Battle in Print: The Iraq war: the strip-tease of democracy

Lee Jones

In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that France’s brutal efforts to suppress self-determination in the Algerian War in the name of civilisation was ‘the strip-tease of our humanism… It was nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage, its honeyed words, its affectation of sensibility were only alibis for our aggressions’ (Sartre 1965: 21). The Iraq War - allegedly waged to spread freedom in the name of civilisation - has been the strip-tease of democracy: a war so disconnected from Western publics that lies had to be spun to justify it and present Iraq’s ‘liberation’ as a ‘cakewalk’; an occupation and successor government so isolated from Iraqi society that the country has degenerated into chaos. The Iraq War is a stark warning to those who think effective wars can be waged without popular consent, or that freedom can simply be gifted to the ‘wretched of the earth’.

The case for war: sects, lies and yellowcake

The Iraq War’s origins lie in the ‘humanitarian interventions’ of the 1990s. Shorn of the political contestation that had helped generate clear national interests during the Cold War, Western powers had little sense of what the ‘new world order’ should entail (Gourevitch 2007). Liberal internationalists seized on this confusion, promoting intervention for human rights and democracy abroad, which they saw as legitimate precisely because there were no sinister ‘interests’ lurking behind their strident calls for intervention - just ‘good’, ‘ethical’ intentions. Western and UN interventions occurred on an unprecedented level, from Namibia to Cambodia, from the Balkans to East Timor.

Cracks showed in the edifice from early on. Public disengagement from this elite project meant that Western publics were simply not willing to make the sacrifices required for humanitarian warfare and state-building: Clinton’s rapid retreat from Somalia after 18 American soldiers were killed, Western bumbling in the Balkans, inaction in Rwanda, and the refusal to commit ground troops to Kosovo illustrated the shallowness of the roots that ‘humanitarian intervention’ had struck in the West’s own populations.

Enter the neo-conservatives. Attacking Clinton’s incoherent foreign policy, they issued a clarion call for the reassertion and remoralisation of American power, urging the removal of Saddam Hussein from power (PNAC 1997, 1998). Still waging the ‘culture wars’ begun in the 1960s, neo-cons viewed mass disengagement from politics as the apogee of selfish, liberal individualism that threatened the very foundations of the American republic, and were determined to re-moralise public life (Drolet 2007). 9/11 gave this narrow cabal the opportunity to launch a new Cold War, an endless conflict against an amorphous enemy determined to destroy Western civilisation itself, an excuse to discipline the American people and demand of it great sacrifices - at last, a Project for the New American Century.

As we now know, the Bush administration immediately sought ways to link 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. If it was not obvious enough in 2003, by late 2004 it was clear that talk of yellowcake uranium, WMD, and the ‘45-minute threat’ were fabrications; that, as a Downing Street memo recorded, the ‘intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’ of war (see This much we know, but it’s rarely asked why such lies were necessary. The answer is that, like the humanitarian interventions which laid the groundwork for it (Kampfner 2004), the idea of using armies to spread ‘freedom and democracy’, the residual rationale for the war, simply didn’t command public support.

A 2002 poll showed that, despite being boosted by 9/11, ‘helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations’ was ranked 19th out of 20 US foreign policy goals, with only 34 per cent of Americans seeing it as a ‘top priority’, well behind protecting American jobs (85 per cent) and even strengthening the UN (57 per cent). Still fewer believed in the use of force to this end, and only 20 per cent backed invading Iraq without UN approval (Chicago Council 2002: 16, 27). Overwhelming majorities in every major European country also opposed unilateral intervention: just under 70 per cent in Britain - a decisive rejection of Blair’s self-appointed mission to ‘reorder this world around us’ (White 3.10.2001) - rising to nearly 90 per cent in Germany (BBC 11.2.2003). The Iraq War was an ideological project with so little public support that Bush, Blair and others needed to terrify their populations with ever more exaggerated claims of the ‘imminent’ threat Saddam posed, while the UN had to be depicted as dangerously complacent. The decision to invade Iraq was wilfully, profoundly undemocratic, the result of elite hubris and the failure of citizens to discipline their own states. This had serious consequences for the occupation and subsequent government of Iraq.

