Democracy at the Edge of a Sword

Fundamentalist movements share several common factors, most significantly a belief in their own self-righteousness and infallibility, and an unconditional dismissal of alternative visions of the world. The Bush cadre’s ongoing crusade is no exception.

The Bush administration sermonizes war as the sole alternative to apparent problems whose definition cannot be discussed outside of a context only they can provide. Not only is war presented as in the vital interests of the American people, but as the only possible response to these self-defined problems and interests. Any dissent must therefore, by definition, be uninformed, unexaminable, and “anti-“American.

National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice’s comments likening attempts to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s are an example , as are Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s recent dismissal that, “particularly the war’s opponents — no longer feel compelled to prove a case or stick to the facts.” A case against war cannot ever be “proved” because it lies outside of the context provided for by the war’s proponents.

Similarly, war is presented as in the vital interests of the Iraqi people, and antiwar activism must therefore be anti-Iraqi as well as anti-American. Even mainstream critics of the war tend to follow these directives. Joe Stork, Middle-East director for the Washington D.C. office of Human Rights Watch (HRW), recently wrote, “The bottom line is that the anti-war movement needs to make clear that it is a movement that supports the Iraqi people, and that this support necessarily means explicitly opposing the Iraqi government and condemning its many crimes.” That HRW has consistently failed to condemn the violence of sanctions with anywhere near the stridency they condemn the violence of the Iraqi government, despite the vastly greater number of deaths caused by sanctions since 1990, is apparently irrelevant. As is the fact that most anti-war arguments and activism are already prefaced by condemnation of the Iraqi government. Debate can only be allowed to proceed along the paths laid out by war’s fundamentalists.

However, there are insurmountable problems with the fundamentalist view of war, and of its subsequent silencing of all criticism as tainted and illegitimate: the failure to accurately and fully define the issues, and the failures to appreciate what democracy and solidarity truly mean for both the American and Iraqi peoples. These failures amount to the objectification of Iraq–the attempted reduction of Iraq from a vital nation with its own unique history, to an artificial entity entirely dependent on Western actions, including war or opposition to war, to make it real.

There are four issues presented as justifying war: the potential use of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] by Iraq, the potential collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaeda to use WMD, the liberation of the Iraqi people, and the eventual liberation of others in the Middle-East, particularly the Palestinians.

War fundamentalists present these two security and two moral issues as the only basis for war. Discussion of these issues is then only permitted within the framework the fundamentalists provide, and any discussion of other interests driving the war is defined as offensive and therefore intolerable.

The two security arguments in favor of war both presume that Iraq does in fact have WMD and is hiding an ongoing WMD-development and production program, although without providing any substantive evidence supporting this thesis. Also presented as irrefutable is the argument that such a program cannot be identified or constrained simply through a weapons inspection process, but requires the full cooperation of the Iraqi government. In this environment, the counter-argument that the U.S. may not be interested in WMD in Iraq, and has seriously undermined disarmament efforts both in Iraq and around the world has become near taboo to discuss.


During the 1980s Iraq developed a massive weapons program with the assistance of scores of American, British, Russian, French and German corporations. Despite close ties to the U.S., the true extent of this program was successfully kept hidden from U.S. and other intelligence agencies, even after the ’91 Gulf War. From the beginning of the inspections process Iraq continued to hide the extent of these programs and disrupted the inspector’s work, initially with some success.

However, weapons inspectors quickly adapted to this environment and responded by beginning an in-country intelligence gathering operation, and by creating a series of monitoring systems that allowed them to assess the potential limits of Iraqi development and production of WMD. UNSCOM, The UN Special Commission overseeing WMD issues in Iraq, was overwhelmingly successful in identifying and destroying Iraq’s remaining stores of proscribed weapons. And by monitoring input materials, research structures, and the capacities of Iraq’s industrial infrastructure, UNSCOM was able to assess, as early as 1995, that Iraq had no significant remaining WMD capability.

While Iraq has still not fully answered all of the outstanding questions that remain regarding its past programs, no evidence as yet has been presented that these programs continue to exist. Even Hussein Kamel, head of Iraq’s concealment efforts and the “source,” following his defection, for much of the Bush Administration’s insistence that Iraq maintains WMD, in fact stated in 1995 that Iraq’s WMD had been destroyed, and that what was being “hidden” was the documentation needed to restart the programs at some point in the future.

So long as Iraq continues to allow monitoring systems to be put in place, including unrestricted, on-site verification, weapons inspections offer a high-degree of reliability in preventing Iraq from developing or stockpiling militarily significant quantities of WMD. This, however, remains unmentionable, and perhaps even unthinkable, when discussing the Iraq crisis.

