US Opposition to Arab Democracy, in Iraq and Beyond

(Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/The U.S. Army) The withdrawal of almost all US forces from Iraq by December 31 now appears likely. Although the United States will continue to maintain at least 5,000 military, CIA, and private mercenary personnel along with the biggest embassy in the world and a substantial military aid and training program, in terms of numbers the withdrawal will be near-total. Apart from the embassy itself, no official US military bases will be allowed to remain.

Despite Obama’s attempt to take credit for ending the war, the agreement was forced upon a highly reluctant Obama administration by an Iraqi regime subject to massive popular pressures. It was the Iraqi people who are responsible for the recent withdrawal announcement. In contrast, the US government’s efforts to extend the occupation beyond the previously-negotiated December 31 withdrawal deadline and its anguished reaction to the Iraqi refusal say much about the deep-seated US antipathy toward democracy in the region. More broadly speaking, the latest negotiations over the Iraq withdrawal are in many ways reflective of the US approach toward the Arab world as a whole, characterized by constant attempts to prevent or co-opt democracy in the face of increasing popular challenges to authoritarian regimes.

The Failure of the Iraqi Government

Public opinion polls in Iraq over the last seven or eight years have left no doubt about Iraqis’ opposition to the occupation. About two-thirds of Iraqis, and often far more, have consistently said that the occupation forces make security worse. This opinion did not change following the 2007 US “surge,” which Iraqis overwhelmingly condemned; the enduring Western media narrative that the surge was responsible for subsequent improvements in security bears little relation to reality, as Iraqis realize. Two years after the start of the surge, 81 percent still wanted all US forces gone by the end of 2011, and nearly half (46 percent) said that the withdrawal timetable “should be speeded up.” Strong majorities have long rejected the notion that a US withdrawal will lead to greater violence, consistent with recent US intelligence reports predicting “that Iraq [i]s not at great risk of slipping into chaos” in the event of a US withdrawal. The idea of granting US personnel immunity from criminal prosecution—a key point of conflict in the recent negotiations—is also deeply unpopular. The prevalence of these views and the persistence of Iraqi resistance, both non-violent and violent, against the occupation is what forced the normally US-subservient Maliki regime to demand US compliance with the 2011 withdrawal deadline forced upon the Bush administration in 2008.

Obama’s public celebration of the pending withdrawal would seem to place him on the side of the Iraqi public. In private, however, he and other US policymakers are anything but jubilant, as two October 22 New York Times reports make clear. The Times reporters note that Obama’s “military team had worked hard to avert” a US withdrawal. US negotiators in Iraq had “labored all year to avoid that outcome,” pressuring the Iraqi government to instead accept “a ‘residual’ force of as many as tens of thousands of soldiers to remain past 2011.” Paraphrasing anonymous senior US officials, the Times says that the outcome represents “a breakdown in tortured negotiations with the Iraqis” and a “triumph of politics” over “reality.” In the direct words of an unnamed US senior military official, the demand for US withdrawal represents “a failure of the Iraqi government.” This failure is attributed primarily to Iraqi “politics”: as a former US ambassador to Iraq said, “Iraq is a highly nationalistic country, and we were not able to dislodge the view that they should not have foreign troops on their soil.”

Such comments might elicit astonished reactions from observers not properly trained in the US imperial mindset. Only in a thoroughly-Orwellian political climate could a government’s obedience to an overwhelming popular consensus be characterized as a “failure” of that government, and government officials condemned for playing “politics” because they bow to the public will. And only in such a climate would anyone continue to take seriously US rhetoric about promoting democracy in the Middle East. These contradictions are resolvable, however, upon remembrance of the fact that the opinions of ordinary Iraqis are irrelevant to Western politicians and pundits. In fact, Iraqi opinions are worse than irrelevant, since they run precisely counter to the political, economic, and military agenda of Western powers in their country.

Iraqis’ Irrational Nationalism: Some Possible Explanations

Is Iraqis’ opposition to the US occupation just the reflection of a rash and visceral aversion to Westerners, or is there something more behind it? Buried deep within one of the Times’ October 22 reports is a clue. “The United States here was just like Saddam Hussein,” says a 42-year-old Iraqi man, expressing a widely-shared sentiment. In fact, the man was being generous: many Iraqis say that the United States is “worse than Saddam."

There is much evidence to support such opinions. The US invasion and occupation have killed far more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did, which is no small accomplishment given the brutality of the former dictator. The overall Iraqi death toll is unclear, but certainly ranges in the hundreds of thousands, and may be significantly more than one million. By March 2007, just four years after the invasion, one in six Iraqis had seen at least one member of their household killed or injured in the war, while “more than half reported an immediate relative or close friend harmed.” The figures four and a half years later are surely far higher. There are still close to five million refugees as a result of the war. The United States has not been directly responsible for all this death and suffering, but its role as aggressor ultimately implicates it in all of the violence that has followed. As the Nuremberg Military Tribunal declared after World War II, initiating a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Nor are Iraqis oblivious to the many other ways in which the US government has sought to prevent democracy in their country. The US-led occupation has maintained the Saddam-era law prohibiting unionization among most of the workforce, has privatized large portions of the economy against popular wishes, has sought to impose unpopular oil legislation highly favorable to foreign corporations, has tried to prevent or co-opt democratic elections in the country, and has often favored misogynistic and theocratic leaders friendly to US interests.

