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President George Bush told the nation on Tuesday night that we are in Iraq to fight terrorism and spread democracy. Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler’s minister of propaganda said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.”
Goebbels had it right. Bush didn’t invade Iraq to fight terrorism and promote democracy. He invaded Iraq to establish a military stronghold in the oil rich Middle East. But he has repeated that lie often enough that more and more people have come to accept it as the truth. Recently, for example, Michael Ignatieff, the President of Harvard University’s Carr Center of Human Rights bought what has become the Bush administration’s latest line on why we are in Iraq hook, line and sinker.
In a convoluted article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on June 26, Ignatieff makes the argument that Bush is the first President to link fighting terrorism to promoting democracy in the rest of the world and suggests that liberals and others on the left should be applauding him for it. After all, says Ignatieff, if Bush succeeds he “will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary.” Nonsense.
The rhetorical title of Ignatieff’s article is: “Who are Americans to Think that Freedom is Theirs to Spread?” Well Thomas Jefferson was one, suggests Ignatieff, and Bush is simply picking up the Jeffersonian mantle. That is why he went to Iraq: To promote the exercise of reason, the rule of law, human rights and democracy. More nonsense.
Well, some might say, even if that wasn’t the original intention if that is the likely outcome what’s the difference? The answer is that it is not the likely outcome. We already know the outcome: a hundred thousand Iraqis killed, a country split into warring factions, and a rising tide of hatred for our occupying army.
Still we shouldn’t be surprised that Bush continues to lie about our mission in Iraq. In order to inspire soldiers to fight you must convince them that they are fighting for a cause they believe in. Bush often sounded like a military recruiter on Tuesday night, hoping to overcome the dramatic decline in enlistees for the army. It is not easy to get soldiers to put their lives on the line for the Halliburton corporation. So you tell them that they are fighting to spread freedom to the citizens of Iraq and convince them that when they win the battle they can visit the Empire State building because no Iraqis will be piloting planes into skyscrapers in the United States. Then perhaps they can be sent back to the Gulf to fight against the democratically elected government of Iran. .
Ignatieff, to give him credit, does point out in his article that President Bush heads an administration that has demonstrated “the least care for consistency between what it says and does of any administration in modern times.” But then he makes no effort to explore why that is true. Had he done so he might have come to understand that the Bush administration represents the interests of wealthy plutocrats, reactionary fundamentalists, and corporate executives. In attempting to further those interests democracy and the rule of law are violated left and right.
The examples are by now legion: The invasion of Iraq despite United Nations’ opposition; the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan; the promotion of key officials connected with torture; the use of doctors to assist in that torture; the holding of prisoners indefinitely without charges; the rendition program that whisks alleged terrorists off the streets in countries like Italy to sends them to Egypt to be tortured; the refusal to recognize the International Criminal Court; the attempt to justify violating the Geneva accords; and the promotion at home of legislation such as the Patriot Act that undermines the Bill of Rights and helps stifle dissent.
All this is done in the name of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. But as the June 25th edition of the conservative weekly The Economist points out, “it cannot help the war on terror that so many people regard America as an unprincipled bully.” And as many others have pointed out, what the Bush administration is seeking in Iraq is not a democratic regime but a regime that will do its bidding.
Nevertheless, Ignatieff maintains that by not supporting the Bush administration’s nearly unilateral occupation of Iraq, his critics have abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of promoting democracy and the rule of law around the world. Hence after reading his article one is left to wonder whether the author himself hasn’t lost something as highly prized as democracy by Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers-i.e. the capacity to reason. Goebbels must be smiling.
Paul Cantor is a professor of economics at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and a human rights activist.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co- author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” He released late last year “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”