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Bush’s bind

Dominic Hilton
22 May 2003

America’s dilemma

In his study After the Revolution? Authority in a Good Society the eminent American political scientist Robert A. Dahl says that there are three criterion governing authority in a newly emerging democratic society. The second of these is competence.

And so to Iraq, where, with “shock and awe” a distant memory, the “coalition of the willing” and the Iraqi public are wrestling with the prospect of managing the post-Saddam era.

This week saw more organised protests against the American “military presence” (or “occupation” – depending on your viewpoint). Naturally, the media (from which the Diary is temporarily seconding itself) loves these photogenic events. Twenty-four hour news cycles – with updates fired to your email or mobile phone – are not conducive with the laborious task of nation-building. Marching Iraqis equals American failure to develop a flourishing poly-inclusive democracy. I mean, hell, it’s been three weeks already!

Nevertheless, the Diary was drawn to an item in the International Herald Tribune on Monday headlined “Bush plans failed to anticipate Iraq chaos”. The article suggests that the US has got itself trapped in a three-way struggle between security, presentation and democracy.

In other words: before democracy, security; but without democracy, no liberation.

Potential Iraqi leaders are themselves asking the White House for security first, then democracy. But the longer the US focuses on security, the more it can be labelled an “occupying power”, and the more strained its relationship with the Arab world (not to mention Europe).

Bush is in a bind. As images of Basra University stripped to its foundations filled the TV screens and newspapers, the president was ordering 20,000 new troops to the country, plus 2,000 additional military police. As Thomas Friedman points out in his New York Times column, Saddam used 20,000 “police officers” to control Baghdad alone, and the US troops are “trained to kill people, not chase looters.”

Killing the looters is also out. As the IHT says: while this might be “the fastest way to restore order – the pictures on al-Jazeera would reinforce the worst images of America in the Arab world.”

According to “senior officials”, “No one in Washington anticipated the degree to which the chaos would undermine the administration’s central goal – to present the United States as a liberator, not an occupying power.”

How come? “You couldn’t know how it would end,” says defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in inimitable fashion. “When it did end, you take it as you found it and get at it, knowing the single most important thing is security.”

“It’s hard to imagine how this could have happened,” says a British government official in Time magazine. “But it appears that there was no planning whatsoever.”

An NYT editorial of 20 May judged that “Instead of serving as a model for enlightened American rule, Iraq is turning into a symbol of American maladministration.”

So, what went wrong? Another NYT article suggested that “In the space of a few weeks, awe at American power in war has been transformed into anger at American impotence in peace.” Some are blaming Jay Garner, already relinquished from his post and replaced by “the new sheriff in town” (Time) Paul Bremer. Garner is accused of taking it too easy and thereby fostering a “security vacuum”. Once more, there is talk of “in-fighting between the Pentagon and the State Department”.

Rumsfeld speaks of the new troops being “able to mesh with things that did happen and didn’t happen”, whatever that means.

Was the war too swift? Garner complained that he “didn’t really have enough time to plan.” Curse those Republican Guard cowards! Couldn’t they have fought just a bit harder?

Humanitarian aid groups speak of Garner being “always unavailable”, while Garner speaks of “an ad hoc operation, glued together over about four or five weeks’ time.”

In the words of C-3PO: “That isn’t very reassuring.”

The experience of earlier interventions is increasingly invoked. “The basic lesson of everything we have done is that you cannot have the basis of democracy if you don’t have the rule of law,” Simon Haselock of the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo said this week.

All this in a week when opinion polls in the US show strong support for seeking UN assistance in rebuilding Iraq – we’ll fight the war, but don’t leave us to organise the peace!

On a more optimistic note, Bremer took a look at Iraq’s “first post-war elected body” this week – the Mosul council. He called it a “great example of embryonic democracy.”

But are there already signs of his ruffling Pentagon feathers? Don Rumsfeld’s belief that “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” has been challenged by Bremer. A week in Iraq is enough to convince him that “It’s time we put these people back in jail.”

A new freedom

Sticking with Iraq, and some positive news, this week the country staged its first big sporting event since the end of the conflict – a soccer match between al-Zawra and al-Shurta, two of the countries biggest sides.

