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Who brings democracy?

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

A week after the terrorist bombings on Madrid openDemocracy hosted an intense, international discussion in London. Caspar Henderson wrote a report on it for us. At one point a commentator who is experienced in world affairs warned the meeting not to get too excited by the impact of the election outcome in Spain.

He pointed out that the new prime minister, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, had said that Spanish troops would stay in Iraq only if they came under United Nations command. This was not the same as pulling them out. Some kind of deal with the UN was bound to happen by June 2004 and then the Spanish troops would remain. In other words things had not really changed very much and the underlying realities of world power remained.

Well, this week, as soon as he was formally confirmed in office, Zapatero announced that his troops were coming home immediately. He didn’t want any damaging speculation about any agreement with the UN, he explained. The will of the Spanish people had been clearly expressed.

I was reminded of my own cynical assumption after the Turkish parliament voted in March 2003 to refuse to allow American forces to pass through their country to invade Iraq.

In strictly military terms, the Spanish deployment in Iraq was primarily symbolic. By contrast, the US war plan for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was based on a very real, two-fold invasion plan – from Turkey in the north and Kuwait in the south. Any Turkish refusal was bound to have very serious consequences, and anyway the US request for passage was accompanied by a generous aid and financial offer. At the time, I assumed that the decision would be finessed and reversed, and American troops would indeed be deployed across the Anatolian border.

They were not. There was a Turkish popular will and national pride. The country’s MPs were not to be drawn into America’s attack on its neighbour, however great the bribe. Indeed it seems that the very presumption of Washington got up the noses of the Turks. As Murat Belge has explained, by drawing upon religious traditions, the ruling party has laid claim to a genuine conservatism which benefits the development of democracy because it is rooted in self-belief. This was not going to be dictated to by Americans in pursuit of their unilateral strategy.

Even so, the Turks might not have stuck to their policy without Germany. But German voters had backed Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s decision not to send troops to Iraq.

Taken together, Spain, Turkey and Germany represent a huge change – the start of a new reality – in world affairs.

The thinking of President Bush and prime ministers Tony Blair and José María Aznar and all their advisors was trapped in traditional terms. They believed, you can be sure, that the “anti-war” protests were like the movement for nuclear disarmament during the cold war, which however popular were doomed to irrelevance, without any significant purchase on power.

Instead of assessing power and its imbalances through the eye of Washington, as they did and as is traditionally done by western politicians and commentators, look at it from the other way around – or from “inside out”, following Narcís Serra in the current edition of openDemocracy.

What we are witnessing can perhaps be called the globalisation of democracy. The definition of freedom and democracy, the governing, official ideas of our time, are no longer being dictated in the old centres of authority.

The more that the administration in Washington insists that it alone is delivering freedom and democracy, the less it defines the meaning of these terms.

This is clear also in India, as Todd Gitlin’s column this week reminds us. India was never a military ally of America although it is so in the fight against al-Qaida. But what in the past was perhaps a narrow elite opposition to Washington based in New Delhi is now a palpable judgment shared through all classes and parties. The impulse that led to 90% opposition to the Iraq war in Christian Spain has a similar, resounding chorus in Hindu and Muslim India, the world’s most populous democracy.

And now it can be found in Iraq.

At the beginning of last week Jo Wilding’s report of her courageous journey to Fallujah arrived in our office. There was concern that it might seem wrongly prejudiced against America, that it was not a report from a professional journalist. But she wasn’t pretending to be a reporter, she was telling it as it seemed to her as a humanitarian worker. I decided on posting it immediately to take full advantage of the web as a publishing medium.

Because in her journey from Baghdad to Falluja she witnessed what seems to be the turning point in the American occupation of Iraq, the point when, as I suggested two weeks ago, a second “liberation” begins. Whose side are the Americans on? Their own – following the interests of the oil corporations, and in pursuit of strategic control of the Middle East – or are they on the side of the Iraqi people, as the bringers of democracy have to be?

Take a small but important detail. Were the soldiers on the rooftops circling Falluja really “snipers” as Jo calls them, or were they US marines “doing their job”? The point is that to the Iraqi civilians and Jo’s colleagues they felt like snipers – they felt like military ready to shoot them at will. Or to put it another way they did not feel like liberators bringing democracy to the people.

It is not the same throughout Iraq. In the Kurdish north of Iraq the American presence brought essential support that has made self-determination seemingly possible. In Sunni Falluja things may be irreversible. In Shi’a Najaf and Baghdad the fate of the intervention is at stake. As much as possible we seek to bring Iraqi voices to openDemocracy to explain to the world how they see it and to argue out what should happen next.

It is very unlikely to be what the wise and experienced expect.


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