The Socialist Unity Network

An antithesis is not an alternative

Azmi Bishari, this article first appeared in Al Ahram



Nine hundred and forty nine US soldiers have died since the US launched its war against Iraq in March 2003. Of these, 811 died since Bush officially declared the end of the campaign on 1 May 2003. Of these, 94 died since the so-called transfer of sovereignty on 28 June.

Although the majority of US public opinion is now inclined to regard the war as a mistake perpetrated on the basis of false evidence regarding Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and although opinion polls suggest that the war will be a greater determinant of the outcome of the presidential elections than the state of the economy and domestic policies combined, the elite that dominates political life in the US in the form of two electoral leagues that call themselves parties has yet to address the question of a systematic withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Instead of highlighting the differences between the candidates, the "debate" has cast its spotlight on Kerry's war record in Vietnam, his one-upmanship with Bush over the Palestinian question and the fact that if he had all the information currently available to him he would still have voted in favor of the war against Iraq. Kerry needs to prove that he is consistent, and in so doing he reminds us that all the major imperialist wars America fought in the 20th century were waged under Democratic presidents: the Korean War under Truman, Vietnam under Kennedy and Johnson, and Afghanistan under Carter. The rhetoric in US electoral campaigns is propelling strongly towards imperialist hegemony, which we can take as an indicator that the dynamics of American democracy will not lead to "global democracy". Americans cherish their democratic system -- or at least regard it as obviously better than a dictatorship -- but global democracy, if we can use this term, is another matter; indeed, there is no connection at all between the two.

The American imperialist drive in Iraq has so far given rise to three forms of resistance. The first is the sustained bombing of occupation targets and of the officials and institutions of its nascent puppet- like governing authority, especially officials and recruitment and training centres of the new security forces the occupation is trying to create. Iraqi civilians also frequently fall victim to these systematic assaults. Information and opinion regarding the perpetrators of these explosions are divergent, but most converge on two sources: the first, holdouts from Baathist cadres and security apparatuses of the old regime; the second, a more recent phenomenon, partisans of nationalist and/or religious organisations. Although available information remains vague, it seems apparent that this is not a resistance movement that holds out the best hope for Iraqi society and the Iraqi people. While it has succeeded in obstructing America's immediate plans and demolishing any number of theories about the relationship between the ruling regime and society in states with a strong and wealthy public sector and a large army and beneficiaries, neither the old regime nor the religious movements offer the best prospects for the future of Iraq. Indeed, some of their actions and beliefs are repellent to broad sectors of democratically minded people, both inside Iraq and abroad, who nevertheless harbour a vehement animosity towards the American occupation. But, when it comes to dealing with the occupation, another set of calculations are in order, and in this regard the resistance is preventing the occupation from imposing its hegemony and advancing its political agenda, not only in Iraq but in the entire region.

The second form of resistance is to be found in those elements of Iraqi society whom occupation policies have goaded into action, a classic illustration of which can be seen in the people of Falluja who were driven to take up arms. The latent potential for this form of resistance exists in many Iraqi cities and its growth is contingent upon the inability of the current regime to accommodate the interests of broad sectors of the public and the inability of the occupation forces to cap it. In this instance, a strong element of spontaneity blends with organised action in the process of unleashing the suppressed energies of a population that have been kept under a tight leash for decades by the nation state.

The third form of resistance, the most notable example of which is Al-Mahdi Army led by Moqtada Al-Sadr, draws its support from the Shia poor and their millenarian and redemption-based beliefs. This form is radically different from the first two. While undoubtedly part of the greater resistance movement, it is distinguished not so much by its sectarian nature as by the fact that it belongs to that legacy of oppression under the former regime and a clerical style of leadership. Recently, Shia clerics have formed a number of political parties, such as the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution. Most of these parties have entered the political fray under the current ruling system and are competing to acquire a greater share of the 81 parliamentary seats available for distribution among political parties. It may well be that the rebellion of Moqtada Al-Sadr's party began in the context of this rivalry to expand spiritual and political influence. However, the fact that this party has its roots among the Shia poor who migrated to the cities and among rural Shia clans, in conjunction with their ideological fervour and particular willingness to recognise the legitimacy of the line of succession to spiritual leadership from uncle to father to son, has worked to pull this party outside the political process and propel it to open rebellion against the entire status quo under the occupation.

