When I look at the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq, I can’t help but be reminded of a scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Consider the parallels, for example, in the classic scene between Graham Chapman and Michael Palin, where King Arthur (Chapman) argues with an English peasant (Palin) about the legitimacy of divine rule under feudal aristocracy. The possibility of such a discourse over enlightenment and anarcho-syndicalist principles (taking place between a King and his subject over a thousand years before the introduction of modern conceptions of democracy and self-government) is part of what makes the Monty Python scene funny. But it’s the American elite’s contempt for those same enlightenment principles that qualifies the situation in Iraq as a modern day tragedy. President Bush’s behavior in Iraq is more akin to that of King Arthur than to that of a political leader committed to democracy and self-determination.
Consider the most recent example of disdain for Iraqi national sovereignty: the U.S. attempt to overthrow of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The attempted coup has been received rather well in slavish, sycophantic coverage throughout the American press. The axiom presented amongst U.S. political and media elites is lucid enough: the United States retains the "right" to impose any "necessary" changes in other countries’ political and economic structures, all in the name of promoting the greater good. The greater good in this case? preventing civil war and societal meltdown. In light of Iraq’s growing sectarian tensions and violence, Republican and Democratic senators such as John Warner, Dick Durbin, Hillary Clinton, and Carl Levin have demanded that Iraq’s parliament step forward to throw Prime Minister Maliki out of office. Bush has lambasted Maliki with "demands" that the Prime Minister make serious efforts deter conflict among militias in order to promote national stability.
Media coverage has proceeded accordingly. New York’s Newsday laments the failure of Maliki’s government "to make the compromises necessary to forge a political consensus that would end sectarian violence and start a process of reconciliation," so as not to jeopardize the "significant successes of the U.S. military surge." Newsday complains that Maliki "is far too close to Iran and the Shia militias of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr."
A major problem, according to media pundits, is the Iraqi people’s lack of appreciation for just how much the U.S. has sacrificed to "liberate" their country. In a piece titled "Easy Scapegoat," the Washington Post’s editors contend that "the frustration [with Maliki] is understandable enough. As American soldiers have fought and died to stabilize Baghdad and other key areas in recent months," while "the parallel progress toward political reconciliation expected by the White House — and promised by Mr. Maliki — has been virtually nonexistent." The New York Time’s editors claim that "threatening to pull out [of Iraq] may be the only way to get cooperation from Iraq’s Prime Minister, who is thwarting even the most limited American efforts to disarm militias and set timetables for genuine political compromise on the most fundamental issues, like protecting minority rights and fairly apportioning the country’s oil wealth." The Times has even attacked the Bush administration for its initial hesitancy in "getting tough" with Maliki by issuing an "ultimatum" to end the sectarian violence.
Missing from all this media and political arrogance is one simple, but vital question: who designated the United States global judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to determining other countries’ political decisions? The answer to this question is simple if one bothers to look at world opinion: no one.
Paternalistic and racist conceptions that Americans know what’s best for the beleaguered and downtrodden of the world are nothing new. Such notions are merely the most recent update of longstanding notions of a "White Man’s Burden," in which Western leaders nobly endure the costs of civilizing the rest of the world not for self-aggrandizement, but to the benefit of the least advantaged.
Washington Post Op-Ed writer David Broder takes issue with Maliki’s claim that the U.S. also "fought a great struggle of its own, a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives but ended in the triumph of freedom and the birth of a great power." According to Broder, "What Maliki forgets is that President Abraham Lincoln raised his own army to battle the Confederate forces. He didn’t ask the outside great powers to do the fighting for him." Broder’s claims are representative of the worst kinds of distortions and propaganda reinforcing the U.S. image as an "altruistic" and "benevolent" force in world affairs.
While we know how American intellectual elites feel about U.S. foreign policy, what does the rest of the world think? Unfortunately, Americans don’t get to hear much about that. American reporters are too busy ignoring most of the following inconvenient facts,, which are easily available in global opinion polls from the last two years.
– Out of 25 countries surveyed, on average, between 54 and 73% of those questioned disapproved of U.S. handling of a number of key issues, including its reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, the problem of global warming, Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, the steady deterioration of Iraq, and finally, the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.
– On average, 68% of those questioned in the same 25 countries felt that the U.S. military presence throughout the Middle East "provokes more conflict than it prevents," while only 17% felt that the U.S. military presence represents a "stabilizing force."
– According to another global poll of 15 nations, majorities in every country questioned rejected the notion that the United States is entitled to serve as a global hegemon. Most disagreed with the role of the U.S. as "the sole remaining superpower," and the idea that "the U.S. should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems."
– One major survey of 33 countries around the world found that the United States finished second highest (behind only Iran) in a ranking of which countries have played a "mainly negative" role in world politics.
– Another poll of 35 countries revealed that, on average, 60% of those questioned feel that the war in Iraq has "increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks around the world," as compared to only 12% who feel the war has reduced that threat.
– When Iraqi neighbors (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey) were questioned about the U.S. role in Iraq, majorities in all countries (ranging between 58-76%) favored American withdrawal. Pluralities or majorities in all four countries felt that U.S. actions in Iraq have increased the terror threat.
Iraqi public opinion is especially worth looking at if we are to understand how U.S. "leadership" in the "war on terror" is perceived.
– One recent poll of the Iraqi public shows that a majority (71%) prefer a withdrawal from their country within a year, while 87% support a general timetable for withdrawal (both of which President Bush and Republicans have adamantly refused to consider). Only 21% of Iraqis see the U.S. as a "stabilizing force," while 78% feel the U.S. is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing." 79% feel the U.S. has a "negative influence" on Iraq, while 84% have little to no confidence in the U.S. military.
– Interestingly, 61% of Iraqis (virtually all Iraq’s Sunnis and a majority of its Shia) support military attacks against U.S. forces. One poll even found that 68% felt Iraqi "national dignity requires the attacks" on U.S. and allied forces.
– 67% of Iraqis feel that "day-to-day security of ordinary citizens" would increase if the U.S. withdrew, while only 35% thought violent attacks would increase. 73% felt that the "willingness of [rival Iraqi political] factions in parliament to cooperate" would increase in light of a withdrawal.
– For those understandably worried about further Iraqi sectarian violence and full-blown civil war, Iraqis have provided a clear alternative to U.S. occupation: 64% prefer "installing an international peacekeeping force in Iraq" to replace U.S. military forces.
While public opinion polls critical of the U.S. do occasionally make it into the American mainstream press, such revelations are the exception rather than the norm. After all, how could American reporters and editors regularly feature such poll results when they fundamentally contradict the media’s own notion that it is the U.S. responsibility as world leader to remain in Iraq (this idea has only just recently changed with the New York Time’s long overdue advocacy of withdrawal)? If the U.S. occupation of Iraq is morally bankrupt in the eyes of world (and Iraqi) opinion, what does that say about American media coverage long been committed to promulgating that bankruptcy?
While such critical questions may be too much for King George and his followers to consider, it is our job to seriously reflect upon how the U.S. is seen by the rest of the world. Majorities throughout the globe do not look at U.S. behavior in Iraq as a simple question of heuristic trial and error, whereby American leaders will somehow discover a winning formula for occupying Iraq if they can just find the "right" political leader to administer the country (for the record, we are currently on our fourth imposed or deposed Iraqi leader in as many years). Americans would do well to consider world opinion before they make unwarranted claims about the "unique" role of the U.S. in promoting self-determination, democracy, and justice throughout the globe.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (forthcoming December 2007). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org