U.S. concerns about Iraq’s WMD capability are highly suspect, given the Bush administration’s undermining of international disarmament efforts across all three categories of WMD: chemical, biological, and nuclear. Nor do U.S. concerns seem to extend to much more advanced and antagonistic “enemies,” such as North Korea, let alone toward aggressive U.S. clients in the region such as Israel or Turkey. Moreover, the U.S. has unabashedly undermined disarmament efforts in Iraq previously, by providing little or inaccurate information to inspectors, and even infiltrating and manipulating the inspections process in a poorly concealed attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. This attempt in 1998 effectively “killed” the inspections process in Iraq for almost four years, preventing a resolution of the crisis that would have resulted in an end to sanctions–which may have been the U.S. intention all along.

Assertions that Iraq is working with al-Qaeda have proven even more spurious. Intelligence experts ­ such as Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counter-terrorism, and Daniel Benjamin, former National Security Council member ­ deride these allegations. During the ’91 Gulf War, Osama bin Laden offered to lead a “jihad” against Saddam, and the recent message attributed to bin Laden, broadcast on al-Jazeera, similarly condemned the Iraqi government–despite Secretary of State Powell’s attempts to link opposition of the war to working support for Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Furthermore, even putting aside the current facts, it is of little benefit to Iraq or al-Qaeda to work together in the future. It would be difficult to smuggle chemical or biological weapons through multiple borders and security networks. Producing such materials at or near a point of attack is more feasible logistically. Iraqi involvement would also likely increase the chances that terrorists would be caught prior to an attack, and even if successful–Iraqi involvement in such a plot would almost certainly be discovered by US intelligence agencies after the fact, leading to massive retaliation against Iraq. Even if Iraq and al-Qaeda were to dismiss their mutual animosity toward one another, it is unlikely they would ever work together to attack the U.S.

Given the hollow nature of war fundamentalist arguments on security, as well as the consistent lies that the war camp has put forward in previous conflicts (from the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to nonexistent Iraqi troops massed on the Saudi Border in 1990, to the 100,000 Kosovars supposedly killed by Serbian forces during the war in 1999), it’s astonishing that pronouncements made in favor of war are automatically given the benefit of the doubt. War’s proponents–those who call for war, who champion it, who spend their entire creative potentials working for it –continue to be granted incredible legitimacy in our common lives, despite the morally suspect nature of their goals, and a consistently poor track record in telling the truth.


The passionate outrage fundamentalists tend to display toward corrupt behaviors is almost always one-sided. As religious fundamentalists condemn atrocities committed against self-designated “worthy victims,” while condoning similar, or even identical, atrocities committed “in the name” of their causes, war fundamentalists practice similar moral selectivity. While the al-Anfal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Iraqi Kurds over a decade ago remains a continuing outrage, ongoing ethnic cleansing by the Turkish government of its Kurdish minority is hardly noteworthy . Needless to say, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians due to U.S. bombings of civilian infrastructures and 12 years of blockade is simply unmentionable.

In stark contrast to war fundamentalists, human rights and peace workers have consistently sought to publicize and strongly condemned abuses committed by the Iraqi government. After Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the village of Halabja in 1988, the Reagan, and later Bush, administrations attempted to downplay the attack. The Reagan administration went so far as to blame Iran for the Halabja attack, and only acknowledged Iraq’s involvement under pressure from human rights activists and Congressional Democrats. Despite Halabja, the U.S. government continued to maintain strong ties with Saddam Hussein, only discovering the barbarity of the 1988 attack when Iraq threatened world oil supplies by invading Kuwait in 1990.

Not only does this gross selectivity define the boundaries of acceptable debate, but–in a truly Orwellian twist–war fundamentalists claim that it represents something called “moral clarity.” Under their definitions they may even be correct: that is, U.S. policies and those of its client states are defined as an unquestionable “good,” therefore any attack those policies, no matter how violent or repressive the policies are, is an attack on “good” and “anti-American.” The banal absurdity of such arguments is self-apparent.


War fundamentalism attempts to constrain opposition to war as implicit support for the Iraqi regime, or, at the least, a failure to seriously oppose the ongoing oppression of the Iraqi people under their government. The ongoing oppression of the Iraqi people under U.S.-led international sanctions is not mentioned, or, when it cannot be ignored, is similarly blamed on Saddam Hussein.

U.S. policy effectively shuttles opposition to the regime toward support for sanctions and war, and opposition to war toward support for the regime. These two, artificial and unrepresentative camps are supposed to define the totality of the situation, with anyone refusing to debate on these terms sidelined and labeled as “indecisive” and unwilling to confront “real” issues.

Debate over whether war will result in the liberation of the Iraqi people is therefore limited to debate over whether the U.S. will be “successful” in the tactics it uses to prosecute the war, recreate Iraq, and remake the entire Middle East. The history of U.S. interventions in the region, none of which have previously resulted in “democracy,” is ignored, as are current U.S. policies supporting non-democratic and human right’s abusing states throughout the Middle East.

The U.S. already commands great influence in the region (as proved by the Bush administration’s ability to secure, despite the Turkish setback, basing and overflight rights for the war in the presence of overwhelming public opposition to the war in the region). Why this influence has not been previously used to develop “democracy” in the Middle East is not discussed. Once again, by restricting the debate, war’s champions are automatically given the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions, regardless of the facts.