All these actions reflect the overriding US objectives in Iraq: increasing control over Iraq’s oil reserves in order to increase the flow of oil toward the West, the privatization of the Iraqi economy, and the consolidation of a stable client state that shares the US government vision for the region and that will allow the US military to maintain a permanent presence in the country. Largely as a result of these priorities, the Iraqi economy and infrastructure have been completely devastated, and remain in dismal condition today by both statistical measures and Iraqis’ own assessments. Despite some apparent improvement in recent years, the official unemployment rate is still 16 percent (meaning the actual rate is higher), while access to electricity, water, and sanitation services remains quite low. In a poll in late 2010, more Iraqis thought unemployment, electricity, and water/sanitation had “gotten worse over the last year” than said that they had “gotten better” or “stayed the same.” The number of doctors in Iraq is about half what it was before the invasion.

Although they certainly don’t blame foreigners exclusively, the culpability of the United States for Iraq’s problems is not lost on the general population. In light of the historical record, the widespread Iraqi opposition to continued Western occupation seems anything but irrational.

Beyond Iraq: US Policy and Muslims’ Irrational Hatreds

Recent US dealings with Iraq are indicative of a more general approach toward the Arab world: support autocratic but US-friendly regimes that will keep a lid on popular protest, while resisting or co-opting any threat of democratic transition. This pattern holds true for the Obama administration’s reactions to the Arab Spring of 2011. Contrary to the now-popular notion that the US government supported the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, in reality the Obama administration supported the existing regimes until it became politically impossible to do so. After the Egyptian uprising broke out, the official State Department spokesperson proclaimed that Hosni Mubarak was still “an ally and friend of the United States, an anchor of stability in the Middle East." Only when the tide had decisively turned against Mubarak did the administration begin supporting his ouster, and since then has sought a sort of “Mubarak-ism without Mubarak,” as past US administrations have done many times when faced with popular revolution in US client states. Most Muslims recognize this pattern in US policy (see below).

Since the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Washington has been working hard to suppress or at least contain democratic change in other US-allied states. Its primary partner has been Saudi Arabia, which John Bradley calls “the region’s Washington-allied superpower and its most antidemocratic, repressive regime.” In late February the Saudi government sent its tanks into Bahrain to violently repress the popular uprising there. The Obama administration punished Saudi Arabia for this aggression by reaffirming the $60 billion US-Saudi military aid deal it had signed late last year. Meanwhile, it has maintained virtual silence on the Bahraini government’s repression of protesters, and is now seeking to sell Bahrain $53 million in military equipment (following recent public protest over the deal, the administration “now says it will await the results of a Bahraini probe into its own abuses before proceeding with the sale”—somewhat akin to assigning Mubarak the task of judging himself guilty or innocent).

Middle East scholar Joseph Massad observes that “the US-Saudi strategy is two-fold: massive repression of those Arab uprisings that can be defeated, and co-optation of those that could not be.” A variety of specific means have been employed, from continued support for repressive regimes to efforts “to strengthen religious sectarianism, especially hostility to Shiism,” to a protracted NATO military campaign in Libya against prior US friend Muammar Gaddafi to ensure that the transition there goes as the Western powers and Western corporations would like it to.

US opposition to democracy and statehood for the Palestinian people continues in dramatic form, and continues to draw widespread condemnation from most of the world’s people. US support for the 44-year-old Israeli occupation has long been a major source of resentment among Muslims, and that resentment has likely only increased with the Obama administration’s opposition to the current Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

In the midst of these and other US actions, pundits continue to pose the question “Why do they hate us?” Perhaps the most authoritative explanation of Muslim and Arab anger toward the United States comes in a recent study by Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Drawing upon in-depth interviews in eleven countries and his extensive experience analyzing global opinion polls, Kull offers some interesting conclusions:

  • “Muslims generally perceive U.S. military forces in the region as a threatening presence designed to keep the region the way America wants it to be…Western powers have gained extraordinary military might that is seen as threatening and coercively dominating the Muslim world and propping up secular autocrats ready to accommodate the West.”
  • US support for the Israeli occupation and violence against Palestinians is a major source of Muslim anger. Moreover, “Israel, sometimes described as ‘America's aircraft carrier in the region’, is seen as integral to U.S. plans for domination. All this is seen as also serving Western economic interests, such as in securing oil, which dovetails with the agenda of keeping Islam under foot.”
  • “When democratic forces arose in Tunisia and Egypt, Muslims perceive that the United States only joined the parade when the outcome was irreversible. Still, America supports autocratic forces in Bahrain in the face of pro-democratic forces calling for change.”
  • Muslims reject all terrorism and have little sympathy for al Qaeda, but “al Qaeda did succeed in pulling the United States into a position in the Muslim world that has alienated much of Muslim society.”

