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Iraq: nice if this happened in OZ « Previous | |Next »
July 31, 2003

Iraq does not figure on the Australian radar screen these days. When it does the level of debate in Australia is low as it remains caught up in the partisan polemics in which warriors yell at one another across the right/left divide. The lefty polemics do little more than demonize their opponents. This does not engage with individual positions or particular arguments. Likewise the righties. The characteristics of this culture are described by Joe Cambri in terms of "pettiness, snobbishness, selfishness, backstabbing and even blacklisting. Perhaps worst of all, absolutely no sense of shame."

It is time to move on and do something different. How can this be done? The debate considered below is quite different from partisan polemics based on prejudice. I introduce it to show another way of debating.

On the one side of the debate we have Juan Cole. His position is:

"....I want the US to succeed in Iraq, just as I think all responsible Americans do. The war was not justifiable on grounds of an immediate threat to US security. But it still may have been a worthwhile enterprise if it really can break the logjam in the region created by authoritarianism, patrimonial cronyism, creaky national socialism in the economy, and political censorship and massive repression."

Juan says that success can be judged in terms of the:

"Iraqis replicating India's success in holding regular elections and in maintaining a relatively independent judiciary and press, they would pioneer a new way of being Arab and modern. (The earlier experiments with parliamentary governance of the 1920s, 30s and 40s were marred by the dominance of very large landlords, a class now largely gone, who did not permit genuine democracy).A little humility, [by the US] a little seeking of redemption, a little doing good for others. Those things could make a convincing rationale for the current project. But not a war on terrorism."

Unlike many Australians, Juan rightly acknowledges that the threat to the US (and Australia) by Saddam Hussen was not a sufficient justification for war. (The case is made with great clarity by George Paine over at Juan supported the war on Iraq because of the brutal way that Hussein regime treated the Shi'ites. The war is over and Juan now makes a case that rebuilding Iraq is a worthwhile enterprise.

This is a position one can engage with. Though I opposed Australia's involvement, (but understood that the US as a world power had geopolitical grounds for intevention) I too would like to see a free and democratic Iraq. There are positive signs. But I have great reservations that it will happen, because of incidents like this.

On the other side of the debate, we have Helena Cobban over at 'Just World News'. She engages with Juan by questioning the redemptionist undertone and asking him three questions. I will leave "redemptionist" undertone with its connection to guilt about past US betrayals to the Iraqi people---its a very American thing--- and turn to Helena's three questions. Helena says:

"So okay, here are some of my other questions for Cole:

He seems to be arguing that a state of affairs in which Iraqis can replicate India's success" would, for him, constitute a US "success" in Iraq. Does he have any reason to believe that that goal is the one that this US administration is actually pursuing there? In particular, does he have any reason to believe that the political empowerment of the Iraqis themselves is what the Bushites are aiming at?

How does he assess the considerable weight of counter-evidence that there is out there, regarding this administration's policies in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East (where "empowerment" of local pro-democracy forces seems nowhere to be on the effective agenda), or at home here in the US (ditto)?

Equally or even more importantly: How about the precedent set for Iraqis, for that 96 percent of the world's people who are not US citizens--and for the four percent of us who are US citizens-- if the US administration is seen as "successful" in imposing its will on the actions of a large and distant sovereign nation purely through the force of arms and the waging of a war that was quite unjustified by any criteria of "just war" or international law?"

These are good questions. Helen's first one puts the finger on an ambiguity. It is unclear whether the Bush Administration wants an independent democratic Iraq or a liberal Iraq that is a vassal state of the US. And the second one follows because the Bush Administration does appear to be limiting democracy to prevent the Shi'ite majority from forming a theocratic state. And the last question introduces the issue of breaking international law by the US's pre-emptive strike and the US then being seen to be imposing freedom by force.

Suddenly we are a long way from this polemical style of journalism. Though many journalists consider themselves to be little more than attack dogs, I suspect that many journalists do not know how to argue. Hence we can learn from how Juan responds to the questions.

Juan responds here by answering the questions in a way that enables a considered reply. On the first question he is clear about what is meant by 'success':

" is important that Iraqis aren't double-crossed yet again by the US. Americans, having caused the old order to collapse, have a responsibility to nurture a new one before they decamp. The new order should be a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary and press...It would be unfortunate if Iraq were just delivered to nouveau riche robber barons, as happened in post-Soviet Russia...It would be highly irresponsible for the US military simply to suddenly withdraw from the country at this juncture. I have called...for the US to get a UN mandate for its reconstruction efforts and to conduct them multilaterally."

Juan then says something that clears up my confusion and unease about the Bush Administration. He says the administration is divided on democracy. His judgement is that Bremer, Powell and Bush (but not Rumsfield and Wolfowitz) all favor Iraq having a parliamentary democracy in the short-term.

In responding to Helena's second question about the Bush administration limiting Iraqi democracy, Juan argues that the administration's Iraq policy represents a break with the past efforts to shore up regimes like the royal family in Saudi Arabia:

"The Washington elite has decided that those regimes are breeding Islamist terrorism that targets the US, and that they have to be reformed in the direction of parliamentary democracy...Of course, parliamentary governance can be more or less democratic. Domestically, the Bushies favor a form of it that melds it with plutocracy."

Okay. I can buy that. It makes sense of the Americans trying to limit democracy in Iraq. Juan then argues that the plutocrat card is a no goer in Iraq because there are no haute bourgeoisie and Iraq was a welfare state under Hussein. What then? Juan says that parliamentary governance is a good start, and it is a system that has the potential to become more democratic if the Iraqi's come to own it.

But will the Americans allow the Iraqi's to own it? I have my reservations on this.

In reponse to Helena's third question---about breaking international law through the use of a pre-emptive strike--- Juan says that:

"If the US acted illegally in international law, then the international community should punish it. (In fact, the refusal of India, Egypt, France and Germany to send troops despite US pleading is already a form of punishment). But the Iraqi people do not deserve to be punished, and the rebuilding of the country so that it ends up being a parliamentary democracy with a free press and an independent judiciary would be a good thing for Iraqis, the world, and even for the US."

I concur. It would be a good thing if the US helped the Iraqi's to build a democratic Iraq. It is a much better model that US occupation or Iraq being a vassal state of the US empire.

So what we have here are reasonable responses to good questions that allows for further responses. It is a pity we cannot conduct a debate like this in Australia. Though some journalists do not know how to argue, I suspect that many journalists have no intention of doing so. They see themselves as the attack dogs in the culture wars. Destroying the enemy is the reason they write.


This piece by Michele Costello is about the best you get in Australia. What does it say? That democracy is hard and that the US is achieving some successes. Why bother to write if that is all you've got to say?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:03 AM | | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (1)

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The crux of your post is essentially correct, Gary. There appears to be a distinct lack of intelligent debate put forth by the Australian journalistic media, and primarily because they are overly consumed with individual idealistic viewpoints, as opposed to exploration of alternatives through discussion. It's a rather sad indictment on the state of our overall culture that we, through the subscription to the mainstream media, allow these things to happen.