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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Democracy Died at the Gulf, Part I

Richard Falk, Center of International Studies, Princeton University

The readiness of those states with the longest and deepest traditions of democracy to rush headlong into the cruel, merciless and vengeful war in the Gulf simply startles the political imagination. States that celebrate elections, human rights and constitutionalism have shown themselves all too ready to deploy massive force to maintain resource hegemony and geopolitcal ambition. For all the claims about promoting democracy have been invoked as a rhetoric of legitimation, this has been a war about oil, to safeguard Israel's regional position, and above all, about the capacity of the United States to establish itself as the primary leader of post-Cold War global security arrangements, or, as George Bush expressed it, "the new world order."

The specific relevance of democracy at home to intervention overseas is impossible to establish with any precision. Complex political behavior is always overdetermined, and can be explained in different ways. There were definite differences, for example, between the U.S. intervention in Indochina and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and some of these might be linked to the presence or absence of a democratic political culture. The role of public engagement and domestic opposition was certainly more significant in the United States, whereas a reversal of official policy was easier to achieve quickly and fully in the Soviet Union. Yet from the perspective of the target societies, the similarities undoubtedly outweighed the differences. In both cases, the political life of a Third World country was manipulated in order to validate a military intervention directed against civilian society, an intervention that produced massive suffering. In both, the battlefield was confined to the Third World arena, and the unequal character of the war was its most basic quality, with a superpower pitted against a poor, underdeveloped, yet stubbornly nationalist, adversary. Both wars can be properly classified as imperial and as expressions of East-West geopolitical rivalry. Although military superiority and decisive technological advantage was on the intervening side in both instances, the U.S. style of intervention emphasized techno-war to a greater extent than did its Soviet counterpart, which is hardly surprising given the U.S. role at the forefront of modern industrial society. In fact, it is often claimed that this capacity for techno-war is itself a reflection of the degree of innovation that can be best sustained in a democratically constituted polity that nurtures freedom of inquiry, although the evidence that supports such a contention is almost entirely conjectural.

In any case, it would seem correct to identify the most ardent belligerents in the Gulf War--the United States and Britain--as having the best credentials among the coalition states when it comes to indicators of democratic governance, having sustained political moderation and the rule of law without rupture for a period of centuries. With considerable irony, it is Germany and Japan, whose democratic allegiance was artificially, and perhaps superficially, imposed after 1945, and then only as the outcome of military defeat, that seemed most troubled by the Gulf War, both among elites and the broader public. Furthermore, and for a variety of motives, it has been a series of non-democratic states, including the Soviet Union, Iran, Yemen, and Algeria, that struggled most valiantly in the pre-war phases of the crisis to find a path to restore peace. Along the same lines, the most severe state/society tensions that developed in the coalition partners, were to be found in the least democratic states, especially Syria, Egypt, Morocco. Those governing elites that most closely aligned their position with popular mass sentiments, for instance in Jordan and the PLO, sided in the war with Iraq, and were designated as candidates for postwar punishment by the victors. The ironic result is that those governing elites that ignored their own citizenry have been given far better treatment by the "democratic" victors than those who were expressive of popular will. Kuwait itself is a prime example of rewarding an exceeding anti- democratic state for its role on the winning side in the Gulf War.

