Hypocrisy on Democracy: Obama’s Post-facto Justification of Iraq Invasion

by totalillusion

Ryan Ward

By Seamus

On the 26th of March, President Obama spoke in Brussels addressing inter alia the crisis in the Ukraine. In an attempt to respond to accusations of hypocrisy aimed at the West, Obama, whilst admitting that he opposed military intervention in Iraq, went on to add:

But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory, nor did we grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state could make decisions about its own future.”

Here Obama makes three claims, all of which are somewhat suspect. The first one, namely that “America sought to work within the international system” is laughable for obvious reasons and doesn’t merit further debate here. One only needs to remember the speech delivered to the Mayport Naval Station, Florida in 2003, in which the then President George W. Bush challenged the United Nations to “rise to its responsibilities” and authorize intervention in Iraq or else it would become an “ineffective, irrelevant debating society.” The second claim that America did not “claim or annex” Iraq’s territory may be true, but is more in keeping with the face of American imperialism. Since the Cleveland administration, regime change directed at installing democracy has frequently been about removing governments and imposing an ideal of self-government that operated according to the interests of the US.

The intentions of Bush’s foreign policy were indeed made explicit in a 2002 US Security Strategy in which the Bush administration expressed its determination to build a better and safer future by spreading “democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world.” This brings us neatly to the third claim, that the US administration had left a “fully sovereign Iraqi state that could make decisions about its own future.” Indeed, the most common post-facto justification for the Iraqi invasion is that the country was left with a democracy in that it now enjoys “free and fair elections.” That’s it: Iraq now reaps the benefits of having a democracy but only in a procedural sense. Indeed, the international community has always been concerned with democracy in a mere procedural sense, sense, namely the existence of free and fair elections’ as opposed to a substantive definition which include inter alia, social equality and the protection of socio-economic rights.

Just like the Cleveland administration went about imposing an ideal of self-government in the Philippines that operated according to the principles of the US constitution, Bush went about imposing an ideal of self-government that operated according to the principles of neoliberal capitalism. Ignoring the constraints placed on democracy by the free-market in generating and sustaining systemic inequalities of wealth and power, Bush went about implementing the form of democracy that he had described in the Security Strategy a year prior; namely, a democracy that was deemed to be synonymous with free-market capitalism. What transpired under in the interim period, before the “hand-over of sovereignty to the Iraqi people.” will demonstrate this point in hand. By the time “sovereignty” had been “handed over,” Iraq had undergone such a massive shift in its economic make-up during the transformative period that any future meaningful expression of self-determination had become impossible. Before examining the “democratization” of Iraq however, this post will briefly cover some of the mainstream views on regime change and democracy that flooded international legal and political discourse the decade preceding the invasion.

I. Pro-democratic Intervention in a Millenarian Framework

Around a decade prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Francis Fukyama’s “End of History” was stirring heads amongst academics and laypersons alike. Here, Fukyama draws on Marx’s progressivist view of history and makes the bold claim that the end of the cold war signifies the triumph of not only capitalism over communism, but of liberal democracy over other forms of governance, that is: an ideal of democracy associated with the free-market. The implications that Fukuyama’s thesis should have on any future military intervention was made clear in an article posted by Fukyama himself in a 1992 edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine in which Fukuyama argued that the “post historical west should actively defend its gains through a league of democratic nations […] capable of forceful action to protect its collective security from threats arising from the non-democratic part of the world and inclined also to expand the sphere of democracy, where possible and prudent.” Although an international relations theorist, Fukuyama’s proposition resembles views that were pervading international legal discourse a decade prior; namely, an article written by Michael Riesman in the American Journal of International Law in which Riesman saw the principle of self-determination of peoples as legitimizing the use of unilateral force, claiming that this was in-keeping with the spirit of the UN Charter in that the ideal had come to be seen as the “fundamental principle of political legitimacy in the contemporary international order.” Perhaps influenced by Riesman, Obama attempts a post-facto justification of the Iraqi invasion, contending that the invasion was legitimate in that it left an Iraqi people free to make decisions about its own future.

Perhaps however, the most seminal piece on democracy and international law was Thomas Franck’s “Emerging Right to Democratic Governance” which appeared in a 1992 edition of the American Journal of International Law. Although Franck’s views on pro-democratic intervention show tremendous restraint in comparison to Fukuyama and Riesman, his conceptualization of an emerging right to “Democracy” shed light on how democracy is typically framed within the international community. To prove that such a right is in fact “emerging,” Frank points to three building blocs: firstly, he points to the right of self-determination of people; secondly, Frank documents the wide ratification of human rights treaties as proving is thesis; and thirdly, Frank notes an emerging right to free and fair elections, borne out of an increased involvement of the United Nations in election monitoring and also the unprecedented international response to the overthrow of elected Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide, with the United Nations General Assembly demanding that the ousted president be returned to office. This last pillar is most poignant to the issue at hand; Aristide was indeed reinstalled to power but such re-installment was conditional, as Susan Marks notes, upon structural re-adjustment to be made upon his return to office in the form of reduced government expenditure, the privatization of public services and the removal of import tariffs. Furthermore, while Frank never spells out what constitutes democracy beyond a procedural definition of “free and fair elections,” he does elude to democracy as being synonymous with free-market capitalism: “an economic free market cannot for long flourish without creating pressure for a free -market of ideas.”

