoconservatives in power and their apologists in the media are forgetting that democracy is the fruit of social processes, and a system that cannot arise without international rules of behavior.

The author is a political adviser at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is closely tied to Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party.