The occupation: not simply ‘incompetent’, but unpopular

Nearly five years on, four million Iraqis are now internally displaced or refugees, 40 per cent of Iraq’s professionals have fled the country, 8 million Iraqis require emergency humanitarian aid, 43 per cent are in absolute poverty, and basic services are worse than they were under Saddam. The war caused over 650,000 ‘excess deaths’, with 3,000 people being killed each month (Burnham et al. 2006; Oxfam 2007; Cockburn 2007). Critics usually focus their ire on poor pre-war planning, or the ‘incompetence’ of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as if better technocratic management could have prevented this inexcusable catastrophe (Ricks 2006). Actually, popular disengagement from the neo-con project necessitated this ‘incompetence’. The Coalition was well aware that its peoples had no stomach for lengthy occupations involving 500,000 troops, heavy casualties and vast expenses to democratise Iraq, so those who argued this would be necessary had to be suppressed and marginalised. Instead, it was necessary to sell the illusion that the war would be a ‘cakewalk’, the occupation would last only 90 days, and a few thousand deeply unpopular Iraqi exiles, headed by CIA stooge Ahmad Chalabi, could simply be installed as the new governing elite of a ‘free’ Iraq, at virtually no cost to the American people (Shaw 2005; Packer 2006: ch. 4; Battle 2007).

The war’s separation from popular sentiment in the West was mirrored by the CPA and interim administration’s isolation from Iraqi society. Very quickly, Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone’ became an ‘imperial city’, passing neoliberal laws and issuing decrees with no relation to the reality from which it was cut off (Chandrasekaran 2006). Only $1.5bn was allocated for reconstruction, and a mere $25,000 for restoring Iraq’s civil administration. The looting of Baghdad alone, which Coalition forces did nothing to stop, cost an estimated $12bn. But as Donald Rumsfeld’s spokesman said: ‘We don’t owe the Iraqi people anything. We’re giving them their freedom. That’s enough’ (Packer 2006: 116, 143, 133). The CPA became the ‘least accountable regime in the Middle East’, losing track of $9bn of Iraqi oil revenues and wasting a further $20bn of Iraqi and $18.5bn of extra US money on badly-planned, half-finished development projects that did more to line the pockets of foreign contractors than to help ordinary Iraqis (Harriman 2.11.2006; Packer 2006: ch. 6).

The danger, though, is to believe that it might have been otherwise. If only pre-war planning had been better, if only the UN had taken over, if only we factored a ‘responsibility to rebuild’ into the ‘responsibility to protect’: so wail those hoping to salvage liberal imperialism from the wreckage of the neo-con project. Certainly, American hubris contributed to the disaster, but the real problem is the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of foreign interventions. Even in 2004, Iraqis were evenly split on the merits of the invasion and a majority opposed the presence of coalition troops, while those Iraqis who had ‘no trust’ in the UN outnumbered two-to-one those with a ‘great deal’. The West’s focus on Islamist sectarianism in Iraq (which seeks to blame Iraqis’ ‘culture’ for their ‘failure’ to embrace ‘freedom’) obscures the nationalist aspect of the backlash against the invasion, and strong popular support for a united Iraq free of foreign troops (BBC News 16.3.2004; Dreyfuss 9.7.2007). Resistance to the occupation arose immediately. Any intervening force would have faced the same challenge.

Most fundamentally, the simplistic assumption that, once Saddam’s tyranny had been removed, the Iraqi people would spontaneously organise their own government and economic reconstruction was fatally flawed. Traumatised, disorganised and left dependent on the state after years of dictatorship and sanctions, Iraqis had not found solidarity and common purpose through struggling for their own liberty. The best organised forces in Iraqi society were xenophobic Islamists, not liberal democrats-in-waiting. Distant, undemocratic rule from the Green Zone simply exacerbated existing social divisions (Packer 2006, chs. 5, 8, 9, 12). These objective conditions would have faced any intervening force in Iraq - and elsewhere. This includes the UN, whose own model state-building enterprise in East Timor collapsed last year because, like Iraq’s democracy, as an external imposition it lacks organic roots in its own society (see Cunliffe 15.6.2006).

What is to be done?

The West’s response to the growing catastrophe in Iraq has also reflected the war’s anti-democratic basis. Britain is now beating a hasty retreat, tacitly blaming the invasion on Bush and his ‘poodle’, Tony Blair, ignoring the war’s exposure of a crisis in British democracy and the shortcomings of interventionism. Indeed, Gordon Brown is now championing intervention in Darfur. America’s response has been even more telling. An increasing majority of Americans have favoured withdrawal, either immediately or within a year, since 2005 (USA Today 15.11.2005). Despite ignoring this, Bush has accordingly had to constrain his so-called ‘surge’ to a mere 20,000 troops, bringing the total to only 165,000 - a far cry from the half-million said to be necessary to pacify Iraq back in 2003. Despite White House propaganda, the ‘surge’ has been a total failure, destroying what little organic order existed by, for instance, targeting the Madhi Army (Schwartz 1.8.2007). But the Democrats are equally clueless. After failing to impose a timeline for withdrawal over Bush’s veto, they balked at cutting off funding for the war altogether, instead setting a series of ‘benchmarks’ - not for their own government, but for the government of Iraq! The implication that the Iraqi government answers to the US Congress, not its own people, reflects the utterly degraded ideas about democracy that have animated the war from its inception.