Kull’s findings also refute Orientalist notions that Muslims prefer autocracy to democracy. Like the US public, Muslims in the Middle East overwhelming believe “that the will of the people should be the basis of governance,” that “government leaders should be chosen through free elections and that there should be full freedom of religion.” Nor are most Muslims viscerally anti-Western. As Kull comments, “Al Qaeda's model of rejecting all Western influences in favor of purely traditional society garners little support."

These findings coincide with those of other recent polls in the Arab world. A six-country poll released in July 2011 found that fewer than ten percent of respondents approved of Obama’s policies, and most even viewed the Iranian government more favorably than the US government. Moreover, “most Arab countries view the U.S. less favorably today than they did during the last year of the Bush administration.” James Zogby of the Arab American Institute notes that after Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo, “the favorable ratings of the U.S. were at their highest ever,” because Obama “sent a number of signals early on that U.S. policy would change”—again, evidence that most Arabs’ criticisms of the United States are rooted in substantive policy critiques rather than some kneejerk aversion to Westerners. When the substance of US policy remained the same, Arab approval plummeted. Respondents were also highly critical of the US response to the Arab Spring. “Far from seeing the U.S. as a leader in the post-Arab Spring environment,” the pollsters note, respondents “viewed ‘U.S. interference in the Arab world’ as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, second only to the continued Palestinian occupation”—with the latter, of course, also crucially reliant upon US backing.

Policymakers and establishment intellectuals sometimes acknowledge the US opposition to Arab democracy. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the National Security Council that “[t]he trouble is that we have a campaign of hatred against us [in the Middle East], not by the governments but by the people.” Around the same time, the NSC noted that “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries.” As a result, “the majority of Arabs” correctly “believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress".

More recently, policy scholar Aaron David Miller of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center called the 2011 Zogby poll results “a very old story, which Zogby has simply brought up to date.” There is a longstanding “clash of interests” between US policymakers and Arab peoples, Miller explained:

The fact is that there is a huge disconnect between what we believe is the right approach in the region and what many of the people who live there believe is the right approach…The bottom line is that Arabs expect a fundamental change in policy, but that change will not be forthcoming. And therefore the story of the United States in this region is going to continue to be difficult, to say the least.

The primary root of Arab and Muslim anger toward Western powers is not a “clash of civilizations” as Western propagandists routinely claim, but rather, as Miller observes, a fundamental “clash of interests” between the objectives of Western governments and corporations and the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples. In this sense, Iraq is a microcosm of the Arab world.

Democracy on the Home Front

The US public views the Arab Spring very favorably. Most (57 percent) say they would support the democratic uprisings in the Arab world “even if this resulted in the countr[ies] being more likely to oppose US policies” in the region. Faced with pro-democracy protests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, the vast majority of the public thinks the US government should either remain neutral—that is, not resist demands for democracy or reward the regimes with military aid—or take the side of the protesters. Less than 10 percent said that the US government should support the regimes in power in each country. Of course, this attitude is quite different from the one that prevails among US policymakers.

The example generalizes: the US public’s attitudes on most major economic and foreign policy issues are far to the left of the political elite of both parties, who exhibit a near-unanimous contempt for democracy here just as they do in the Middle East. Large majorities favor a much more equitable distribution of wealth, much lower military spending, universal access to education and health care, an end to corporate domination over government, and universal adherence to international law. And the vast majority of the US public thinks that policymakers should pay attention to public opinion.

Only in the case of truly exceptional politicians do these facts matter, however. The position of the Bush-Cheney administration was less tactful than usual: public opinion doesn’t matter. In the words of an administration spokesperson, “You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up.” But the spokesperson was only saying explicitly what most politicians think but don’t dare to say aloud. New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently echoed this sentiment when he explained why he refused to reinstate a modest tax hike for New York millionaires despite 72-percent support for the measure among New Yorkers: “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much.” Cuomo went on to say that he’s “not going to go back and forth with the political winds…You can’t just have as a governor a big poll-taking machine, right? And we take a poll, and whatever the poll says, that’s what we do.” Incidentally, the “political winds” to which Cuomo was referring have been remarkably consistent over the years, with the vast majority of New Yorkers—like the US public more generally—supporting higher taxes on the wealthy. But here, as in Iraq, the popular will is again derided as “politics.” And the US public is intensely aware of the unresponsiveness of its political leaders; the latest poll found a 9-percent approval rating for Congress.

Like Arab opinion, public opinion in the United States offers interesting perspectives and insights to those willing to listen. But few elites in any country listen willingly. As demonstrated by the Iraqi resistance and Arab uprisings of the past year, progressive public opinion typically only translates into policy change when accompanied by organized and sustained popular struggle.

This piece was originally published by Znet/ZCommunications.