This persists even though the arguments put forward by the war camp about how war will result in “democracy” across the Middle East are quite openly arguments of intimidation, especially with regards to Palestine, and straightforwardly reduce to, “if we pound Iraq hard enough then the Arabs will finally agree to whatever demands we make, out of fear and depression over what happened to Iraq.” That this is commonly accepted as a “liberation” argument is staggering.

The war against Iraq is not just a war against Iraq. It is a war over what the structure of our world will be. That Iraq has trillions of dollars worth of oil reserves is not in question. That U.S. control of those reserves is openly being discussed is not in question. That control of those reserves will generate new and enormous profits for U.S. corporations exploiting them in a post-Saddam environment is not in question. That control of Iraqi oil will allow the U.S. to destroy OPEC and intimidate the Saudi government into more forcefully attacking internal, Islamic fundamentalists is quite openly presented as a “good,” as is the notion that a display of U.S. might in Iraq will intimidate Iran, Syria and other U.S. adversaries, as well as recalcitrant U.S. allies. U.S. control of Iraqi oil will also provide huge economic leverage with Europe and Japan–both of which are extremely dependent on Middle Eastern oil for their energy needs.

Yet, despite the open acknowledgement of all these facts, the failure of France, Russia or other nations to enthusiastically support U.S. war policies is alternatively dismissed as “timidity,” “jealousy” over U.S. power, or a result of the financial interests they themselves have in Iraq that may be disrupted by war. Notwithstanding open acknowledgement of America’s own financial and geopolitical interests in Iraq, attempts by the antiwar movement to show that these interests are driving the push toward war are ignored, or dismissed as “lies,” “anti-Americanism,” and “conspiracy theory.” The audacity of this dismissal is breathtaking.



Democracy is not only about elections. It is perhaps not even principally about elections. Democracy, on its elemental level, is about the inherent right of all human beings to participate in and create their own history. All human rights reduce to this one freedom. The most basic of these rights, and of all freedom, is the right to live. The fear inculcated by arbitrary arrest, torture, and disappearances or open killings, forms the foundation of tyranny. But the denial of the right to life under any circumstances–whether through secret police and secret courts, the forcible impoverishment of blockades, wars of extermination or wars of “liberation”–ultimately reduces to the same denial of freedom, and the same tyranny of fear.

War is catastrophe. It is terrorism on a truly, massive scale. It is the physical, political and spiritual devastation of entire peoples. War is the imposition of such massive, deadly violence so as to force the political solutions of one nation upon another. As such, war is the antithesis of democracy and freedom. It’s not hard to image crowds of cheering natives toppling statues of Saddam following a “successful” U.S. war, but this fantasy says more about America’s self-image than it does about Iraqi hopes for freedom. The ultimate consequences of war, while not entirely irrelevant, are also not its basic challenge. War’s fundamental, insurmountable problem is that as a means of politics and control it is the most bloody, undemocratic, and violently repressive of all human institutions.

War fundamentalists, like religious fundamentalists, consistently ignore the inherent rights of Humankind. Instead, they insist that “freedom,” as they define it, can only be secured through their violently imposing their own interests and ideologies on everyone else. The human costs of their conquests are self-observably irrelevant to them. War fundamentalists, like religious fundamentalists, display a deep-seated fear of democracy–the fear that if people are freely allowed to create their own histories, they will themselves choose alternative ideologies, and pursue their own individual and collective interests. This fear is well justified. History demonstrates that human beings make poor slaves, and seldom choose servitude when given a true choice.

Joe Stork and other mainstream critics are correct when they state that the antiwar movement must become a solidarity movement with the Iraqi people and must continue to condemn the Iraqi government’s violence as well as the violence of war. Yet solidarity is not that simple. It does not end with opposition to the violence and oppressions of Saddam, or of sanctions, or of war. In the past, Western solidarity movements have often constrained themselves to what happens “over there.” While this is an essential element of solidarity, by itself it becomes as arrogant as the tyrannies it seeks to overcome. If the antiwar movement truly becomes a solidarity movement, then it will be through the work we do at home, rather than the rhetoric we use.

Solidarity begins with support for the absolute right of Iraqis to create and inculcate their own destiny, as they define it for themselves, without foreign or domestic intimidation, violence, or control. Solidarity requires that we deny war’s fundamentalists the legitimacy we presently grant them, whether through our support, our silence, or our acceptance of their definition of the issues. And solidarity requires that we ourselves explicitly condemn and overcome the institutions within our own society which further violence–whether it be in our violent support of some dictators or in violent opposition to others, or in the lifestyles we maintain that drive those policies. We must overcome our own militarism and materialism–however painful that may be. Solidarity necessarily requires more than just talk–it demands that we take risks within our own lives commensurate with the risks that have been regularly imposed on the Iraqi people–for well over a generation–by our own government.

RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American activist and writer currently living in Baghdad. He works with the Voices in the Wilderness Iraq Peace Team, a group of American and international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq throughout a conflict, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the U.S.