What's Left

April 22, 2003

The perfect dictatorship

By Stephen Gowans

There's always some part of a population in thrall to a dictator that supports the dictator wholly or partially. Sometimes a majority, sometimes not. How many Iraqis supported Saddam Hussein is unknown, but if it was said that four percent did, few would challenge the number as an overestimate. After all, four percent in favor, means 96 percent -- the vast majority --  against. Few, at this point, would be willing to contend that Saddam had the backing of most Iraqis, though his stature among his own people and among other Arabs for standing up to American bullying shouldn't be underestimated. His support probably topped four percent, but for the moment, let's suppose it hadn't.

At one point, US National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice said something about Saddam's bad behavior giving the US license to push Iraq around. The implication was that if Saddam wasn't a dictator, with a yen for torture and knocking off his opponents, marshalling support for the invasion among Americans would have been harder (though, I suspect, far from impossible.) There was the absence of a connection between Iraq and Sept. 11 that made it difficult to implicate Saddam, though that didn't stop the administration from trying to, and nor did it stop a large part of the American population from believing it. And showing that Iraq was hiding banned weapons proved to be difficult, maybe because Iraq wasn't hiding banned weapons, but whatever the case, it was clear that Washington wasn't going to get a UN fig leaf to wage a war of aggression purely on the basis of its own say-so about Iraq's concealing chemical and biological weapons.

And so into the breach stepped the Secretary of War, Donald Rumsfeld, who resurrected the Nazi doctrine of preventive war: potential threats would be targeted before they became full threats -- a formula for naked aggression.  But in the end, after the UN Security Council refused to meekly submit to US demands to roll over (rolling over, it was said, being the only way to make the UN relevant -- to who?) an invasion was launched and the whole thing was presented as if it were motivated right from the start by the overriding goal of liberating Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam. That the corpses of failed pretexts littered the pathway to the invasion escaped most Americans, who were too enrapt with the footage of smiling Iraqi faces welcoming their "liberators," and tales of the rescue of POWs, and scorn for the high-life lived by Saddam and his coterie. The corpses of Iraqis who littered the pathway of the American march into Baghdad also escaped the notice of many Americans, thanks largely to a patriotic media intent on sheltering Americans from the true face of the war their government was waging.

There's a predisposition to revile dictators, and dictators, therefore, are easily made the objects of revulsion, and so, it's always possible to build a casus belli against a country whose markets and resources one covets by pointing to the country's dictatorship and championing what can be passed off as a noble mission to deliver the benefits of democracy and freedom to a long-suffering people, even if what is meant by "freedom" is freedom for American firms to exploit the newly liberated country's oil, and democracy has something to do with getting yes-men elected as compradors. Dictatorship is Washington's trump card, so much so that elected leaders Washington doesn't like are routinely called dictators or strongmen, which is why Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, disliked by Washington's supremos for tilting too strongly toward the poor of his country and not strongly enough toward the business class of their own, is often calumniated in this way.

At the same time, the unsavory aspects of dictatorship can be, and have been on numerous occasions, hushed up, when the dictatorship was useful to American foreign policy goals. Pakistan's current military dictatorship is one such example, as is what is effectively a dictatorship in Jordan, where one man, King Abdullah, quietly approved the stationing of 5,000 US special forces troops in his country's eastern desert, though Jordan's five million people were almost unanimously opposed. ("King's deal with US an ill-kept secret," The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2003.)  There were no demands to liberate Jordanians from this tyranny, and nor will there be, until such a time, if ever, that Abdullah starts asserting his own people's interests more vigorously than the US foreign policy establishment thinks is conducive to US business interests in the region.