Of course, the situation has been complex. Iraq, and especially Saddam Hussein as its supreme leader, has been easy to cast in the role of the evil "other." Saddam is guilty of bloody crimes against his own people and against nature, as well as of disastrous miscalculations of capabilities and intentions. His Iraq has continuously worshipped at the altar of the war gods, distorting Iraqi priorities to build an extravagant war machine, embarking on aggressive warmaking against Iran long before the conquest of Kuwait, and mindlessly allowing the encounter with Kuwait's mighty protectors to drift from crisis to war, despite a likely global backlash. Although the analogy is more distracting than illuminating, there is enough plausibility to the claim that Saddam is the new Hitler to provide a useful tool to mobilize the citizenry of the West for war, especially in the liberal democracies. It was these democracies that continue to hold themselves partially accountable for the failure to stop Hitler at an early stage by practicing a diplomacy of appeasement, a failure interpreted as a direct cause of the Second world War. Leaving aside the questionable accuracy of this reading of history, its legacy has been "the lesson of Munich," that is, the importance of guarding the global order against aggressive challenges. This learning has been further reinforced by the conviction that the Cold War was won by a democratic West because of its continuous willingness and readiness since 1945 to engage in warfare to contain the Soviet-led Communist challenge. Such readings of the past partly explain why democratic countries have so easily embraced a militarist conception of their own security, and have even apparently succumbed to the seductive illusion that warmaking is the keystone in the arch of a peaceful world after the Cold War.

There is a reinforcing factor that operates in a democratic political culture of the sort that has emerged in the West, especially in the United States, namely the need to simplify issues in dispute so as to mobilize the citizenry on behalf of the war effort. War comes to be presented to the public as a polar struggle of epic consequence in which compromise becomes unthinkable: slow to war, but even slower to peace has been the American experience of war. Walter Lippmann eloquently criticized this tendency to absolutize the enemy, with its insistence on total victory as the only acceptable outcome. This orientation to war generates destabilizing outcomes to warfare, making it difficult to reach sensible diplomatic bargains.

At least prior to World War II, the American disposition toward isolationism in relation to European warfare raised the threshold of persuasion, and has come to be associated with the sense that war was justifiable only if the enemy was both threatening fundamental values and could be destroyed absolutely. When it comes to war, the American orientation has always been that of the crusader, not the merchant looking for a decent bargain or the diplomat always ready for a dignified compromise that serves state interests. To a degree, reliance on TV aggravates this disposition by its reliance on images, sound bites, and stereotypes to convey meaning. Persuasion is a matter of stirring the symbolic unconscious, not offering a convincing rationale that is nuanced and self-reflective.

To some extent, the emergence of nuclear weaponry eroded this crusader mentality. The prospect of mutual annihilation both fed an apocalyptic appetite and generated a managerial approach premised on cost/benefit calculations. The Cold War produced a maximal mobilization for war, but also an imperative to avoid direct encounter. In such a setting, it is natural that the awakened crusader would seek out more remote battlefields. The American frustrations in Korea and Vietnam--wars in which military superiority could not be translated into victory--generated deep disappointment that went to the very roots of American cultural and political identity. One way to grasp the impulse to engage Saddam in war, and then pursue the war relentlessly, was the intuition that finally the conditions for "victory" were present: an encounter in which one-sided military tactics could not be neutralized by the terrain or by shifting the struggle to a political arena, and an encounter in an arena shaped by the geopolitical withdrawal of the Soviet Union. From this perspective, the provision of Iraq with modern armaments was the precondition that had to be satisfied before Iraq could be defeated. The outcome of Desert Storm more than justified the Pentagon's enthusiasm for "mid-intensity" warfare, which would allow technological differences and training to shape battlefield outcomes and yet avoid the catastrophic effects of "high-intensity" warfare, that is, wars in which weaponry of mass destruction are likely to devastate the homelands of both principal belligerents. As long as only one side is so vulnerable, threats and even uses of nuclear weapons would sustain its mid-intensity character, and keep the prospect of "victory" within the range of "acceptable" cost/benefit ratios that help shape debates among strategic planners about the rationality of war as an instrument of foreign policy.

