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The Fantasy of Democracy in an Arab State
by Robert Fisk
The Independent - UK
February 14, 2004

For democracy, read fantasy. Iraq is getting so nasty for our great leaders these days that anything -- and anyone -- is going to be thrown to the dogs to save them. The BBC, the CIA, British intelligence -- any journalist that dares to point out the lies that led us to war -- get pelted with more lies. The moment we suggest that Iraq never was fertile soil for Western democracy, we get accused of being racists. Do we think the Arabs are incapable of producing democracy, we are asked? Do we think they are subhuman?

This kind of tosh comes from the same family of abuse as that which labels all and every criticism of Israel anti-Semitic. If we even remind the world that the cabal of neo-conservative, pro-Israeli proselytisers -- Messers Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Kristol, et al -- helped to propel President Bush and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into this war with grotesquely inaccurate prophecies of a new Middle East of democratic, pro-Israeli Arab states, we are told that we are racist even to mention their names. So let's just remember what the neo-cons were advocating back in the golden autumn of 2002 when Tony was squaring up with George to destroy the Hitler of Baghdad.

They were going to re-shape the map of the Middle East and bring democracy to the region. The dictators would fall or come onside -- thus the importance of persuading the world now that the preposterous Gaddafi is a "statesman" (thank you, Jack Straw) for giving up his own infantile nuclear ambitions -- and democracy would blossom from the Nile to the Euphrates. The Arabs wanted democracy. They would seize it. We would be loved, welcomed, praised, embraced for bringing this much sought-after commodity to the region. Of course, the neo-cons got it wrong.

The latest contribution to the defence of these men came from David Brooks in The New York Times. "In truth," he writes, "the people labelled 'neo-cons'... don't actually have much contact with one another... There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle's insidious power over administration policy, but I've been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office... All evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently."

It's good of the "senior" officials to let us know this -- let alone the unconsciously hilarious aside that Mr Bush reaches conclusions on his own. Brooks even tries to erase the word "neo-conservative" from the narrative of the Iraq war with the absurd line that "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish'". For now, the mere use of the phrase "neo-conservative" can be anti-Semitic: Brooks actually ends his article by announcing that "anti-Semitism is resurgent".

If that's the best critics can be threatened with, then Messers Wolfowitz, Perle and the rest are on the run. They didn't say democracy would work. They didn't influence President Bush. They didn't have the power. They hardly talked to him. Neo-conservatives? Who? But it was the neo-cons who were -- along with Israel itself -- among the most fervent advocates of an Iraqi invasion.

They had seized upon a devastating and all-too-true fact of life in most of the Middle East: that Arab states are largely squalid, corrupt, brutal dictatorships. No surprise there. We created most of these dictators. We kicked off with kings and princes and -- if they didn't exercise sufficient control over the masses -- then we supported a wretched bunch of generals and colonels, most of whom wore a variety of British military uniforms with eagles instead of crowns on their hat badges.

Thus King Farouk was supplanted, indirectly, by Colonel Nasser (and by General Sadat and Air Force General Mubarak), King Idris by Colonel Gaddafi -- the Foreign Office loved the young Gaddafi -- and King Faisal's post-First World War monarchy in Iraq was replaced, eventually, by the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein.

So we never wanted the Arabs to have democracy. When the Egyptians tried this in the 1930s and looked like booting out Farouk, the British clapped the opposition into prison. We Westerners drew the borders of most of the Arab nations, created their states and propped up their obedient leaders -- bombing them, of course, if they nationalised the Suez Canal, helped the IRA or invaded Kuwait. But the neo-cons and Mr Bush -- and then, inevitably, Mr Blair -- wanted them to have democracy.

Now there are a lot of Arabs who would like a bit of this precious substance called democracy. Indeed, when they emigrate to the West and settle down with US or British or French or any other Western passport, they show the same aptitude as ourselves for "democracy". The Iraqis of Dearborn, Michigan, are like any other Americans, and they vote -- largely Democrat -- and play and work like any other freedom-loving US citizens. So there's nothing genetic about the Arab world's inability to seize democracy.

The problem is not the people. The problem is the environment, the make-up of the patriarchal society and -- most important of all -- the artificial states which we created for them. They do not and cannot produce democracy. The dictators we paid and armed and stroked ruled by torture and by tribe. Faced with nations which they in many cases did not believe in, the Arab peoples had confidence only in their tribes. The kings were tribal -- the Hashemites come from the north-east of what we now call Saudi Arabia -- and the dictators were tribal. Saddam, as all the world is told repeatedly, was a Tikriti. And these ruthless men held power through a network of tribal and sectarian alliances.

When we bashed into their country, of course, we told the Iraqis we were going to give them democracy. They would have free elections. I remember the first time I realised how dishonest this promise was. It was when Paul Bremer, America's failed proconsul in Iraq, stopped talking about democracy and started referring to "representative government" -- which is not the same thing at all. That was when folk like Daniel Pipes, a right-wing cousin of those neo-cons we can no longer mention, started advocating not "democracy" for Iraq but a "democratically-minded autocrat".

Bremer says there can be no elections before the June "handover" of "sovereignty" -- in itself a lie because the "handover" will give the mythical "sovereignty" of Iraq to a group of Iraqis chosen by the Americans and the British. They will -- prayers are now called for -- later hold the democratic elections we falsely promised the Iraqi people and which the Iraqi Shias are now vociferously demanding. And even if these elections are ever held, most Iraqis will vote according to tribe and religion. That is how their political system has worked for almost a hundred years and that is how the American-selected "interim council" works today.

And so here we go again. No weapons of mass destruction. No links between Saddam and 11 September. No democracy. Blame the press. Blame the BBC. Blame the spooks. But don't blame Messers Bush and Blair. And don't blame the American neo-conservatives who helped to push the US into this disaster. They don't even exist. And if you say they did, you know what you're going to be called.

2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

Posted: February 18, 2004


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