The Will of Zeus Was Being Accomplished
The official handoff of sovereignty to the provisional Iraqi government wasn’t a very grand affair and not simply because it took place in deep secrecy two days before its scheduled date. The sovereignty in question, at least so far, is utterly notional. The initial affect of today’s proceedings is simply to transfer effective power from the American administrator to the American ambassador. Before leaving, Bremer underscored the hollowness of the gesture by committing Iraq to a series of laws that include legal immunity for foreign contractors and a fairly low (15%) ceiling on the highest income tax bracket. Since the new government will be dependent on the American military, their freedom of action will be sharply limited in any case. I, for one, find it hard not to feel sympathy for the members of the new government, at least some of whom appear to be sincere Iraqi patriots. Since ’75, the personal prospects of members of American puppet regimes have not been proven very good from an actuarial point of view.
As in antiquity, the temporarily victorious powers establish their form of government in occupied states. Sparta set up oligarchies. Athens set up democracies. In much later history but in the same vein, the Soviet Union set up People’s Republics in its Eastern European empire. Now we’re establishing what we are calling a democracy in Iraq. Democracy, however, is a very elastic term. For the most part, its semantic value in our political discourse is the equivalent of a grunted “Good.” It certainly doesn’t mean popular sovereignty or anything like it. Our foreign policy maintains a steady hostility to that—an electoral victory by the wrong guy amounts to sending the Marines an invitation with an RSVP. But “Democracy” can’t be used to refer to a general preference for the rule of law over arbitrary executive power either since this administration famously asserts the supremacy of presidential authority over both the courts and congress. In this respect, Bush, though personally innocent of any knowledge of political philosophy, is just following the lead of the Neocons in his administration. In turn, the Neocons are following the influential German rightist, Carl Schmitt, who asserted back at the end of the Weimar Republic that political legitimacy is logically and materially superior to legality. The current administration idea of democracy also seems to derive from Schmitt, for whom it referred to a regime legitimized by the Will of the People as defined by a charismatic leader ruling by plebiscite. That pretty much captures what the administration stands for in Iraq and, for that matter, at home: an authoritarian regime that overrules juridical and legislative authority in the name of the Nation. Writes Schmitt, “Every democracy rests on the presupposition of the indivisibly similar, entire, unified people.” While this Republican version of democracy indeed uses populist, demagogic methods to promote itself, in practice it defends the interests of wealthy people against the liberals or socialists who threaten the sacred rights of property, conceived of, as conservatives always do, as natural.
As everybody admits, it will not be easy to establish democracy in Iraq; but that’s especially true if the democracy in question is the kind contemplated by our government. Conservative ideologies are hard to disseminate because they are particularistic. If you don’t mind the mumbo jumbo, it makes some kind of sense to pledge allegiance to the mystical body of your own country. You can hardly expect the Iraqis to be similarly worshipful about the American Way. Besides, although we hear more about religious objections to our policy, a lot of opposition in Iraq, perhaps most of it, is completely secular and derives in large part from the accurate perception that the non-negotiable privatization policies foisted on the country at gun point amount to the theft of the national wealth of Iraq and its distribution to a politically connected elite. Some of the insurgents are determined to prevent their nation from being ripped off. Unfortunately, the bulk of them are probably just determined to get cut in on the swag.