Monday, February 26, 2007

the myth of the purple finger

Sez Josh Marshall:
Even among critics of the war, it's often accepted as granted that a key aim of this effort was democratization -- only that it was botched, like so much else, or that the aim of democracy, in a crunch, plays second fiddle to other priorities. Not true. The key architects of the policy don't believe in democracy or the rule of law. The whole invasion was based on contrary principles. And the aim can't be achieved because those anti-democratic principles are written into the DNA of the occupation, even as secondary figures have and continue to labor to build democracy in the country.

I've been wrestling with this graph all day, trying to figure out why it bugs me. On the surface, Marshall is right: the Bush Administration doesn't believe in the rule of law, as we've seen over and over again, and Cheney's and Bush's ideological adherence to democratic principles is in question as well (how can you have a democracy without the rule of law? without habeas corpus?). And yes, these tendencies have caused us all sorts of problems in Iraq, mainly in the form of fomenting distrust in us and the Iraqi government.

Nevertheless, my eyes keep getting drawn back to "a key aim of this effort was democratization" and its reference later as "the aim." I'm not accusing Marshall of this, by any means, but we would do well not to forget that the aim of this whole endeavor in Iraq is not democratization, but the discrediting and elimination of terrorism, specifically the terrorists that threaten us at home and our interests abroad. The democratization part was conceived of and remains merely as a means to that end. It's increasingly important as the occupation drags on to remember not only the order of our priorities there, but this crucial link in W's head between democratization and terrorism, a notion that I believe is truly dangerous, especially applied as cynically as it always is by human governments.

Back in the wonder years of the invasion, there arised a metaphor in the blogosphere (espoused principally, I believe, by Markos) called "the Myth of the Purple Finger." It was a play on the Iraqi elections and subsequent media manipulation by the Bush administration and their apologists, where they'd play, over and over again, videos and pictures of Iraqis during the election waving their fingers around celebrating the first (and second, and third...) votes in Lord knows how long (you may remember, their fingers were colored purple as proof that they had voted).

"The Myth of the Purple Finger" was a critique of the media hype that said that elections=progress even if they fail to create a government the people consider legitimate. There was a deeper fallacy at work, however: the myth, unwittingly at first, pointed straight at the idea, taken on faith by neoconservatives and classic liberals alike, that terrorism cannot persist in a free democracy, that democracy by its very existence deals a mortal wound to the morale and negative emotions necessary to engage in terrorist acts. One of the weirder aspects of national discourse in the run-up and early period of the war was hearing virtually identical arguments made in support of the war by, for instance, George W. Bush and Peter Beinart of The New Republic, showing a sort of intersection between the ideologies between these two normally-divergent groups.

This supposed power of democracy is, in the really-real world, non-existent. Democracy (especially the sectarian, exclusionary type that was the only outcome ever possible in Iraq) does not preclude terrorism any more than fabulous wealth precludes depression. If it did, we would have never had Timothy McVeigh or abortion clinic bombers, Germans would never have heard the names Bader-Meinhof, and has anyone ever heard of Northern Ireland? And how, then, do we explain all those supposed Islamist terror cells in the US and Europe that the same Bush administration keeps warning us about? All sorts of things can motivate people to resort to terrorism, usually related a tribe feeling excluded or oppressed, or related to some perceived moral imperative going unheeded by the current regime. Installing a democracy, however, does not automatically fix this problem, and as we're seeing in Iraq, can even make it worse.

The entire strategy for pacifying Iraq and alienating/eliminating the terrorists was based on this flawed logic, and thus, in respect to the core rationale for the invasion, whether or not Iraq achieved democratization is irrelevant. Even if the Bush Administration genuinely cared about democracy in the Middle East and achieved such in Iraq, there's no evidence that either international or domestic terrorism there would have disappeared.

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