Also, highly relevant here, is the proclaimed enthusiasm for overcoming the Vietnam syndrome. Bush's 91% approval rating among the American people after the Gulf War confirms what seemed only a suspicion in the setting of the Grenada invasion (1983), the Libyan bombing (1986), and the Panama intervention (1989), namely, that the Vietnam syndrome, so- called, emerged as a political inhibition to unsuccessful and prolonged war with several features: war that ended in stalemate or defeat, that persisted over a period of years, and took its toll of American lives in the thousands. The American people have demonstrated what the post-Vietnam political leadership in the United States consistently believed, that war can be successfully prosecuted under a variety of conditions in the Third World, and that if it ends in a quick and decisive victory, the public will overwhelmingly support the experience and celebrate the outcome. The Gulf War, especially in its immediate aftermath, inscribes this bellicose message in the political consciousness of citizenry and leadership alike--military intervention in the Third World can achieve devastating results on the battlefield at a miraculously low cost and is astoundingly popular at home.

Such a disposition to make war against Saddam's Iraq was further encouraged by a variety of situational factors. Most Arab governments in the region, each acting in response to diverse interests but converging on the desirability of restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty and containing Iraq, were ultimately favorable to war. These supporters of the war policy regarded the political risks of participating in the American led military campaign as real, but as less dangerous than an unchecked Saddam, and as offering side-benefits (e.g. debt relief for Egypt; a free hand in Lebanon for Syria). This Arab participation at the governmental level helped obscure the South/North and inter-religious character of the conflict.

Further, Israel, posited by the West as an island of Western values, including adherence to the principles of liberal democracy, was intensely supportive of war as a response to the Gulf Crisis, regarding any outcome of the crisis that did not end with the destruction of Iraq's war machine and Saddam's political power as unacceptable. This Israeli factor became an important influence on public opinion in the United States, especially in relation to Bush's search for support in a closely divided Congress. There were no comparable anti-war forces active in the political arenas of the United States to build the case for diplomacy and sanctions as a better policy alternative. This one-sidedness in the political debate that preceded the Gulf War tells us something about the militarist configuration of social forces in democracies at present, but it also discloses some worrisome features of political democracies in general and of the United States in particular.

This susceptibility to militarist diplomacy was further accented by the post-Cold War availability of the United Nations for such a venture. The first series of Security Council resolutions after August 2nd, condemning Iraq and establishing extensive sanctions to achieve the goal of unconditional Iraqi withdrawal seemed quite consistent with the Charter commitment to protect the victims of aggression while attempting to find a peaceful resolution of international disputes if at all possible. Even the early post-August deployment of U.S. military forces in the region seemed consistent with an effort to contain Iraq with defensive force during a period of increasing pressure to coerce withdrawal through sanctions and diplomacy. In retrospect, there were serious flaws in this use of the United Nations even at this first stage of response: Washington was exerting an unhealthy degree of control over the language and rituals of the Security Council; the failure to challenge the insistence by George Bush that the friends of Kuwait had the legal authority to act militarily on their own if the UN withheld its endorsement; the misguided definition of sanctions as extending to include food and medicine; the over-representation of Europe and under- representation of the Third World in the Security Council; the evident willingness of the Soviet Union and China to bargain away an independent international voice in light of their domestic troubles; the early indications that U.S. resolve to wage war would not be significantly challenged within the Security Council. In this context, the United Nations itself appears seriously flawed from a democratic standpoint, relying on representation by way of statism and thereby excluding important social forces in the world and lending itself easily to the geopolitical maneuverings in the North orchestrated by a single member state. From the outset of the crisis, it was evident that only the United States, aside possibly from Israel, had the resolve and capabilities to check Iraq's ambitions, and in this sense the vulnerable countries and the world as a whole were abjectly dependent on Washington's priorities and outlook.

It is an irony, that it was the presence and absence of democratic forms and substance working in tandem that helped generate the Gulf War. Democratic dispositions in the United States encouraged the citizenry to heed a presidential summons to war, whereas democratic deficiencies in the United Nations removed obstacles from the path taken by the United States and its allies to turn the Organization, by stages, into an instrument legitimizing a war that could and should have been avoided, or at the very least, indefinitely postponed. The sanctions alternative was abandoned despite considerable evidence of its remarkable effectiveness in cutting Iraq's GNP by more than half in its first six months of operation, with expectations of even greater effectiveness in the months ahead.