Tickets were sold at $0.75. Al-Shurta, the police academy side, won 2-1.

According to BBC reports, thousands of fans chanted “Where is Uday? Where is the man who persecuted you?” in reference to Saddam’s son, who used to imprison and torture the players if they lost a match.

Next stop for the Iraqi national team: the Olympic qualifiers.

Said a former Iraqi player watching the game on Friday, “The new sport is coming! The new freedom is coming!”

(Source: BBC News)

Medellin drugs

Meanwhile, in Colombia, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez has come out for the legalisation of drugs.

No, this is not some sort of Aldous Huxley-type experiment. The writer is convinced that legalisation is the only way to stop the drug trade violence that has plagued his country for so many years.

“It is not possible to imagine an end to the violence in Colombia without putting an end to drug-trafficking,” he told an audience of intellectuals in Medellin via video message, “and it is not possible to imagine an end to drug-trafficking without the legalisation of drugs, which become more profitable with every moment that they are more prohibited.”

Among the audience was the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe.

The author spoke of the millions of displaced peoples in his “beloved fatherland”. These people are “the embryo for another country of drifters – almost as populous as Bogota and perhaps much larger than Medellin – who roam aimlessly within their own territory in search of a place to live, with no more wealth than the clothes they have on their backs.”

Of course, no meeting of intellectuals is complete these days without its dig at the United States. Marquez, who recently signed a declaration in support of the Cuban government – even when its caudillo was busy arresting journalists and human rights activists – said the US attitude to Colombia was one of “imperial voracity”.

(Source: BBC Online)

Bikini ballots

Finally, Belgium held a general election on Sunday. It resulted in a resounding victory for the Liberal-Socialist alliance, from which Guy Verhofstadt will form a government.

That, however, was not its most interesting feature.

Of much greater significance was the manner in which a portion of the electorate chose to turn out. Over 1,600 voters arrived at polling stations clad in nothing but swimwear.

It sounds like a solution to the problem of low turnout in wet weather, but actually it was due to Virgin Express, who promised free airline tickets to the first 1,500 people to vote in their beachwear.

Democracy, of course, has long been reliant on stunts. But this one did wonders for youth turnout. The voter wearing the outfit judged most original would get free flights for a year. One guy turned up with a swarm of bees on his chest, another dressed as Neptune.

Virgin Express said their aim was “to prove there are a good many people in Belgium with a sense of humour.”

Actually, one look at the composition of the new Belgian parliament is proof enough. Who would you vote for: the Flemish Liberals and Democrats, the Flemish Christian Democrats, the Francophone Christian Democrats, the Flemish Socialists, the Francophone Socialists, the Flemish Nationalists, the Francophone Liberals, the Flemish and Francophone Greens, or one of the Flemish or Francophone parties that make up the 12.4% of ‘others’?

Don’t worry Belgium: we’ve always known you had a sense of humour.

(Sources: Financial Times, BBC)

Quotes of the week

“Consider your nineteen brothers who attacked America in Washington and New York with their planes as an example.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy head of al-Qaida, inciting Muslims to carry out terrorist attacks similar to those of 11 September 2001.

“It’s a small step but I hope it will be a great step towards peace.”
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who this week became the first member of a foreign government to cross the border between North and South Korea.

“Argentines have grown accustomed to hearing about many measures but seeing no action. This government will be different.”
Néstor Kirchner, Argentina’s victorious president-in-waiting.

“These people portray themselves as great action heroes and ... one would assume they would have the balls to do a simple thing like ... fly to Europe and set an example for the rest of the nation.”
British culture minister Kim Howells, attacking “tough-guy heroes of the screen like Tom Cruise” for refusing to fly to Europe for fear of terrorist attacks and being more scared than “grannies from New York”.

“Relations that are so tight cannot, and will not, ever be ruptured.”
The optimistic French finance minister Francis Mer, on Franco-US relations.

Figure of the week

52.15%
The turnout for the Slovakian referendum on EU entry. 92.46% voted in favour of membership. The EU requires a turnout of at least 50%.

Contact the Diary Editor: Dominic.Hilton@openDemocracy.net

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