On average one-and-a-half Americans are dying daily in Iraq. In order to assuage growing resentment at its occupation, the United States of America has just announced that a transitional Iraqi government will be formed by June 2004. President George W. Bush declared his administration’s abiding commitment to establishing democracy not only in Iraq but in the region as a whole. What are we to make of all this'
There should be no illusions. The US is not about to give up and get out of Iraq anytime soon. They are there with a long-term commitment. This is not Vietnam. There are no powerful countries nearby like Russia and China willing to provide strong material support for sustained resistance by the direct victims of occupation. After Vietnam, US soldiery cannot suffer death rates in the thousands, let alone tens of thousands, but it can and will sustain death rates in the several hundreds. What is more, unlike Indo-China, west Asia is geo-politically (the pivot of Eurasia) and resource-wise (oil) far more strategically important than Vietnam ever was, or was falsely made out to be, in order to justify continued US aggression.
In this very different era, the stakes are much higher. The US is no longer aiming merely to contain its principal rivals, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now out to establish a long-term global dominance, effectively synonymous (as its most clear-headed strategic thinkers openly declare) with domination of the Eurasian landmass. In this respect, west Asia is the principal problem. Hegemony in the longer run cannot rest on force. It must involve consent but not just of the passive kind, born of fear or a sense of powerlessness. It has to be an active form of consent, that is to say, involving the internalization of the belief that the US, despite its mistakes and occasional high-handedness, is basically a force for good, with a society to be admired and followed, albeit not perfect or without significant flaws.
This, after all, is the belief held by many other developing country elites/middle classes, from India to China. There may be some resentment at the “bullying” aspects of US foreign policy, but the US remains the model of economic prosperity and political liberties that these elites/ middle classes take as the standard by which to judge their own societies. It is this deeper “cultural” internalization that gives the greatest guarantee that any opposition to the US’s global imperial project remains partial and weak. It is always leavened by the willingness of developing country elites (Russia can now be counted as a developing country) and the governments they control, to offer cooperation in the stabilization and institutionalization of this imperial project in return for specific favours. This is considered to be the “realistic” pursuit of “national interest”. Behind it lies the fact that the US-backed project of neo-liberal globalization also offers considerable benefits to developing country capitalists (albeit as junior production partners and/or as rentiers) and to the middle classes below them.
What distinguishes west Asia from all other parts of the world are two things. First, nowhere else is there such deep hostility towards the US among the elites/middle classes and the masses. And nowhere else are American client regimes so isolated and bereft of public support. The result is that though internal opposition may be led by secular or Islamic leaderships, nevertheless resentment against the US is common to both. Should any of the existing client regimes from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Egypt (even the Syrian government is willing to basically tail the US if the latter would let it) fall to their opponents, it would mean a significant shift in the regional relationship of forces and be seriously detrimental to the US’s larger imperial project.
The invasion of Iraq must be seen for what it is — not just the attempt to impose direct US control on that country but as the first major act in a wider effort to reorganize the US’s regional domination on securer, more “hegemonic”, that is, consensual lines. That is why the constant White House refrain of wanting to institutionalize democracy in west Asia. But the language in which the message is repeatedly couched, equivalent to older offensive tropes about the “white man’s burden” and “bringing civilization to the savages”, must not be dismissed as merely a fraud. Democratization of west Asia, courtesy Washington, is essentially a code word for this newer project of institutionalizing hegemony via active consent.
What this requires is the transformation of the west Asian elites/middle classes in such a manner that they are not simply tied economically to the US-promoted neo-liberal world economy but become “culturally” committed to the US. If west Asia could be remodelled in such a manner that the US could take credit for helping to overthrow unpopular regimes and to replace them with democratic governments that provide much needed political liberties to their peoples, then this, it is hoped, could more than compensate for the persistence of deep economic and social divisions, and for the continuation of foreign policies that sustain Israeli regional dominance while denying genuine justice to the Palestinians. This is not, by any means, a far-fetched perspective. It is not necessary for the US to win the allegiance of even a majority of the west Asian population, only of a sizeable middle class. If along with this there is passive consent among sufficient sections of the remainder, then that will do nicely. It will assure longer-term stability of democratic, but above all, pro-American regimes.
What stands in the way of fulfilling such a project' Three things. First, democratization cannot guarantee the emergence of pro-US governments or the decline of Muslim fundamentalist influence. There is no basic contradiction between Muslim fundamentalism and the US, hence that other history of US collaboration with fundamentalist forces and regimes. But today the US is caught in a cleft stick of its own making. The “war against global terrorism” is its most powerful justification to the American public for direct intervention and remodelling of west Asia.
But obtaining homeland support in this way requires (and in civil society gets) constant reference to the “Islamic threat”. Yet at the government-to-government level, anti-Islamism makes it more difficult to obtain necessary regime or popular support. The unilateralism of US foreign policy, however, makes the former tactic more useful than the latter even as it pushes Muslim fundamentalists and “moderate Muslims” (itself an offensive term — who talks of “moderate” Christians') towards opposition.
Overall, therefore, democratization will be pursued selectively and inconsistently. Indeed, in the final analysis assuring clientelism (obedience to US dictates) will trump genuine democratization wherever the two are not compatible.
Second, neo-liberal economic globalization will not only exacerbate existing inequalities in west Asia but ensure the absence of rising incomes for the poor. Compared to the 1950-80 period, the dismal economic record of the last two decades in this regard speaks for itself.
Finally, pan-Arabism, though long dormant, politically speaking, survives as a trans-state, mass-level emotion and sentiment whose principal glue is the Palestine issue. While it is conceivable that an unjust peace settlement — Bantustanization — might be forced upon an inept Palestinian leadership by Israel and the US, it cannot in the longer run last. No quasi-colonial settlement will, against what is the last anti-colonial struggle of modern times. But if an interim “solution”, along with other developments, provides the US with a decade or more to pursue its hegemonic ambitions, Washington will happily settle for it.