Abandoning reliance on sanctions in January also meant diminishing the prospect for a democratizing process in Iraq. Both journalists and opposition leaders in exile noted a rising tide of anti-Saddam sentiment in Iraq before the outbreak of war. Sanctions stood a good chance of exerting so much pressure on the Iraqi regime as to facilitate a successful challenge by more moderate political tendencies within Iraq's Baath Party. Such a possibility remained no more than informed conjecture, but the onset of war tightened Iraqi society, gave Saddam a measure of populist support throughout the region and crushed the hopes that had begun to exist that an indigenous democratic process might emerge in Iraq. Indeed, the aftermath of the Gulf War has contributed to the tragic situation of the Iraqi people, first threatening a compound of Lebanonization by way of persistent civil strife combined with a cruel strangulation of civil society through a vindictive UN insistence that Iraq pay the cost of rebuilding Kuwait while its own country lies in ruins. And what is more, coalition forces, especially the United States, even for a while let it be known that it once more regards Saddam Hussein as the lesser, and known, evil, as compared to the more democratically constituted alternatives associated with either Shi'a resistance in the South, opposed because it could strengthen Iran's regional influence, or Kurdish resistance in the North, feared because it could destabilize Turkey and Syria where large and restive Kurdish minorities exist. As the postwar reality in the region shifts, so does the American view of Saddam's rule, cynically deciding it is better to retain him at times, and, if possible, to dump him at other times. The reemergence of the old geopolitical games of Western powers in the region should not be surprising, but their blatant contradiction of the idealistic claims of the champions of the Gulf War might at least have produced their postponement for a "decent interval."

During the past decade, democratizing has been given an increasingly capitalist coloring. In the 1980s, the Reagan Doctrine identified adherence to a market economy as the crucial defining feature of a democratic polity. The wider dynamics of the market included a green light for arms sales, especially as an aspect of the Cold War game of projecting influence overseas and as a way to diminish negative trade balances. The militarization of Iraq was facilitated by both of these factors, the Soviets supplying arms to gain influence and earn some hard currency, the West to gain a piece of the market and offset fears about expanding Islamic fundamentalism. The revealed character of Saddam's criminality--launching an aggressive war against Iran, introducing poison gas onto the battlefield, using poison gas and chemical weapons against Kurdish villages in Iraq--did nothing at all to impair Iraq's status as a privileged customer for Western technology and long-term credits. Bush who claimed to be appalled by Saddam in August 1990 was the same Bush that only weeks earlier had intervened with the U.S. Congress to discourage investigation of flagrant human rights abuses in Iraq. Bush reminded law-makers prior to August 2nd that Saddam was a fact-of-life in the region, better to befriend than to alienate. To the extent, then, that Iraq became the monster in its region, it did so as a direct result of the way the existing international capitalist and political order were supposed to work; there was no anomaly here. Iraq's buildup of influence in the region was a calculated effect of extra-regional ambitions and strategic assessments.

Democratic orientations towards governance have been consistently subordinated to racist dispositions embodied within political cultures. There has long been a tension between the humanistic aspirations associated with democracy and the racist practices of specific democracies, but, internally at least, also some slow but definite progress in many countries, including the U.S. towards mitigating racial discrimination. Even such internal progress is fragile, as the recent backlash against refugees and Third World immigration in Europe has shown. Externally, however, Western democracies are especially quick to associate the evil other with non-white, non-Christian peoples, and drawing on a biblical heritage, they easily invoke their own self- righteousness to justify an exterminist ethos. God, as Jehovah, portrayed in the Old Testament, as crushing remorselessly the many enemies of the Israelites, His "chosen people." This cruel side of democratic experience has expressed itself most crudely in both the United States and Britain in the form of apparent popular support for "nuking" Baghdad. More generally, there seems little or no sympathy for the Iraqi civilian population severely victimized by the indirect but massive effects of the most sustained bombing campaign in human history. Despite efforts of respected observers to warn of the terrible suffering inflicted by the war on the Iraqi civilian population and the menace of disease and distress in the months ahead, the U.S. and its European allies have insisted that comprehensive sanctions be retained. [For persuasive accounts of civilian damage see Anne Grace, "Starvation of a Nation: The Myth and Reality of Sanctions," Quaker Middle East Representatives, paper, May 1991: "Gulf Peace Team Special Mission to Iraq," Health Assessment Team (10-24 April 1991), April 30, 1991 (Amman, Jordan).]