Would you want to live under a government ruled by Moqtada Al-Sadr? This question has been posed to baffle and embarrass democratically minded persons opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and the American project of global hegemony. Well, firstly, the answer is an unambiguous no. But, secondly, the question is not only rhetorical, it is also unambiguously demagogic. What is important about the Al-Sadr movement at present is that it casts into relief the nature of Iraqi social forces, especially among the Shia poor, as shaped by the occupation and its alliances in Iraqi society. In many senses, Moqtada Al-Sadr is a tragic inverse image of Iyad Allawi; he is the antithesis not the alternative. The Moqtada Al-Sadr phenomenon is not a political platform; it is a cry from the depth of the history of the suffering of the oppressed and dispossessed in Iraq, as opposed to the opportunists who change their allegiances from one regime to the next and cannot be meaningfully categorised as a social force. Allawi is a pragmatic secularist and expert player at power politics from the remnants of the Saddam regime. Having allied himself with foreign intelligence agencies, he obtained a British passport and returned in the immediate aftermath of the war on the back of American tanks. When he arrived, he had no social power base, whether in the regime or the opposition, but he and his government now have the luxury to use this interval granted to them to create such a base. Therefore, they have been busy using their influence to confer position on cronies, to rehabilitate officers of the former army, to grant amnesty to Baathist elements, all in complete opposition to Pentagon theory and in full agreement with CIA realism -- and in complete conformity with the realism of Arab regimes, some of whose leaders they resemble. The regime borne of the occupation will need an enormous quantity of corruption and a heavy dose of repression, both expertly blended, in order to build the social bases that will guarantee its reelection. It has met its first major challenge at proving itself by rolling its tanks up to the Imam Ali Mosque and threatening to undertake an action that people had once thought only Saddam was capable of.

Governments like the one currently in Iraq do not think in terms of tactical manoeuvres and they care little about their humanitarian image. What concerns them is to pass the test of sovereignty at home, which entails proving their ability to act firmly and resolutely, regardless of the cost, in order to establish their monopoly on the recourse to violence and the tools of violence. Ordinarily, a government that hesitates in its resolve in such an instance is moribund because it permits or engenders a dual authority, which is an inherently unstable situation, lasting only until one authority puts an end to the other. The tragic irony in the Iraqi situation, however, is that it does not monopolise recourse to violence; the Americans do. The Americans are busily building military bases in Iraq and, in spite of the camouflage of withdrawing some American soldiers from Asia and Europe on the eve of the presidential elections, Washington still plans to keep some 160,000 troops in the coalition for at least the next five years. The US is also in the process of building the largest US embassy in the world in Iraq, and before leaving Baghdad governor-general Bremer issued a range of laws and regulations that no Iraqi government will be easily able to ignore or alter, at least in the foreseeable future.

Iraq is under colonial rule. Therefore, the government's attempt to resolve the challenge to its authority through an assault on the Shia shrine in Najaf will create a gaping wound that will not heal easily with time. This is a very dangerous government at this juncture. It is acute to its crisis of legitimacy and seeks to compensate for this by commanding respect through flexing its muscles. Unfortunately, the muscles here are American forces and this force does not create legitimacy.

Condoleezza Rice probably doesn't like the possibility that the Iraqi government would entertain Moqtada Al-Sadr's promises to lay down arms, which is why she has declared that she wouldn't believe him if he accepted the government's conditions. Undoubtedly, the government has taken her cue and one suspects that it will upping its demands so that whatever conditions Moqtada agrees to his assent can be construed as too late. This government will stand for nothing less but Moqtada's complete submission to the humiliation that it believes is his due. Then only the government will have the power to forgive, which is the only trapping of power that can compare to the display of force in occupying the Shia's most important shrine and defiling other sacred edifices.

Has Al-Sadr changed his position? Suppose that this is true, because he is manoeuvring to save his movement without surrendering and without dismantling his militia. Manoeuvring entails a considerable quantity of words that can be taken in two ways and sometimes it entails outright lies. However, Moqtada's credibility is not the issue in the eyes of the occupation. There is only one issue: the American occupation of Iraq. One cannot help but notice how desperately Washington wants to resolve the matter of Al-Mahdi as quickly as possible and how closely its invective against Moqtada Al-Sadr is connected to Bush's need for a breakthrough in Iraq before election time. Whether this breakthrough wreaks havoc on the American occupation is not important, since whatever disaster occurs will happen after Bush is re-elected, which is the sole concern of Bush and of Karl Rove.

