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Shattered illusions

Friday 20 April 2007, by Azmi BISHARA

If the fall of Baghdad exposed the dangers of identifying the state solely in its leader, Iraq’s past four years show the folly of those — especially Arabs — who thought democracy could be imposed by foreign force, writes Azmi Bishara

No amount of overstatement does justice to the significance of the fall of Baghdad. Yet stunned gasps at how easily the regime was toppled have little bearing on the subject. When you consider that the invasion was preceded by 10 years of war followed by 15 years of sanctions, the fall wasn’t "easy" by any count. The importance of studying the fall of Baghdad resides in the insight it gives into how a regime that rested on a personality cult grew hollow. It sheds light on a type of regime that disengaged itself from the concerns, rights and interests of the people, that lumped its citizens into an amorphous body called "the masses", and that believed that slogans were enough to make this body move, as though it had a single head to process the information it was fed.

If the public can be spontaneously stirred to action by powerful emotions such as jubilation, pent up resentment or outrage, then the government’s task would seem to be to create the agenda and institutions for channelling these energies. The kind of regime at hand, however, does not deal well with spontaneity. In fact, spontaneity is one of its greatest fears and it is very good at containing it and sapping it of its force. Such a regime cannot suddenly mobilise "the masses" behind a strategy for resistance, especially when those so-called masses realise that resistance is synonymous with defending the regime.

The people of the Soviet Union fought the Nazi occupation at a time when the Soviet order was at its most robust, in spite of Stalin’s dictatorship. But even then, popular resistance alone could not have prevented the fall of Stalingrad and Leningrad. Those battles required the full and concerted strength of the entire army and the state. Contrary to the common impression, democracy doesn’t come into it. Many dictatorships have emerged victorious from their wars, just as many democracies have lost theirs. What does come into it is an organised government, the loyalty of the army, current balances of power and the horizons of opportunity this offers. In the case of Iraq, the government and the army were in a disastrous condition.

Of course that regime appealed to the Arab people, who had spontaneously demonstrated their outrage at the invasion. However, as there was no alternative project to steer these energies towards the realisation of a political agenda, they quickly dissipated. In some instances, other regimes succeeded in co-opting these energies in the interest of reaping a quantity of popular kudos. In other cases, governments simply loosened the leash a bit to let their public vent itself in a direction that was not aimed at them.
In Iraq, the eruption of popular energies came after the collapse of the regime that had kept such a tight cap on them. The explosion took two trajectories: one directed inwards, as previously repressed conflicts between diverse social forces erupted; the other directed outwards, in the form of resistance against the occupation. Both trajectories influence and feed off each other, of course. Resistance under conditions of an intense and bloody domestic power struggle quickly descends to a conflict over the reading of the past and, hence, the definition of the future. This conflict, in turn, contributes to the deconstruction of existing identities and the reconstruction of new identities shaped by the current political struggle and by attendant images of the self as victim and the other as interloper or proxy of the interloper, all reinforced by the spiralling cycle of violence, vengeance and retribution. These volatile forces may inflict great moral and material damage on the occupation, as they are doing in Iraq, but they do not offer a viable national alternative to a united Iraq.

In like manner, today’s sectarian conflict in Iraq has assumed the guise of a conflict between those with and those opposed to the occupation. Tomorrow, it may assume the shape of a race to oust the occupation and claim the laurels for liberating Iraq — or for achieving the partition of Iraq, which appears to be the way the current dynamics are heading.

Perhaps the foregoing underscores why it is important to home in on the role and condition of the government and the army when studying the fall of Baghdad. After all, current social circumstances and the resistance have put paid to all studies and theories that preceded the war and that foresaw a victorious entrance of American troops, the clouds of dictatorship dispelled by the purifying forces of aerial and naval bombardment, and the rise of democracy from the devastation, like a phoenix from the ashes.

Democracy is not borne from chaos or from the destruction of a nation, that’s for sure. Democracy in Germany and Japan did not emerge from the destruction of those countries, contrary to the ridiculous myth. Democracy is an expression of the sovereignty of a nation and a form of exercising this sovereignty — the most ideal form of exercising sovereignty, according to advocates of democracy, because it reflects the will of the people. Democracy cannot come into effect by manacling the sovereignty of a nation and dismantling a country as is currently taking place in Iraq and as some mad theorists had envisioned.

It wasn’t just Baghdad that fell, not even at first glance. What also came crashing to the ground was the fairytale that one could build democracy just by pointing some mighty barrels at a dictatorship. The commonly held impression is that society without government is civil society. The notion has become something of a fad. But it is an illusion and a dangerous one at that. Society without government is a society at war, a society in which everyone is at the throats of everyone else. With the collapse of the state in Iraq the fires from "society’s hell" flared out of control. The dual collapse of the dictatorship of Baghdad and the myth of building democracy on the ruins gave rise to the current Iraqi nightmare.