So what is to be done? Many people fear that a precipitate withdrawal would be irresponsible, facilitating civil war, intervention by regional powers like Iran and Turkey, and perhaps even a general Middle Eastern conflict. Iraqis themselves are, understandably, torn. Solid majorities now reject the merits of the invasion, saying things are now worse than under Saddam. However, while over a third think US forces should leave immediately, slightly more believe they should stay until security improves. Yet they also believe that America is the chief cause of violence, the ‘surge’ has exacerbated insecurity and future deployments would do no good either, and a majority now support attacks on Coalition forces. These contradictions indicate despair, but there are still some signs of cohesion. Faith in domestic institutions like the government, army and police, however poorly they perform, remains four to six times higher than faith in foreign forces, and 88 per cent reject attacks on these institutions. Though increasingly dented by recent violence, the majority is hostile to interference by Iraq’s neighbours and wants a unified, democratic, unitary Iraqi state, with 94 per cent rejecting sectarian segregation (BBC News 19.3.2007, 10.9.2007).

These seeds for an organic, indigenous order are gradually being crushed by the occupation. It is now obvious that external forces can neither ‘empower’ or ‘liberate’ Iraqis, nor dictate a settlement. The US must start humbly deferring to the will of the Iraqi people and its own citizens. Since US forces are identified as the principal cause of violence, they must gradually withdraw and, in the interim, work with genuinely popular forces, rather than attempting to ‘manage’ Iraqi politics (Dreyfuss 9.7.2007). Iraq’s neighbours must be encouraged to support the process of self-determination needed for a stable order in Iraq to emerge, and Washington must not give vast amounts of reconstruction aid to Iraq (not to Republican Party-linked corporations) but throw open its borders to those who wish to leave the nightmare Washington has created. There is no pretty or simple solution to the crisis created by anti-democratic warfare in Iraq, but the ‘imperial’ project has demonstrably failed. However ugly - and, yes, however bloody - the process might be, self-determination is the only way forward for Iraq.

Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Battle, J. (2007). Iraq: The Media War Plan. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 219.

BBC News (11.2.2003). ‘Polls find Europeans oppose Iraq war’. BBC News website.

BBC News (16.3.2004). ‘Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq’. BBC News website.

BBC News (19.3.2007). ‘Iraq poll March 2007’. BBC News website.

BBC News (10.9.2007). ‘US surge has failed - Iraqi Poll’. BBC News website.

Burnham, G. et al. (2006). ‘Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey’. The Lancet 368(9545): 1-8.

Chandrasekaran, R. (2006). Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. London, Bloomsbury.

Chicago Council (2002). American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy. Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Cockburn, P. (2007). ‘Nowhere to hide’. London Review of Books 29(4): 14-15.

Cunliffe, P. (15.6.2006). ‘East Timor: when nation-building destroys’. Spiked Online.

Dreyfuss, R. (9.7.2007). ‘The media’s tragic misunderstanding of Iraqi domestic politics’. Nieman Watchdog.

Drolet, J.-F. (2007). ‘The visible hand of neo-conservative capitalism’. Millennium 35(2): 245-278.

Gourevitch, A. (2007). ‘National insecurities: the new politics of the American national interest’, in C.J. Bickerton, P. Cunliffe and A. Gourevitch (eds.) Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations. London, UCL Press, pp. 58-76.

Harriman, E. (2006). ‘The least accountable regime in the Middle East’. London Review of Books 28(1): 18-20.

Kampfner, J. (2004). Blair’s Wars. London, The Free Press.

Oxfam (2007). Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq. Oxford, Oxfam.

Packer, G. (2006). The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq. London, Faber and Faber.

PNAC (1997). ‘Statement of principles’. Project for the New American Century.

PNAC (1998). ‘Letter to President Clinton on Iraq’. Project for the New American Century.

Ricks, T. E. (2006). Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. London, Penguin.

Sartre, J.-P. (1965). ‘Preface’, in F. Fanon The Wretched of the Earth. London, MacGibbon and Kee, pp. 7-27.

Schwartz, M. (1.8.2007). ‘The benchmarks that matter: the American military’s lose-lose dilemma in Iraq’. Tom Dispatch.

Shaw, M. (2005). The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq. Cambridge, Polity Press.

USA Today (15.11.2005). ‘Poll: American attitudes on Iraq similar to Vietnam era’.  USA Today.

White, M. (3.10.2001). ‘“Let us reorder this world”’. Guardian.

 Festival Buzz

Fora TV logo Particle Physics is Sexy

Particle Physics is Sexy [Opens in new window]

"The 2006 Battle of Ideas did what it said on the tin: prejudices were punctured, common wisdom was questioned and original thinking honoured. The saying was coined in Texas, but I suggest that the Battle of Ideas adopts it as the conference motto: ‘sacred cows make the best burgers."
George Brock, Saturday Editor, The Times