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Promoting democracy in Middle East

BY NOAM CHOMSKY / 4 March 2005

So-called ‘democracy promotion’ has become the leading theme of declared US policy in the Middle East. The project has a background. There is a 'strong line of continuity' in the post-Cold War period, writes Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Endowment Program on Law and Democracy, in his new book Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion.

'Where democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy,' Carothers concludes. 'Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.'

 

Carothers served the Reagan State Department on 'democracy enhancement' projects in Latin America during the 1980s and wrote a history of them, drawing essentially the same conclusions. Similar actions and pretensions hold for earlier periods as well, and are characteristic of other dominant powers.

 

The strong line of continuity, and the power interests that sustain it, affect recent events in the Middle East, pointing up the real substance of the posture of 'promoting democracy.'

 

The continuity is illustrated by the nomination of John Negroponte as the first director of national intelligence. The arc of Negroponte’s career ranges from Honduras, where as Reagan’s ambassador he oversaw the Contra terrorist forces’ war against Nicaragua, to Iraq, where as Bush’s ambassador he briefly presided over another exercise in alleged democracy development — experience that can inform his new duties to help combat terror and promote liberty. Orwell would not have known whether to laugh or to weep.

 

In Iraq, the January elections were successful and praiseworthy. However, the main success is being reported only marginally: The United States was compelled to allow them to take place. That is a real triumph, not of the bomb-throwers, but of nonviolent resistance by the people, secular as well as Islamist, for whom Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani is a symbol.

 

Despite US-UK foot-dragging, Sistani demanded speedy elections, reflecting popular determination to achieve freedom and independence, and some form of democratic rights.

 

The nonviolent resistance continued until the United States (and the United Kingdom, trailing obediently behind) had no recourse but to allow the elections. The doctrinal machinery then went into high gear to present the elections as a US initiative. In line with the great-power continuity and its roots, we can anticipate that Washington will not readily tolerate political outcomes that it opposes, particularly in such a crucial region of the world.

 

Iraqis voted with the hope of ending the occupation. In January, a pre-election poll in Iraq, reported by Brookings Institution analysts on The New York Times op-ed page, found that 69 per cent of Shias, and 82 per cent of Sunnis, favoured 'near-term US withdrawal.'

 

But Blair, Rice and others have been explicit in rejecting any timetable for withdrawal — that is, putting it off into the indefinite future — until the occupying armies complete their 'mission,' namely — to bring democracy by forcing the elected government to conform to US demands.

 

Hastening a US-UK withdrawal depends not only on Iraqis but also on the willingness of the American and British electorates to compel their governments to accept Iraqi sovereignty.

 

As events unfold in Iraq, the United States continues to maintain a militant posture toward Iran. The recent leaks about US special forces on the ground in Iran, whether true or false, inflame the situation.

 

A genuine threat is that in recent years the US has dispatched more than 100 advanced jet bombers to Israel, with loud announcements that they are capable of bombing Iran — updated versions of the planes that Israel used to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

 

It’s a matter of conjecture, but the sabre rattling may serve two purposes: to provoke the Iranian leadership to become more repressive, thus encouraging popular resistance; and to intimidate US rivals in Europe and Asia from pursuing diplomatic and economic initiatives toward Iran. The hard line has already scared off some European investments in Iran, for fear of US retaliation, reports Matthew Karnitschnig in The Wall Street Journal.

 

Another development being hailed as a triumph of democracy promotion is the Sharon-Abbas ceasefire. The news of the agreement is welcome: better no killing than killing.

 

Take a close look at the ceasefire terms, however. The only substantive element is that Palestinian resistance, even against the occupying army, must cease.

 

Nothing could delight US-Israeli hawks more than complete peace, which would enable them to pursue, unhindered, the policies of takeover of the valuable land and resources of the West Bank, and huge infrastructure projects to break up the remaining Palestinian territories into unviable cantons.

 

US-backed Israeli depredations in the occupied territories have been the core issue of the conflict for years, but the ceasefire agreement contains not a word about them. The Abbas government accepted the agreement — perhaps, one might argue, because it’s the best they can do as long as Israel and the United States reject a political settlement. It might be added that the US intransigence can continue only as long as the American population allows.

 

I’d like to be optimistic about the agreement, and leap at any straw in the wind, but so far I see nothing real.

 

For Washington a consistent element is that democracy and the rule of law are acceptable if and only if they serve official strategic and economic objectives. But American public attitudes on Iraq and Israel-Palestine run counter to government policy, according to polls. Therefore the question presents itself whether a genuine democracy promotion might best begin within the United States.

 

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.

 

©2005 by Noam Chomsky

 
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