Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iraq War Kills U.S. Democracy


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Originally published as the “First Word” editorial in Zenger’s Newsmagazine, January 2007

One of the basic rules of representative democracy is that elections are supposed to matter. When the voters indicate, through their choice of candidates and/or parties, that they want their government to change its course on a major policy question, they’re supposed to get what they voted for. On November 7, 2006 a clear majority of the American people voted to give the Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress in a repudiation of the policies of President Bush in general and the war in Iraq in particular. What these voters apparently wanted was some kind of date-certain by which our open-ended commitment in Iraq would finally end and our servicemembers and support personnel would get to come home instead of putting their lives at risk trying to keep members of Iraq’s various religious and ethnic groups from killing each other.

Instead, President Bush has rejected the demand of the electorate and repudiated the “out” the commission headed by James Baker (who ran his legal operation during the Florida recount in 2000 and therefore probably has more than any other person to do with Bush’s being President in the first place) had given him for a face-saving acknowledgment of the reality of Iraq. Sounding even more like a spoiled, petulant child than usual, Bush sneered at the will of the people as he said that he would consider any alternative on Iraq that resulted in “victory” — a will-o’-the-wisp not only because nobody can define in clear terms just what would constitute “victory” for the U.S. in Iraq but because the Iraqis are currently killing each other over racial, religious, ethnic and tribal issues that go back thousands of years and no outside power is going to stop them from doing it.

What Bush is now pressing on an American people who are tired of wasting their youths’ lives and their nation’s money on a futile crusade (a loaded word in discourse about the Middle East, but in this case it fits) to remake Iraq in the image of a Western capitalist republic is not less, but more. More troops: a so-called “surge” in U.S. boots on Iraqi ground despite the fact that even the military commanders who’d be in charge of deciding what those troops would do haven’t the foggiest notion of how to use them. More money. More corrupt deals benefiting Halliburton and other politically well-connected corporations. More combat missions in a war that’s already lasted longer than the U.S. fought in World War II. More young Americans coming home in bags, flown back in the dead of night lest someone actually shoot some pictures or videos that might remind Americans that their fellow countrymen, their best and their brightest, are still dying in this immoral, pointless war.

America is at a crossroads many other nations — superpowers with worldwide military ambitions — have faced in the past: whether to preserve their democratic institutions or become empires. The simple truth is democracy and empire are not compatible. Maintaining an empire requires keeping a large standing army and spending an enormous amount of the country’s gross domestic product on war and the preparations for war. It means extracting enormous sacrifices from the people to finance the war machine, either taxing them to fund it on a pay-as-you-go basis or (the course Bush has chosen) borrowing it from the rest of the world and leaving future citizens to pay the tab. It also means enormous sacrifices in terms of human life, which can be extracted in only three ways: direct compulsion via a draft, hiring foreign mercenaries or (as the U.S. is doing now) creating a permanent underclass and so totally smashing any other opportunities for upward mobility that working-class people see the military as their only avenue for economic advancement.

In practice, empires become rigidly hierarchical societies, with a tiny entrenched aristocracy living off the labor power of enormous numbers of impoverished people both at home and in the foreign territories the empire influences or controls. They also become politically repressive, partly because imperial policies provoke resistance both at home and abroad and partly because people don’t willingly make the sacrifices needed to maintain an empire for very long. In an empire, human rights quickly become a thing of the past. Political “freedom” and meaningful elections fade into history as the imperial elite dictates what sacrifices the rest of us will be forced to make to maintain them in the style to which they have become accustomed. Eventually, empires collapse not from internal dissent but because the elites running them overreach themselves and no longer have the money, the environmental resources, and/or the cannon fodder needed to keep their power.

President Bush’s attitude towards Iraq — that, regardless of the will of the American people as expressed at the ballot box last November, he’s going to keep the war going until it achieves “victory” as he and only he defines it — shows how far the U.S. has gone down the primrose path of empire and turned its back on its democratic heritage. The U.S. got into the empire business in the first place in the 1890’s,when it first projected military power beyond its own borders to “liberate” the Philippines and Cuba from Spain … and then to fight genocidal wars against Filipinos and Cubans who wanted to determine their own destiny instead of having the U.S. rule them either directly or through puppets. Through the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. elites went back and forth between imperialism and isolationism as the best way to maintain their power. But the attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s involvement in World War II against not only Japan but Germany as well, and the postwar emergence of the Soviet Union as the world’s second superpower ended America’s isolationist tendency once and for all and placed the U.S. firmly on the course of empire.

Not that the American people have always been happy about the imperial ambitions of the elites that rule them. In 1920 they voted the Democrats out of office to put an end to Woodrow Wilson’s far-reaching vision of a pax Americana and “return to normalcy.” In the 1960’s they got a hard look at the cost of maintaining U.S. control of South Viet Nam and turned against the Viet Nam war en masse. Though there have been times when America’s ruling elites have convinced its people that only imperialism stands between them and utter subjugation — like the time of anti-Communist hysteria in the early 1950’s or the years between 2001 and 2006, when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 scared them into accepting Bush’s Manichean rhetoric and seeing imperialism as the only way the country could be kept safe from the crazy ambitions of radical Islamists — for the most part the U.S. people have had little stomach for long-term sacrifices to maintain an empire abroad and the hierarchical society an empire requires at home. The 2006 election was, more than anything else, a vote by the American people to steer their country away from the open-ended military commitments and suppression of dissent at home needed for an imperial policy in general and the subjugation of Iraq in particular, and to reassert their faith in democracy and human liberty.

But at this point it doesn’t appear that the American people will be allowed to make that choice. Bush has already served notice that he will continue this insane war until either it achieves his notion of “victory” or his presidency ends. The Democrats who benefited from America’s disillusionment with empire in general and empire-building in Iraq in particular are already turning their backs on the people who voted them into power. They’re insisting that they’re not going to invoke the one power Congress actually has to stop a presidential war — cutting off the funding for it — and leaning towards acceptance of Bush’s call for more troops either out of endorsement of the imperial goal or out of fear that once the war ends they’ll be accused of “losing Iraq” the way previous generations of Democrats were accused of having “lost China” and “lost Viet Nam.” The grim irony of the war in Iraq is that it was first sold to the American people on a promise that we would “bring democracy” to Iraq; instead, the war against Iraq, like Bush’s Orwellian ideological construct of a “war on terror,” is tearing apart what little democracy was left in the United States.