This indifference to the sufferings of innocent others has many sources, and cannot be associated with any particular political or cultural form. Yet the moral pretensions of democratic societies in the West have been especially exposed. The modernist democratic sensibility has been shaped by the commercialization of violence, by an addiction to entertainment built around grotesque encounters between various idioms of violence and by a societal sensibility shaped by rising crime, official corruption, and pervasive fears at the neighborhood level. A culture immersed in violence can easily shift gears into displays of flagwaving support for a merciless war against a society that cannot hit back, especially if a spectacular battlefield victory is achieved and glorified by the media, encouraging the outcome to be celebrated by parades and the like. An unacknowledged part of the enthusiasm is undoubtedly racist in character, a recovery of confidence that tools of white supremacy continue to work well, and offer good grounds for believing that the privileged order of international relations can be maintained for the indefinite future; according to the UNDP 1991 Human Development Report, 23% of the world's population in the North controls 85% of the world's income, with the same approximate ratio of use for the scarce resources of the world. [Human Development Report 1991 (UN Development Program), New York, Oxford, 1991, p. 23.] Such "a reading" also bears on the domestic "text," as well, suggesting the fate that awaits those non-white hordes if they dare challenge with militancy the domestic status quo that has been deliberately shifting income from poor to rich for more than a decade (by way of frozen wages, regressive tax reforms, reduced social services) and offers little opportunity to the mass of minority poor, especially among the urban young.

Even here there are twists and turns of historical memory. Those flags waved so furiously to support the U.S. troops in the Gulf expressed a belated acknowledgment that the citizenry had deserted their own soldiers during the last stages of the Vietnam War. In a sense, the mass of American society had refused to participate in the failure of the Vietnam War, and this distancing embittered those who had been sent to fight and die, more than two million of whom returned from Indochina often to torment family and neighbors, as much by their depression and withdrawal as by their anger. The poison of embitterment has now been apparently exchanged for the poison of jingoism. More significantly, in both Vietnam and the Gulf, and countless other places as well, American political identity is defined and redefined at the expense of distant peoples of a different race and religion, on Third World killing fields that divert energies from the anguish of street corners and train stations in American cities where the homeless gather.

One chilling dimension of the democratic embrace of the Gulf War was disclosed during the televised debates in Congress a few days before the January 15th deadline between the Bush forces that narrowly obtained their mandate to wage unrestricted warfare and the liberal critics who favored sanctions mainly, it seemed, because they did not want Americans coming home in body bags. These critics were reluctant opponents of the President, often suggesting that if there were some kind of assurance that the war could be waged without a ground fight, that is, without American casualties, they would gladly support it. The ideal war, it was argued, would be conducted by high-tech weaponry that could inflict damage and pain at will, and face no threat in return. What was called "war" in these debates, and what actually unfolded after January 15 and explains the rapid conversion of critics to enthusiasts, is more accurately portrayed as "massacre." It is the latest version of the unequal war characteristic of the settler conquests of indigenous peoples in the "age of discovery," and of colonial warfare ever since. The mixture of democracy, capitalism, and technology creates a tremendous political momentum. There is no resistance at home, except at the margins. The metaphors of victory are overpowering. The modern Western assumption that God is on the side of the better technology is deeply ingrained.

Continue to "Democracy Died in the Gulf, Part II"

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