This brings us neatly to Operation Iraqi Freedom: an examination of which will demonstrate an ideal of democracy based purely on procedural considerations, with rule of the market taking precedence over any meaningful way for the Iraqi people to, in the words of Obama, “make decisions for its own future.”

II. Operation Iraqi Freedom

If how far a military intervention advances a people’s right to self-determination is to be the ultimate test in assessing its legitimacy, as Riesman put it, Operation Iraqi Freedom must go down in the annals of history as a thundering failure. In order for a principle of self-determination in the democratic sense to have any meaning, popular will must be allowed to be expressed on an equal basis; populations of states must be able to freely choose their political representatives and; to determine the substance of their political regime without foreign manipulation; transitional authorities are only entitled to give help towards self help.

The impact of political and economic reforms that took place in Iraq encapsulate the fear espoused supra; namely, that the emergence of  “a right to democratic governance” in a millenarian framework would result in “a neo-liberal” model of capitalism being effectively imposed in the name of “democracy” so long as there are “free and fair elections.” While the aims of rebuilding the Iraqi state structure started out with the modest step of forming a representative government, it eventually went as far as broader goals including inter alia the responsible administration of the Iraqi financial sector and “economic reconstruction.” It should be noted here that the reconstruction of Iraq was subject to Security Council Resolution 1483 which recognized the United States and the UK to be “the occupying powers,” which placed them under relevant occupation laws as provided for in the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, the resolution also called on the occupying powers to “promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory, including in particular working toward the restoration of conditions of security and stability and the creation of conditions in which the Iraqi can freely determine their own political future.” This brought about what has been subsequently called “transformative occupation” going far beyond what traditional belligerent occupation laws demanded, which were seen to encourage “temporary occupation,” cognizant of the fact that prolonged occupation may be used as an excuse for powerful states to achieve strategic goals, that, as David Scheffer points out, “as a matter of international law should be pursued without force.”

The political and economic transformations that ensued, had effectively removed any representation of the Iraqi people as to how their future political destiny was determined. The temporary administrative structure was to be undertaken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which held exclusive power in the executive, legislative and judicial field. The CPA chose the members of the Iraqi Governing Council in which Iraqi actors were given a very limited role. The members of this body however strongly condemned the strong foreign involvement in the governing in Iraq and thus called for the swift establishment of an Iraq Interim Government to be chosen by the Iraqi people; however, this demand was ignored. The CPA were provided with an opportunity to respond to the legitimate concerns of the Iraqi people but this demand fell on deaf ears, showing that the coalition forces favored a neo-liberal model of democracy as facilitating the conditions under which the Iraqi people would be able to determine their political future once sovereignty had in effect been handed over.

The economic reforms implemented by the authority further emphasize this point. In just 14 months in office, it is reported that the CPA issued these binding administrative orders by decree. The orders included inter alia: the abolition of state production and commodity subsidies (regulation 12) to even broader reforms; namely, regulation 39, which explicitly recognized the need for Iraq’s transition into a market-based economy. The regulation entitled “foreign investment” thus provided for the foreign ownership of Iraqi state-owned assets in “all economic sectors in Iraq, with the exception of the natural resources sector’.

Although regulation 39 never came into effect, potentially due to the fact that the occupation forces realized that such an extensive transfer of state-owned assets into the private sector would be in definite breach of Article 55 of the Hague Regulations which limits the role occupying authorities are to have with regards to “public assets” to “mere administrators,” the occupying forces had already lay down the groundwork by denying any meaningful expression of self-determination during the transitional period to the Iraqi people, for its implementation once sovereignty had been handed back over to the Iraqi people.

III. Conclusion

The fact of the matter is that when sovereignty was handed over to the Iraqi people, everything had already been changed so that everything would remain the same. Depriving the Iraqi people of any meaningful participation in the interim transformative period and the imposition of a neoliberal economic model on an already weakened state structure, has led to mass amount of in-house violence with Iraq consistently hovering around number 10 in any given failed state index, not to mention perhaps ironically, that it is allegedly now a safe-haven for terrorists. In sum, Washington’s definition of democracy as encompassing nothing more than procedural absolutism and free markets has had disastrous consequences for the Iraqi people; it can hardly be said that they were left to decide their own future as Obama so proudly proclaimed just a couple of weeks ago in Brussels.