The current forms of the Iraqi resistance do not offer an alternative. Some of these are directed against the Americans, others express the contradictions in Iraqi society after the dissolution of the one-party state and the breakdown of security; contradictions that bring entire segments of the population into collision with the occupation. Not that such a diagnosis would trouble the Americans much. Resistance is a problem regardless. Only some Arab neo-liberals insist on cornering us with these contradictions, as though the Moqtada Al-Sadr platform is standing for election to the government of Iraq. The elections, may we remind them, are taking place in the US, not in Iraq, and there no one is voicing any alternatives. If anything, criticism should be directed against the Democratic candidate, Kerry, for not having taken the historic opportunity to offer an alternative to neoconservative policies.

A major development elsewhere in the world helps shed light on the Iraqi conundrum. Over the past two years, Venezuela was the scene of another form of resistance against American domination. It was waged not with arms but by force of democratic processes and a public mobilised behind a social agenda. The US was very disappointed in the decision of the democratic majority, even in the absence of religious parties and an army of Al-Mahdi. It was so disappointed that it was ready to conspire against it. But resistance determined by the ballot box, as was the case with Venezuelan public opinion's ability to impose Hugo Chavez over American objections, presupposes an independent sovereign state in which broad segments of the public regard Washington's dictates and the IMF's neo-liberal austerity prescriptions an encroachment on their national sovereignty. In 2001, the Americans and their allies tried to oust Chavez through a coup. The masses of Venezuelan poor had him back in power two days later. If the democratically elected government that was conspired against had belonged to the American camp there would have been no question of letting the conspirators have a second go through democratic methods such as recalls and referendums. It is not difficult to imagine what would have happened to the conspirators at the hands of such democratically minded souls as Allawi and his fellow "democratic leaders" who are America's allies in the Arab world. In all events, Venezuela held a referendum and the results came firmly on the side of public health insurance, eradicating illiteracy campaigns and other social programmes. The American democratic establishment is incensed and once again Kerry has aired his fear of the Venezuelan threat to the US. Some journalists in the American royal court have suggested that the only reason Chavez won was because of the rising prices of oil. Were it not for all that extra money, they say, he would not have been able to spend so lavishly on health care and education. An unpardonable crime. He should have put the money in his own pockets and the pockets of his friends and relatives as America's allies throughout the Third World do.

Experience has taught us the wisdom of scepticism regarding the enthusiasm for charismatic Third World leaders who play on the popular chords of anti-Americanism. Even in my most optimistic Venezuelan moments, I can only caution against that tendency towards personality adulation, which has created such pitiful instances of Bonapartism in the Third World and fostered such boundless personal corruption, to the strains of revolutionary rhetoric and leftist romanticism in the West. Therefore, we cannot judge Chavez on the basis of his being a nicer guy than, say, Moqtada Al-Sadr, or on the basis of his democratic ways and means, since these were not so much his choice as they were the political conditions that bred the Chavez phenomenon. Nor can we compare his situation with that in Iraq. Violence was not an option for Chavez. He, as the legitimately elected head of state, represents legitimacy, and violence on his part would have given the US a pretext for intervention. In all events, violence is the style of his adversaries. Rather, Chavez passes the test because he offers a socio-political alternative to the Venezuelan model of American hegemony. Chavez represents the potential of an alternative, at least for Venezuela, rather than merely an antithesis.

In Iraq, on the other hand, the "democrats" are those who have hijacked the rhetoric of "democracy and stability" in the bloody conflict against the "forces of terrorism" and against the "radical cleric" or, variably, the "young", "ambitious", "renegade", "rogue" or "populist" "rebel", and other such not-so-very-democratic sounding epithets used to tar the image of the resistance fighter brandishing his sword against the occupation. If there is a juxtaposition to be made between Venezuela and Iraq it is between a democratic discourse that has rejected American domination and a "democratic" rhetoric that has appropriated democracy to advance the project of American hegemony in the Arab world.



September 2004


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