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CIVILIZING MISSION
- The US still mistakes national resistance for terrorism

Leaving aside the tantalizing question of who slept where on board Condoleezza Rice's special flight to Baghdad, the mission was a re-run of the Cold War phenomenon called 'Finlandisation'. Jack Straw's presence added as little weight to Rice's purpose as his boss's exuberance does to George W. Bush's aggressive mission civilisatrice. But just as the old Soviet Union gave short shrift to any flicker of free will in theoretically independent Finland, the United States of America is squandering its leadership role by insisting on deciding the democratic outcome in Iraq.

Last December, the United Iraq Alliance of seven Shia organizations won 132 of the 275 parliamentary seats in what everyone regarded as a free and fair election with a surprisingly high turn-out, and nominated Ibrahim al Jaafari of the Islamic Daawa Party for a second term as prime minister. This, too, was a democratic choice. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also a UIA member, supported Adil Abdullah Mahdi, Iraq's vice-president, who narrowly failed to win the nomination.

Al Jaafari should be eminently acceptable to the US since he fought Saddam Hussein and spent many years in exile. But there lies the rub. His exile was in Iran, and Americans suspect him of pushing Iranian interests. What compounds his offence in their eyes are his 'socialist tendencies' and admiration for Noam Chomsky, whom he wishes to invite to Baghdad. Mahdi, his opponent and the US favourite, might call Iraq's prime minister 'courageous' and 'wonderful' but with such credentials, he is fated to join Saddam Hussein, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Syria's Bashir Assad in America's west Asian rogues' gallery.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador who was previously in Kabul where he was reportedly the only man Hamid Karzai ever consulted, set the ball rolling by asking for a government of national unity which has since become a catchphrase, with al Jaafari's adversaries repeating that the Kurds and Sunnis refuse to work with him. The game started with the appointment as ambassador in June 2004 of John Negroponte, now the US intelligence chief, ostensibly to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis. As New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles pointed out, Negroponte learned his trade as ambassador to Honduras in the Eighties where he controlled the largest CIA station in the world and was known as 'the proconsul'. He was criticized for 'covering up abuses by the Honduran military' ' meaning large-scale state terror ' because Honduras provided bases for the mercenary army, the Contras, through which Ronald Reagan's administration tried to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Ignoring the order of the World Court in the Hague to stop the 'unlawful use of force' ' international terrorism ' against Nicaragua and pay substantial reparations, the US instead vetoed two security council resolutions upholding the directive and urging states to respect international law. Abraham Sofaer, the state department's legal adviser, explained that since most of the world could not be 'counted on to share (Washington's) view', the administration alone would decide how it would act and which matters fell 'essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the US, as determined by the US'. Incidentally, Honduras withdrew its small contingent of forces from Iraq only a few days after Negroponte's appointment, perhaps fearing the repetition of a familiar sequence.

There may be many sound reasons why, despite the UIA nomination, al Jaafari may not be suitable for the job. Though the 32-seat Fadilah (Virtue) Party of Moqtada al Sadr, the influential Shia cleric who is also close to Sunni groups, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shia spiritual leader, want him to stay on, four UIA groups do not. Nobody, either in Iraq or elsewhere in west Asia, which has lately begun to respond sensitively to what is happening in Iraq, can object if the prime minister's constituents turn against him. But American dislike cannot be the reason for him to quit. Yet, according to most accounts, the Rice-Straw mission was to nudge al Jaafari into stepping down while encouraging his local adversaries to step up their campaign against him.

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and undisclosed detention centres in eastern Europe are part of the ugly legacy of a power that could give the world so much and lead it to secure prosperity. Yet, precedents from South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan and sundry Islamic autocracies highlight the irony of the world's oldest democracy counting only monarchs and dictators without a popular mandate as its staunchest supporters in Asia. The treatment meted out to Hamas confirms how little Bush and his neo-conservative cronies value any popular verdict.

The dangerous feature of the al Jaafari controversy is the overlap of politics and religion, with the threat of repercussions throughout the region. Amidst all manner of plausible and implausible conspiracy theories, Shias in Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain link the mosque attacks in Iraq with the Danish cartoon controversy, further fuelling anti-Western passion. There are fears that Sunni-Shia tension might impact on Saudi Arabia's oil production. Warning a senate committee that religious conflict 'would seriously jeopardise the democratic political process', Negroponte agreed that, despite initial reluctance, neighbouring countries would be tempted to become involved. As the world's principal Shia power, Iran may feel ' and Iraqi Shias may reciprocate the sentiment ' that it has a more legitimate interest in adjoining Shia-majority Iraq than the US.

It is a measure of its inability to appreciate the force of Asian nationalism that the US cannot grasp that anything that looks like coercion can only aggravate the situation. Washington is probably still surprised that it was not hailed as the liberator from Saddam's oppression. It still mistakes national resistance ' what Napoleon called a 'running sore' in conquered Spain ' for terrorism. Such obtuseness arises from what J. William Fulbright called 'the arrogance of power' in his eponymous 1966 classic which continues to provide insights into current American policy.

'America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it,' Fulbright wrote. 'Other great nations, reaching this crucial juncture, have aspired to too much and, by overextension of effort, have declined and then fallen. Gradually but unmistakably, America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing, we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilised example for the world; the measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot's duty of dissent.'

That patriotic cri de coeur prompts a question about what the US expects from subordinate partners. Thomas Carothers, a historian of the democratization process in Latin America who also served in Reagan's state department, might not have branded the expectation as quite the blind obedience of Finlandization. He thought the programmes were 'sincere' but failed because Washington would tolerate only 'limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the US has long been allied'.

The US had its way in Nicaragua, but as Carothers wrote, the death toll was 'significantly higher than the number of US persons killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the 20th century combined'. Today, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, just above Haiti, another target of US intervention. About 60 per cent of Nicaraguan children under two are afflicted with anaemia from severe malnutrition.

Unlike in Nicaragua, there is no systemic conflict in Iraq. Nor any threat to American security. But that's not enough. As in Palestine, Bush's mission civilisatrice demands that the voters' choice must be handpicked by the US. It's a definition of democracy that befits Stalin's Russia, not the land of the free from which the world expects moral and material succour.

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