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July 19, 2005

Democracy in Iraq, through the Looking Glass
Posted by Michael Signer

On the Sy Hersh piece in The New Yorker about the Bush Administration's manipulation of Iraq's emerging quasi-democracy, I was trying to think of a metaphor or allegory for the neocons' continuing obliviousness to the failure of their theories to create the right reality, and was failing.  Maybe it's the heat.  The index in Richmond is 110 right now, and it's almost impossible to walk outside -- all the more reason to empathize with our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, to recap.  Hersh's piece is here.  Eric Alterman's angry synopsis and expansion is here.  Laura Rozen's coup de grace is here

Hersh's piece exposes that while the Administration was, like Socrates in Aristophanes' The Clouds, producing gaseous clouds of rhetoric about Democracy, it was simultaneously engaging in old-style ward politics that would make Richard Daley blush.

The Administration, Hersh reveals, was hosting a small civil war between weirdly hypocritical neocons who were willing to produce a counterfeit of democracy at any cost, and those who thought America should allow transparent elections to go forward, and let the chips fall where they may. 

On the one hand was a clutch of insiders who wanted to rig the elections against pro-Iranian Shiites -- with the goal of reducing Iraq's formal connections to this member of the Axis of Evil. 

On the other hand was a number of pro-democracy NGO's, as well as the more sensible duo of Richard Armitage and Colin Powell -- who argued that democratization would suffer both substantively and image-wise if it was so overtly manipulated, if transparency, well, disappeared. 

Here's Hersh's summary of the debate:

The main advocate for channelling aid to preferred parties was Thomas Warrick, a senior adviser on Iraq for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who was backed, in this debate, by his superiors and by the National Security Council. Warrick’s plan involved using forty million dollars that had been appropriated for the election to covertly provide cell phones, vehicles, radios, security, administrative help, and cash to the parties the Administration favored. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor resisted this plan, and turned to three American non-governmental organizations that have for decades helped to organize and monitor elections around the world: the National Democratic Institute (N.D.I.), the International Republican Institute (I.R.I.), and the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.).

“It was a huge debate,” a participant in the discussions told me. “Warrick said he had gotten the Administration principals”—senior officials of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council—“to agree.” The N.G.O.s “were fighting a rearguard action to get this election straight,” and emphasized at meetings that “the idea of picking favorites never works,” he said.

“There was a worry that a lot of money was being put aside in walking-around money for Allawi,” the participant in the discussions told me. “The N.G.O.s said, ‘We don’t do this—and, in any case, it’s crazy, because if anyone gets word of this manipulation it’ll ruin what could be a good thing. It’s the wrong way to do it.’ The N.G.O.s tried to drive a stake into the heart of it.”

Wouldn't you know, but the neocons won in the short-term, producing an election riddled with fraud, producing the marionette of Ayad Allawi.  The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq later estimated that 10% of ballots had been stuffed. 

And then when the actual government was formed in Iraq, the enterprise spun a little more out of control.  Ibrahim al-Jafaari became Prime Minister and, in early July, "stunned Washington" (in Hersh's words) by announcing a multi-billion dollar aid package with Iran.  The whole point was to separate the Iraqi government from Iran -- not connect them.

There are, thankfully, signs of progress for a stabilizing Iraq, if Sunnis have more of a hand in the government (as it looks like they might) and if the constitution-drafting proceeds apace -- but this is despite Washington, not because of it.

So where does this all get us?  A ripe example of the ideology of this Administration.  Marx defined "ideology" as "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es," which means, "They do not know it, but they are doing it."  Here's how the political theorist Slavoj Zizek summarizes it:

The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naïveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it.

This is ideology, in the classic sense:  the fusion of home-schooling, faith-based reasoning, and salvationist, millenarian politics (which culminates in the emergence of the "rapture index" as something politically-engaged rightists actually care about) leads neocons to become so absorbed in the rhetoric of democratization that they think the worst kind of realpolitik is justified to produce the image (rather than reality) of Democracy. 

Where there's smoke, there's no fire -- or something like that:

I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too -- but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire.

This is from Alice in Wonderland, but it kind of seems appropriate today.

Through the looking-glass, indeed.


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» Just How Do We Define Democracy? from CommonSenseDesk
from Democracy ArsenalOn the Sy Hersh piece in The New Yorker about the Bush Administration's manipulation of Iraq's emerging quasi-democracy, I was trying to think of a metaphor or allegory for the neocons' continuing obliviousness to the failure of t... [Read More]

» Just How Do We Define Democracy? from CommonSenseDesk
from Democracy ArsenalOn the Sy Hersh piece in The New Yorker about the Bush Administration's manipulation of Iraq's emerging quasi-democracy, I was trying to think of a metaphor or allegory for the neocons' continuing obliviousness to the failure of t... [Read More]


Good post, but if Hersh is right and the Bush administration did manipulate the election, and if that did lead to a better-than-expected showing for Allawi's Iraqi List, then in retrospect that might have been a good thing, no? Would Sistani's UIA have been so ready and willing to compromise -- they're still not very flexible, but more flexible than many thought they would be -- if they had won 60 percent or more of seats in the National Assembly, as was, apparently, expected?

This is still very sordid no matter what, but it's not impossible that manipulating the election "worked" in some small degree, or was better than the alternative. Or that manipulating elections is always a bad idea from a practical standpoint.

Among the many other things this article underscores, it should remind us of the Bush administration's apparent preference for elections as the primary symbol and instrument of what it describes as "democracy." We're constantly hearing about the seemingly alchemic consequences of "elections" in formerly authoritarian and failed states, as if elections must somehow precede the creation of an active public sphere capable of supporting them. I'm still waiting for an explanation from the Bushies — and the "democratic globalists" on whose rhetoric they've drawn — as to why this must be so. I suppose the cynical (and maybe proper) response is that they can only imagine democracy as a collage of images, to be managed and milked for maximum sentimentality and minimal effect.

Hersh's article is about the elections in Iraq, but it is also about whether the Bush administration is evading Congressional oversight and reporting requirements in such foreign policy matters. In that regard, I am perplexed why it has not generated more public frenzy (the pre-publication NYT reaction and the WaPo follow up notwithstanding). Thoughts?

Dunno about this. It's a disturbing story, but Sy Hersh is known to be fairly partisan.... I would very much prefer to have multiple sources on this.

Is there other coverage of the issue?

"Sy Hersh is known to be fairly partisan"

Known to report or repeat actual facts which Republicans don't like.

Ah yes, the belief that one is entitled to one's own facts concerning the world, not just one's own opinions. The Republican Party is like a cult anymore. It's sad.

Speaking of partisans... it's interesting how you define something unpleasant in such a way that only people you don't like can commit it.

I think there's a word for that... 'bigot'.

Re-reading my comment, it is clear that I was a little hasty in my phrasing.

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