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Bad omens

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

The omens are bad for democracy. An era of awe is unlikely to be a good one for emancipation and free thinking.

First, in Iraq. Its liberation has been accompanied by the ransacking of its pre-Saddam history, the smashing of its museum, the torching of its manuscript library, the theft of its past. If the American (or perhaps just Rumsfeld) view is that this is of consequence for only a few old pots, it could hardly be more wrong.

The starting-point for a working democracy is a sufficient shared sense of national interest for one ruling party to be voted out and replaced by another – peacefully. This necessitates a framework of legal rules which are respected. The way in which they are respected is decisive. This is a matter of political culture. It has to be learnt and any such shared learning needs to draw on a shared history.

Decapitate this and you are likely to kiss goodbye to the possibility of a working democracy.

Chopping off the head of the Ba’athist state will allow Iraq to breathe. To be indifferent to the destruction of artefacts of the country’s long history is to damage it in a way that will make it far harder to recover and prosper.

Second, in America. The crushing overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime may be unprecedented in terms of the high technology deployed – but it was not primarily due to this. The real weakness of the regime was its top-down, terror structure. The result was a welcome collapse similar to the way the Pol Pot regime folded up in Cambodia within days of Vietnamese tanks rolling over the border in December 1978.

There too, people were liberated from their own regime by foreign invaders whom they did not trust. This was good for Cambodians. It was a deserved victory for Vietnam. But it cost the Vietnamese dearly and helped further to militarise their regime.

Many have warned about internal consequences of American strategy – for how this administration defines what democracy means, how it sees it coming about, how it respects and works with others. These issues could not be more urgent. Shock and awe was not only deployed in Iraq and aimed at other ‘rogue’ states. It can also become a way of governing at home.


In this Edition of openDemocracy John Berger takes a long view and sees the fear deliberately generated by the victorious power as one which infects itself and its capacity to understand. If he is right, then the ‘largeness of spirit and moral imagination’ which David Hayes and Caspar Henderson say it is essential for America to demonstrate ‘at this moment in history’, is unlikely to be displayed – which is all the more reason to think about their argument.

David and Caspar are part of the team at openDemocracy which has debated and argued its way through the preparations for war, its waging and now its results. We have held and exchanged different views throughout this intensely difficult moment. What we share, and want our readers to share, is a sense of responsibility towards the realities as they develop over time, on the ground in the Gulf, the Middle East, Europe and the US.

On all sides we hear the racket of clichés and posturing and the softer, gut-wrenching noise of repositioning. At openDemocracy we will do our best to encourage a better, and we hope truer form of debate and argument, and carry it into a new kind of ‘post-war’ period.


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