As Saddam Hussein awaits his show-trial and likely execution, prospects for democracy and freedom in Iraq remain dubious at best. Like so many of the Republic's previous wars, military triumph did not produce a satisfactory peace.
On the contrary, with scant planning for what would follow the second Gulf War, the United States soon confronted a vicious insurgency, which now threatens the American-staged elections. Ethnic divisiveness reinforces this uncertainty, with al Qaeda guerrillas, Baathist loyalists, and many Sunni Muslims rejecting the American project. Even worse, Shiite Islam voters turned out in numbers sufficient to dash U.S. hopes for a malleable secular government.
We do know -- as U.S. military deaths pass 1500 and Iraqi fatalities perhaps one-hundred times that many - that the American Middle East project has created many new problems. The present conundrum stems from the inconsistent reasons for the conflict from its inception.
Initiated even before 9/11 as unfinished business, the American campaign in Iraq claimed that Saddam and al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden were twins, and that Saddam possessed biological, chemical, and perhaps nuclear WMD - weapons of mass destruction. When these explanations failed, President George W. Bush turned to spreading "freedom and democracy" to justify his open-ended war on terror. Now the administration would remake the Middle East to safeguard oil and American global pre-eminence in the world.
Bush's Grand Design now appears wrongheaded even to some of its early supporters. The president's attempts to mend fences in Europe suggest a new prudence, but critics point up numerous analogies with the Vietnam disaster, and counsel the need to recognize limits on American power, respect international law, and heed the views of skeptical friends.
Yet for many reasons the new American global equation remains repugnant. For one, we've witnessed in the past two years the triumph of the Pentagon over the Department of State. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remains powerful, supported by VP Dick Cheney and neoconservative hawks who in the name of "shock and awe" subdued former Secretary of State Colin Powell's internationalism as they did Saddam's power. The hawks now might accord more attention to history's lesson that freedom and democracy do not do well when imposed by bayonet, and that no matter how powerful, empires are finite. Humility invariably trumps the imagined invincibility of imperial hubris.
Second, both Washington and Ottawa have narrowed democratic protections against state-sponsored incursions on civil liberties. The celebrated case of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer born in Syria, is instructive. Two and one-half years ago, after noting his name on the watch list of suspected terrorists, American agents detained him in New York and sent him by private jet to Syria. There he endured months of brutal grilling, including torture, until October 2003, when the Canadian government finally intervened to free him.
This outsourcing of torture comprises the most problematic weapon in Washington's current anti-terrorist strategy. It leaves America's war on terror outside international law, favouring operations (in Cheney's words) "through the dark side," as at Guantanamo Bay. Since 9/11 this policy of "extraordinary rendition" allowed conveying suspected terrorists to third-party countries like Egypt and Syria, where U.S. domestic rules forbidding torture do not apply. The future of due process remains in doubt, with burgeoning surveillance technology affecting the lives of Canadians as well as Americans.
Third, one cannot help but note the parallel between the religious views of the Bush administration and those of the more radical Islamic groups. Both sides claim God's support in defense of mayhem both domestic and internationalso often as to give the deity a bad name. And where radical Islam denounces Western depravity on all fronts, so too do U.S. Christian evangelicalswho strive to protect us from sex and violence even as their government enacts an occupation that features equal parts sex, violence, and chaos. The tawdriness of the pornographic photos of detained Iraqis at Abu Ghraib Prison embody a hypocrisy that would make Elmer Gantry blush.
Fourth, the Bush administration has fully embraced deficit spending that favours its corporate and military cronies. The Iraq project involves contracts running into the billions of dollars. The Halliburton-Cheney connection is instructive of unprecedented heights in war profiteering. Social programs be damned.
My late father, a Hoover Republican and defender of the old fiscal morality, counseled that if you don't have money, you better not spend it. In its Middle East policy, the Bush administration is not only spending what it does not have, but also mortgaging the homeland that it claims to protect, and perhaps the global economy as well.
After stealing the presidency from Al Gore in 2000, Bush promised a compassionate conservatism. Instead, we behold a polity featuring a disquieting use of populist rhetoric to appeal to the American populace; a drive to secure hegemony over media and their dissemination of information; an unabashed reactionary agenda, in league with the most powerful elements of the corporate and military elite; and a drive toward ideological and cultural purity, spearheaded by the evangelicals. These strategies, together with Orwellian doublethink and the Big Lie technique in evidence during and after the 2004 presidential campaign, should distress us. The goose-steps and funny shirts may be missing, but in the Bush presidency we witness the emergence of a surly neofascism.