By Matt Taibbi
A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box...
Here's a question that the folks at Gallup might want to consider looking into: What percentage of Americans knows the difference between Thurston Howell III and L. Paul Bremer III?
Iraqis know the difference. Bremer was the gentleman who recently canceled mayoral elections in the southern city of Najaf. The augustly titled Chief of the American Military Occupation decreed that "conditions were not yet appropriate" for an election.
We get used to reading phrases like this in the American media– "conditions were not appropriate." But what exactly does "conditions were not appropriate" mean?
I’ve got a pretty good idea.
In the history of American foreign policy, conditions for free elections have periodically been deemed inappropriate. There is a common element to each of these situations. In each case, the election is scheduled to take place prior to the installation of a mechanism that would make it possible for a retired, half-drunken B-movie actor, imported from Burbank and disguised as Thomas Jefferson in a turban, to win a sweeping electoral victory. Until that mechanism is in place, conditions are "inappropriate." This period can last many years. Sometimes it lasts decades.
Exhibit A: Vietnam. It’s become fashionable lately to compare Iraq to Vietnam, mainly because the recurring-firefights-amidst-semi-occupat
But facts are facts. In 1954, the Geneva accords mandated that free elections would occur in Vietnam in 1956, the idea being that the country would then be united. In the meantime, the U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon, a Catholic who had been living in a missionary in New Jersey.
It’s worth pointing out that having a Catholic as a leader was offensive to most Vietnamese, since the French occupiers were Catholic and the population was overwhelmingly Buddhist. In any case, when 1956 rolled around, it became clear that a U.S. antagonist named Ho Chi Minh would win any election running away.
In the kind of ironic twist not unusual to these stories, Ho Chi Minh had sided with the U.S. against the Japanese in WWII and had been, until the U.S. backed the French colonialists after the war, a fervent admirer of the American founding fathers. In this script, Ho Chi Minh was the actual Thomas Jefferson clone. But our decision to cross this hugely popular revolutionary leader triggered his conversion to communism, and so we were left to support a corrupt, insipid zero like Diem, who would have been a hopeless candidate in 1956. So in that year, on U.S. orders, Diem canceled elections.
We know how that one turned out. For the next two decades, we kept troops in Vietnam, hoping to create "appropriate conditions" for elections by marauding and terrorizing the local population. In 1963, when Diem balked at an escalating U.S. presence, he was assassinated. In 1966, a civilian Buddhist rebellion in the U.S.-controlled south was put down with the help of American forces. In 1967, the vicious Nguyen Thieu won an election through a massive campaign of local patronage, securing an "impressive" 35 percent plurality of the vote. In 1971, Thieu ran unopposed, winning 91.5 percent of the vote, the kind of Soviet-style election result Americans generally like to see take place in their client states. The 100 people who turned out for the pro-Thieu rally in Saigon after the election weren’t enough to turn the tide of history, however, as the U.S. was soon after kicked out of the country.
There are plenty of other examples. There was the Phillipines, where Ferdinand Marcos was pushed to declare martial law and end elections in 1972 in the wake of anti-U.S. protests. There was Chile, where the question of how to subvert the election of Salvador Allende consumed the Nixon administration in the early 70s.
Americans are not particularly interested in hearing these stories these days, because all of them have been fouled with the tweedy stench of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. These days, once an issue can be reliably tied to the whiny, finger-pointing left, it’s instantly discredited, whether those whiny lefties actually had a point or not. You bring up something like the Allende business, or Indonesia in 1965–where we supported Suharto after the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people–and the response of Main Street America is, "Yeah, we’ve heard that before," like it’s not an issue of fact but some cockamamie lefty conspiracy theory, an attempt to put Suharto on the Grassy Knoll or something.
So fuck it, I won’t go in that direction. But I will ask a question about Iraq: Who are Iraqis supposed to vote for?
Two-thirds of the country is Shiite Muslim, and if allowed to vote, that segment of society would almost certainly endorse an Iran-style religious government. The candidate who had been expected to win last weekend’s scheduled election in Najaf, Asad Sultan Abu Gilal, was a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and though he purported to be in favor of democratic government, his party offices advertised a ceremony marking the death of the Ayatollah Khomeni. According to the New York Times, fliers for one of his party’s candidates advocated rebuilding "educational life in private and public schools on a religious basis." Though this is exactly what the Bush administration favors in the United States, it is not what it wants for the Muslim world, and so elections were canceled.
This same thing happened in Russia in the 90s. In 1991 and 1992, America could enthusiastically embrace the emergence of democracy in Russia, because the population was wildly pro-American then and was more than willing to accept the Jefferson-in-a-turban then ascending to power, former Politburo member Boris Yeltsin. But after a series of Western-aided economic catastrophes that resulted in the dismantling of social guarantees and the evaporation of most Russians’ savings (following an insane decision to free the ruble prior to the end of the state pricing system in 1992), Russians changed their minds and communists suddenly became popular again. After a narrow referendum victory that Yeltsin was widely believed to have rigged in 1993, he ultimately sent tanks to bomb a legally elected parliament, and his administration (with the help of U.S. advisors) subsequently created a new constitution that gave the president sweeping autocratic powers, allowing him to implement U.S.-backed laissez-faire reforms by decree.
The script is always the same. When the people won’t voluntarily vote for the candidates we like, sooner or later, they end up staring down the barrel of a Suharto/Thieu/Marcos/Pinochet/Putin, a bloodless autocrat who kicks ass and does ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Pepsi. Our concept of democracy and choice is always limited to candidates who will not nationalize resources or protect markets and has no qualms about ignoring the opinions of the population. Which is something those of us who get the feeling that even our own elections here at home are meaningless charades ought to consider: Maybe they are.
So what do we mean when we talk about bringing democracy to a population that doesn’t want us there? The answer is, they’d better fricking learn to want us there. Once they do, we have "appropriate conditions." Can’t we just admit it?
Volume 16, Issue 26