|Published on Friday, March 11, 2005 by The Nation
Can Democracy Survive Bush's Embrace?
by Naomi Klein
It started off as a joke and has now become vaguely serious: the idea that
Bono might be named president of the World Bank. US Treasury Secretary John
Snow recently described Bono as "a rock star of the development world,"
adding, "He's somebody I admire."
The job will almost certainly go to a US citizen, one with even weaker
credentials, like Paul Wolfowitz. But there is a reason Bono is so admired
in the Administration that the White House might just choose an Irishman.
As frontman of one of the world's most enduring rock brands, Bono talks to
Republicans as they like to see themselves: not as administrators of a
diminishing public sphere they despise but as CEOs of a powerful private
corporation called America. "Brand USA is in trouble...it's a problem for
business," Bono warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The solution
is "to re-describe ourselves to a world that is unsure of our values."
The Bush Administration wholeheartedly agrees, as evidenced by the orgy of
redescription that now passes for American foreign policy. Faced with an
Arab world enraged by its occupation of Iraq and its blind support for
Israel, the US solution is not to change these brutal policies; it is, in
the pseudo-academic language of corporate branding, to "change the story."
Brand USA's latest story was launched on January 30, the day of the Iraqi
elections, complete with a catchy tag line ("purple power"), instantly
iconic imagery (purple fingers) and, of course, a new narrative about
America's role in the world, helpfully told and retold by the White House's
unofficial brand manager, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Iraq
has been reframed from a story about Iraqi 'insurgents' trying to liberate
their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi 'stooges' to a story
of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with U.S.
help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-fascists and jihadists." This
new story is so contagious, we are told, that it has set off a domino
effect akin to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Communism.
(Although in the "Arabian Spring," the only wall in sight--Israel's
apartheid wall--pointedly stays up.)
As with all branding campaigns, the power is in the repetition, not in the
details. Obvious non sequiturs (is Bush taking credit for Arafat's death?)
and screeching hypocrisies (occupiers against occupation!) just mean it's
time to tell the story again, only louder and more slowly, obnoxious
tourist-style. Even so, with Bush now claiming that "Iran and other nations
have an example in Iraq," it seems worth focusing at least briefly on the
reality of the Iraqi example. The state of emergency was just renewed for
its fifth month, and the United Iraqi Alliance, despite winning a clear
majority, still can't form a government. The problem is not that Iraqis
have lost faith in the democracy for which they risked their lives on
January 30; it's that the electoral system imposed on them by Washington is
Terrified at the prospect of an Iraq ruled by Iraqis, former chief US Envoy
Paul Bremer designed elections that gave the US-friendly Kurds 27 percent
of the seats in the National Assembly even though they make up as little as
15 percent of the population. And since the US-authored interim
constitution requires an absurdly high majority for all major decisions,
the Kurds now hold the country hostage. Their central demand is control
over Kirkuk; if they get it, and then decide to separate, Iraqi Kurdistan
will handily include the massive northern oilfields.
Kurdish Iraqis have a legitimate claim to independence, as well as
understandable fears of being ethnically targeted. But the US-Kurdish
alliance has handed Washington a backdoor veto over Iraq's democracy. And
with Kirkuk as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, if Iraq does break apart Washington
will still end up with a dependent, oil-rich regime--even if it's somewhat
smaller than the one originally envisioned.
This type of bald colonial interference is already threatening to turn
Lebanon's "cedar revolution" fairy tale into a nightmare. By all accounts,
most Lebanese would like to see Syria withdraw from their country. But as
the hundreds of thousands who participated in the March 8 pro-Hezbollah
demonstration made clear, they are unwilling to have their desire for
independence hijacked by the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv. By
linking Lebanon's independence movements to American designs for the
region, the Bush Administration is weakening Lebanon's secularists and
religious moderates and increasing the power of Hezbollah. Which is
precisely what Bremer did in Iraq: Whenever he needed a good news hit, he
had his picture taken at a newly opened women's center, a trick that set
the feminist movement back decades. (The centers are now mostly closed, and
hundreds of secular Iraqis who worked with the coalition in local councils
have been murdered.)
The problem is not just guilt by association. It's also that the Bush
definition of liberation robs democratic forces of their most potent tools.
The only idea that has ever stood up to kings, tyrants and mullahs in the
Middle East is the promise of economic justice, brought about through
nationalist and socialist policies of agrarian reform and state control
over oil. But there is no room for such ideas in the Bush narrative, in
which free people are only free to choose so-called free trade. That leaves
secularists with little to offer but empty talk of "human rights"--a weedy
weapon against the powerful swords of ethnic glory and eternal salvation.
George W. Bush likes to say that democracy has the power to defeat tyranny.
He's right, and that's precisely why it is so very dangerous for history's
most powerful emancipatory idea to be bundled into an empty marketing
exercise. Allowing the Bush Administration to fold the liberation struggles
of Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine into its own "story" is a gift to
authoritarians and fundamentalists. Freedom and democracy need to be
liberated from Bush's deadly embrace and returned to the movements of the
Middle East that have been struggling for these goals for decades. They
have a story of their own to finish.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
(Picador) and, most recently, Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front
Lines of the Globalization Debate (Picador).
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