And then there's the tyranny of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, one of Washington's chief  backers in the assault on Iraq. Aznar isn't considered to be a dictator and few would say he's a tyrant, but when it came to backing the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Aznar had, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled, "the support of only four percent of the people," (Blair, bolstered by war, is facing challenges at home, The New York Times, April 21, 2003), which is probably a good deal less than the level of support Saddam Hussein's dictatorship had. That Aznar is elected, is supposed to make his ignoring the views of an overwhelming majority all right, though it's difficult to see how his behavior in this regard differs from that of the dictatorships that Americans believe they revile. Worst, leaders like Aznar, Australia's Howard, and even Tony Blair, are widely admired by the media for their contempt of public opinion and their refusal to be bound by it. Rather than being scorned, they're admired as principled and courageous, adjectives that would hardly be applied to dictators on Washington's shit list (Cuba's Fidel Castro comes to mind) but are reliably trotted out whenever an elected leader behaves in a dictatorial fashion to advance Washington's interests. You can imagine the cataract of diatribes Washington would ensure flowed Chavez's way were the Venezuelan president's policies backed by 40 percent, let alone four percent.

For their part, Americans have devolved their decision-making authority to cabinets made up almost entirely of unelected members who make decisions nominally on their behalf, though actually on behalf of the economic elite that really matters, and that furnishes the cabinet with its members. Ordinary Americans, for example, won't profit from the conquest of Iraq, but the owners and executives of American oil firms will, as will those who own and control American engineering firms--poised to pocket up to $100 billion in reconstruction contracts--as well as those at the top of countless other US firms that will set up the Iraqi school system, the Iraqi police forces, and so on. And this is to say nothing of defense contractors, like Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon, that will fill orders to replenish munitions depleted in the attack on Iraq. This, however, hasn't kept most Americans (who believe the reasons for war could never be so crass) from supporting the conquest.

It's difficult to imagine how American foreign policy could be democratic in even the mildest sense of the word. It's not formulated to advance the interests of the majority. And decisions about intervention abroad are taken without the merest consideration being given to consulting the American people,  (the majority of whom can be relied on to support US interventions abroad automatically, anyway, as a matter of "patriotism," which in the US is synonymous with blind obedience) and Americans, though they consider themselves to be great democrats, would hardly ever suppose that they ought to be consulted, much less allowed to shape foreign policy.  This makes American decision-making a dictatorship of sorts, for the wishes of the people, as in nominal dictatorships, is immaterial.

But more than this, it makes American decision-making the best of all dictatorships, for Americans' propensity to blind obedience on matters of foreign policy, furnishes the dictatorship with what nominal dictatorships would kill for, figuratively and literally: unqualified, unquestioning, support. And since Americans in a majority automatically support whatever direction the dictatorship takes, the dictatorial nature of the decision-making remains concealed. It is, therefore, the perfect dictatorship.

George Bush is making much of Iraqis never having had the freedom to elect their own leaders, as if this is somehow worlds apart from one man rising to power through a coup and doing pretty much what an elected leader would do anyway: make decisions insulated from the public. He has avoided making much of the fact that Iraqis as a whole have never had the chance to shape their own country's policies, but neither have Americans, and nor would Bush want it that way. What's the difference, then, between an elected dictator imposing his decisions, and an unelected dictator doing the same, between say Anzar (with four percent) and Saddam (with probably more)? The answer can be found in the difference between Bill Clinton, an elected president whose foreign policy was completely divorced from the wishes and interests of the majority of Americans, and George Bush, an unelected president whose foreign policy is simply a more robust expression of the Clinton model, but equally indifferent to Americans in the majority. The difference between Saddam and Bush, both unelected, lies in whose interests they serve, which, in neither case, is the majority of the people in their respective countries, but is US capital in Bush's case and against US capital (frozen out of Iraq) in Saddam's case. And that, not dictatorship, is why Saddam has been deposed.

There will be more ousters, or short of that, regimes being bullied into compliance with US demands; in other words, more of the same. An unnamed US official told the New York Times:

"So don't ask if our tanks are going to move right or left out of Iraq. There are a lot of political weapons that can be unleashed to achieve our goals. This does not mean, necessarily, that other governments have to fall. They can moderate their behavior." ("Pentagon expects long term access to four key bases in Iraq," The New York Times, April 19, 2003.)

The Bush administration will no more seek the blessing of the American public for these future campaigns of bullying than it did for Saddam's ouster. As for Americans, they've worked out the perfect arrangement. They'll automatically support whatever their government does abroad, thereby saving themselves confronting an unpleasant truth: they exercise as much control over their government as Iraqis did over Saddam.


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What's Left