COMMENTARY Democracy, and all
that talk By Mark LeVine
In the wake of the third Iraqi vote in
less than a year, President George W Bush is once
again arguing that the country's US-sponsored
political process epitomizes a new, democratic
focus in US foreign policy toward the Muslim
While persuasive, his argument is
only two-thirds correct. Without the missing
third, the "complete victory" the president has
defined as his desired outcome to America's
involvement in Iraq, and indeed in the larger "war
on terror", will remain elusive.
true that the rhetoric and tactics surrounding US
foreign policy have changed dramatically in the
four years since
September 11, 2001. Yet at
the much more important substantive level it
remains grounded in the Cold War paradigm that
supported - and often necessitated - the violence,
authoritarianism and corruption that helped foster
today's terrorist menace.
The most honest
and straightforward expression of this paradigm
was given in a 1948 State Department memorandum by
director of planning George F Kennan: "We have 50%
of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its
population. Our real task in the coming period is
to maintain this position of disparity."
The policies advocated by Kennan reflected
the United States' adoption of the strategic
imperatives on which decades (in some cases, more
than a century) of European imperialism in the
Muslim world were founded. The peripheralization
of much of the region they reflected was cemented
during the Cold War; today this condition is
exacerbated by a set of policies, tellingly
labeled the "Washington Consensus", that have
further marginalized the majority of Muslims from
the world economy.
As for the Middle
East's emerging globalized elite, their
integration into the global ecumene is being paid
for by increasing poverty, inequality and cultural
violence across their societies.
context, Bush's December 18 speech to his nation
celebrating the Iraqi elections betrayed both a
disquieting ignorance of the history, timeline and
impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Perhaps more troubling, it reflected a weak grasp
of the complex roots of the violence that has
defined his presidency.
president argued that since the events of
September 11 occurred before the US invaded
Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States bears no
responsibility for the conditions that fomented
the "war on terrorism". Such a view is not just
historically wrong - it assumes that the US was
not deeply involved in the Muslim world before
2001 - it contradicts the president's own
oft-cited admission that "60 years of excusing and
accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle
East" helped create an environment that has
nurtured the current generation of terrorists.
Yet such an ahistorical perspective is
crucial to Bush's argument that terrorists emerge
out of a deep and seemingly irrational (if
admittedly minority) tendency within Islam to view
the world as a "giant battlefield" on which, in
the president's account, radical Muslims are
trying to "demoralize free nations ... to drive us
out of the Middle East, to spread an empire of
fear across that region and to wage a perpetual
war against America and our friends".
it was the US, not al-Qaeda, that pioneered the
tendency to view the whole world as a battlefield.
And not just during the Cold War that was
commencing when Kennan wrote his memo. This view
equally defines the past decade's push toward
"full-spectrum dominance" over all of the United
States' potential competitors.
a 1992 ur-text of Bush administration
policymaking, then Pentagon strategist (and today
US ambassador to Iraq) Zalmay Khalilzad advised
then secretary of defense Dick Cheney to define
the United States' primary post-Cold War
foreign-policy objective as preventing any "return
to a bipolar or multipolar system".
Because by this period US planners well understood
that globalization was increasing poverty,
inequality and even anarchy across the developing
world (the "coming anarchy" had begun to trouble
strategic planners such as former under secretary
of defense Paul Wolfowitz at the same moment). As
Kennan would have agreed, in such an environment
the US and the West more broadly could maintain
their way of life only by maintaining the global
disparities that made it possible.
American policymakers are not the only
ones familiar with this equation. Muslims also
have long understood what a post-Cold War system
characterized by unfettered US power would mean
for their societies. That is why it is not just
terrorists who, in the US president's words, want
to "drive us out of the Middle East".
Rather, most Muslims (and this includes
most Iraqis) do not want a US military presence in
the region, nor do they want to see US companies
and culture become dominant forces in their
societies - precisely because they understand that
US power and policies make it harder, not easier,
to create societies modeled on America's highest
Bush would no doubt counter this
belief by arguing that his focus on democratizing
the Middle East constituted an unprecedented shift
in US policy toward the region. But America's
continued political, economic and military support
for a host of repressive governments from Central
Africa to Central Asia belies this claim.
In Iraq, where disconnect between the
reality and rhetoric of US policy has been
especially great, this dynamic led two elderly
academics (one of whose son was "mistakenly"
killed by American soldiers) to sit me down, quote
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and then
ask me, "If these are your ideals, what are you
doing here?" Such sentiments are regularly
expressed by friends in the Muslim world, and can
be summed up by one exasperated colleague's
question: "Why doesn't the United States walk the
talk of freedom and democracy?"
A new year
and a new Iraqi government offer the US a fresh
opportunity to do just that. But first Americans
must decide: is US foreign policy going to
continue to be characterized by lofty rhetoric
that is rarely matched by substantive support for
peace, democracy and sustainable development; or
is the US finally going to live up to its highest
How Americans answer this question
in the coming year will have a far greater impact
on the "war on terror" than events in Iraq.
Mark LeVine is professor of
modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic
studies, University of California-Irvine, author
of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on
the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005)