The current situation in Iraq marks a historic juncture in the Arab world; a juncture that raises a big question mark over the future of the Arab nation state as it currently stands. Iraq has driven home as never before that if this collection of nation states does not develop a higher level of cooperation on the basis of their common Arab identity it will disintegrate into a morass of warring sectarian and tribal groupings and revert to the pre-state era. Globalisation, as opposed to Americanisation and marginalisation, is a process that the Arabs must not allow themselves or their common identity to abandon in its wake. The Arabic language and culture are inherent media of communication and Arab satellite networks, television stations, newspapers, books, coffeehouses and all other public venues offer easily accessible channels for drawing the Arabs together and unifying their agendas. Unless they take advantage of these instruments to develop closer political, economic, social and supranational bonds, globalisation will bring nothing but the fragmentation of each nation state into sectarian and tribal pawns in the political and economic agendas of others.

Iraq’s isolation from the rest of the Arab world stemmed, firstly, from the nature of the decision- making process in Iraq, itself; secondly, from the ability of an American-led coalition to corner the country, subject it to a prolonged blockade and then to pound it militarily on pretexts that would not legitimise a war even if they were true; and, thirdly, from the mechanisms that elevated sectarian and tribal groupings into political blocs that recruit allegiance either to or against the occupation on the basis of their various organic affiliations. Building a nation ultimately rests on the creation of a sense of the overriding bonds of citizenship. Yet, prior to this, in both the pre- and post-independence phases, there must exist a sense of common cause — generally referred to as the right of self-determination — for it is this that affirms that overriding bond as the primary cornerstone for building the nation. The Arabs, however, have produced neither the type of national entities that can serve as a basis for generating a sense of identification with a common cause or a foundation of citizenship that may be smaller than the Arab world combined but larger than the Arabs within a single sub-regional national entity. What is left and what is now forcefully advancing itself as the intermediary between the individual and tyranny is political unity based on ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations.

Even in the non-civil national entities we have, these same organic bonds form the primary units of affiliation within the state and army, in view of the absence of democratic institutions and the government’s distrust of the loyalty of the individual to it. For the individual, meanwhile, these same units serve as the shield between him and the state. The irony is that what protects the individual from the despotism of the state forms one of the primary underpinnings of that despotism. The despotic regime justifies its existence on the grounds that it preserves the unity of the state, but in fact it sustains itself through its perpetration of and juggling with a vast diversity of centrifugal forces. But when the state and its army are defeated, these disparate disintegrative forces pounce upon the inheritance, in the course of which they exercise their own brand of tyranny as they fight it out with one another. Perhaps for this reason, some yearn for just plain tyranny.

Clearly, then, the Arabs’ task is to find the ways to forestall the emergence of a situation that opens the way to such phenomena as the blockade of Iraq and the military intervention in that country. Surely this is the lesson to be derived from that tragic experience. One hopes, therefore, to hear again the voices of those who had appealed for outside intervention in the name of slogans that quickly proved themselves hollow, if not extremist — slogans, for example, that espoused bringing democracy on the back of American tanks. One might expect to hear some honest self-criticism instead of the pieties spouted by those who have shown themselves to have no real interest in democracy.

There are a good many neo-liberals who parade beneath the banner of democracy, in spite of their general disregard for democratic methods and civil liberties, and who trumpet the need to prevent dictatorship only to retroactively justify a war that was waged on patently false pretences. If we add this behaviour to the actual crime of the dismantlement of the Iraqi state, we know that there was nothing unwitting in their complicity. The innocent ones blanched, admitted their mistakes and, at the very least, recognised the folly of American policies. The others never say what they mean and never mean what they say, and may well resort to the same theoretical hocus-pocus somewhere else in the future. No Arab state, at present, is immune to the spectre of fragmentation if it is subjected to the type of pounding visited upon Iraq.

Proponents of privatisation are not necessarily economic neo-liberals. The system of patronage, sectarianism and tribalism, and the corruption that pervades it, does not form the foundation for neo- liberal capitalism. Nor are economic neo-liberals necessarily politically liberal. Under the shadow of American interventionism in the region there have emerged forces that have called for change, but in fact are thirsty for power and numb to the cause of civil rights and liberties. The current Arab condition breeds the type of people who propel themselves to the fore on liberal platforms and then quickly reveal themselves liberal only in the amount of economic and political influence they seek to lavish on themselves.

Baghdad has fallen, but so to have all the illusions that had been pinned upon its fall. Here precisely is where an intensive reassessment must begin.

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