When Was the Last Time You Visited Iraq? Exporting American Democracy to the World

Perhaps stranger yet, the democracy that we actually have in the United States — and so assumedly can offer as our ultimate apology for invading and occupying other countries — is rarely subjected to analysis in the context of the glorious urge to export the same. So let’s just stop for a moment and think a little about the American urge to be thrilled that, despite every disaster, against all odds, our grand accomplishment lies in bringing American democracy to Iraq.

The Rectification of Names

Democracy, like terrorism, is a method, a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nobody is ruled by elections, anymore than any organization is run by terror or has terror as its ultimate goal. If this obvious point had been accepted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the absurdity of the idea of a “global war on terror” or “on terrorism” would have been self-evident, as would a global war to deliver “democracy” to far-away peoples.

Democracy, after all, is a way to determine and then express the majoritarian will of a people, a way to deliver power to “the people” or, more important, for those people to take possession of it themselves. It’s the sort of thing that, by its nature, is hard to import from great distances, especially when, in our case, the delivery system to be exported seems strikingly deficient. And keep in mind that the “people” exporting that system to Iraq were largely incapable of seeing Iraqis as actors in their own democratic drama. They were incapable, that is, of imagining the nature of the lives they wanted to shape and change.

In a sense, that was hardly less true when they looked homeward. After all, the glorious democracy they trumpeted to the world bore little relation to the Pax Republicana headed by an imperial presidency (complete with a cult of executive power) that they dreamed of installing in Washington for generations to come.

Given the nature of American democracy today — the first billion-dollar presidential election, the staggering levels of lobbying and influence peddling that go with it, the stunning barrages of bizarre advertising, the difficulty of displacing incumbents in Congress, the increasingly corporate-owned and financed campaigns, a half-broken Congressional system, a national security state with unparalleled powers and money, and so on — why all the effort to take it to Iraq? Why measure Iraqis against it and find them lacking? After all, in 2000, our presidential election went to the non-majoritarian candidate, thanks to decisions made by Supreme Court justices appointed by his father. If this had happened in Nigeria, Afghanistan, or perhaps Iraq, we would know just what we were dealing with.

The fact is we have no word adequate to describe what, at the national level, we still persist in calling “democracy,” what we regularly ask others to admire to the skies or bow down before. The other day, at TPM Café, Todd Gitlin termed our system a “semi-democracy.” That, at least, represents an honest start.

In imperial China, when a new dynasty arrived on the scene, the emperor performed a ritual called the “rectification of names” in the belief that the previous dynasty had fallen in part because reality and the names for it had ceased to correspond. We in the United States undoubtedly now need such a ceremony. We certainly need a new term for our own “democracy” before we’re so quick to hold it up as the paragon for others to match.

We also need to rethink our language when it comes to the U.S. military undertaking “nation building” in distant lands — as if countries could be constructed to our taste in just the way that KBR or Dyncorp construct military bases in them. We need to stop our commanders from bragging about our skill in creating a “government in a box” on demand for our Afghan friends, when our government at home is largely boxed in and strikingly dysfunctional.

So, no, I have never been to Iraq, but yes, I’ve been here for years, watching, and I can see, among other things, that the American mirror, mirror on the wall which shows us ourselves in such beautiful, Disneyesque detail, has a few cracks in it. It looks fragile. I’d think twice about sending it abroad too often. (Posted by (Bulatlat.com)

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