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Missionary Democracy and American Empire

Democracy finds itself abused in the name of democracy.

Joe Lockard

Friday, January 24 2003, 07:07 AM

Democracy finds itself abused in the name of democracy. The New Crusades against Iraq fly the flag of democracy rampant, an historic practice of imperial ventures that have justified themselves as the international servants of progress and human rights. Saddam Hussein's atrocities against human rights and democratic expression now function as a rationale for what, stripped to basics, is no more than a vision of pacified natives and Euro-american corporate capital profiting from energy reserves.

November elections in the United States only caused official war rhetoric to rise. They served as a legitimization exercise for the Bush administration, a demonstration of internal democracy to underwrite the drive towards US international hegemony. It is a measure of American militarism that antiwar politics – the quintessence of democratic idealism -- have been marginalized as electoral suicide.

Too large a bloc of self-satisfied public opinion in the United States accepts this country as a model of democracy in action. Triumphal celebration in America over having more democracy than the rest of the globe combined, without realizing that this country has less democracy than do other countries with a broader notion of social democracy, heightens ignorance about other possibilities embedded within the word 'democracy'. The possibility of democracy as the active pursuit of peace, driven by public antagonism towards state violence, seems remote from current understanding of the term in the United States.

Relative domestic democracy in the US has long contrasted with its passive acquiescence, active collaboration, and extensive dependence upon anti-democratic forces throughout the globe. A limited model of participatory democracy, one driven by bloated media consumption, becomes the rationale for the American Empire. Its mission has become the establishment of co-opted governments in the midst of growing international anger over US unilateralism.

The Bush administration's preferred puppet-government model for democracy relies on international sponsorship that has become increasingly difficult to obtain after Afghanistan. While the Defense Department leaks plans for a 'democratic' occupation government in Iraq along the model of post-war Japan, the more applicable model is the Karsai government in Kabul that has demonstrated little practical interest in democratization beyond its rhetorical invocation. Economic, political and military protectorates have flourished under the globalist concept of democratization, one that has no relevance to the immediate terms of life for people in Columbia, Israel and Palestine, or Kosovo.

There is a blind hubris to American imperialism, one that does not recognize its own self-endangerment. As George Bush and his drum-beating mob rush about, failing to convince international opinion that war against Iraq is necessary but demanding an invasion nonetheless, they undermine US interests through that very insistence. Intelligence is needed to lead an empire. To appear as a sanctimonious global bully, readying an invasion of Iraq as a warning to North Korea, is distinctly unintelligent.

World-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein has argued that the United States has been a failing empire for the past generation, that its power has continued to diminish as the ideological drives of the Cold War have faded. While Wallerstein's reading seems more hopeful than accurate, the Bush administration appears determined to lend that thesis its fullest unwitting support. The United States can and has deeply influenced constellations of power in the contemporary Middle East, but cannot do so permanently. Those who live there, not a temporary empire of the senseless, will govern the Middle East. Recent demonstrations in US and European cities certainly will be insignificant in size compared to the streets of Arab nations, which will fill with millions of protestors when the first waves of foreign troops hit Iraqi soil. Previously friendly governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt may support an oil embargo for political self-preservation, and international resistance to hegemonic US-led militarism could initiate a new phase of historic anti-colonialism.

This isolation from global opinion is already well advanced. As evidenced by the antiwar platform of the Schroeder re-election campaign in Germany and massive internal Labor Party disaffection from the Blair government's embrace of US war planning, the United States stands at the brink of massive alienation even from its closest European allies. The still-developing alliance between the Chirac and Schroeder governments against US political leadership on the Iraq issue reflects their awareness of the depth of public opposition in France and Germany. Should a military assault against Iraq proceed, European public anger might give new legitimatization to once-unthinkable restructuring, limitation, and loosening of its relationship with NATO. This is possible political development little appreciated in the United States outside a few policy circles.

Consolidation of a European political identity through Euro-federalism has had the effect of promoting a pan-European standard of democracy that invalidates neo-colonial military aggression and establishes human rights doctrine as European Union policy. There is a new continental drift separating the EU and the United States, in part deriving from increasingly separate concepts of democratic practice, a distinction characterized by human rights having more legal force in Europe and more rhetorical force in the United States.

This rhetorical promotion of democracy and human rights by the Bush administration emerges from a marketing regime, one that manipulates public desire through advertising and provides fulfillment contingent on a consumer's economic utility. Simulacra of democracy have become the greatest commodity that the US economy offers to credulous faithful throughout the world market, those willing to accept chimeras of material prosperity as a substitute for participatory development of human rights on a local scale. Human rights – adequate nutrition, shelter, health care, education – have been rendered into commodities for those least able to afford them. Beginning with the Reagan-era promotion of privatization of social entitlements as a US foreign policy priority, enforced by international financial organizations, many countries have witnessed the transformation of such constituent elements of economic democracy into profit centers for national elites.

The uplifting mission of democracy, a staple of George Bush's speeches, has become indistinguishable from US economic interests. Watching two former oil executives, now president and vice-president, invoke grand principles of democracy while proposing installation of a new regime to control Iraq's oil reserves, is to enter a regime of radical separation between words and the goals of power, a regime by turns sinister and farcical. A shadow dance between noble words and sordid economic realities characterizes the ethos of the Bush administration, as much as does its alternation between public respect and private contempt for the US electorate. Such a relationship characterizes predatory corporate executives and their victims, not a responsive democracy that genuinely values human rights.

Preparatory diplomatic and inspection exercises now have an increasingly foreshortened aspect. Since attack forces are already in the midst of deployment, the real question has been to what extent such international diplomacy charades will help or hinder the Bush administration's war preparations. We are near the end of an interlude, a democratic parade, a consensus-building domestic rite held as the American Empire's war machine warms up. Angry refusals of consensus, protests of enduring opposition, and demands for accountability before international law for aggression are the necessary responses to these New Crusaders. The only present certainty is that as this preparatory interlude ends, these protests will grow louder.

Joe Lockard teaches American literature at Arizona State University and is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

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