Tilting Democracy

by Christopher Hitchens
published in MER174

John Simpson of the BBC is one of the most judicious and conservative members of my profession. He bravely holds the record for “staying on” in Baghdad during the bombing, at a time when many reporters found they had to keep appointments elsewhere. In his new book, From the House of War, not yet published in the US, he writes: “By the beginning of 1987, if not before, American satellite and radar intelligence was being handed to Iraq in considerable quantities and the United States had become an active if secret partner in Iraq’s battle against Iran. American intelligence officers plotted the movements of Iranian troops and planes and passed the information on to Iraq.... On May 17, 1987 two Exocet missiles from an Iraqi mirage homed in accidentally on the radio beam from the Stark, which was directing the pilot to his target. Following the beam down, they struck the Stark amidships, killing 37 American crewmen and injuring dozens of others.”

Now here are two of Simpson’s colleagues after the direct hit on the ‘Amiriyya shelter in Baghdad (the famed command and control center) in early 1991: “Inside the building it was still hot and the rescue workers were still finding bodies. Some were complete, others had been fused together by the heat and blast and lay crooked and absurd on the stretchers as the rescuers ran out with them, eager to finish the terrible job and get away. Sometimes there would be nothing but a great mass of flesh. Downstairs the surface of the water was an inch deep in melted human fat and Bowen and Peck had to throwaway their shoes when they got back to the hotel.”

No doubt there are many ironies and contradictions that connect one American policy that helps Saddam Hussein direct lethal missiles onto Iranian targets, and another American policy that turns the civilian subjects of Saddam Hussein into soap. One of these ironies is reasonably well-known: During the ostensible “tilt” to Iraq, others in the Reagan administration were secretly dealing arms, in exchange for hostages, with Iran. My sole point for now is that no American voter or Congressperson or, until “that rag in Beirut” broke the story, any journalist, was aware of how Middle East policy was being made and executed. These alarming imperial mood swings came as a series of shocks and surprises, to which public opinion was invited to react. Cure consequences for American democracy -- secret budgets, unelected officials pursuing unconstitutional policies, high-level deception and cover-up, abuse of state organs for private gain -- were so manifest that they prompted a full-dress Congressional inquiry. No reader of this magazine believes that this inquiry came close to establishing the truth, or even the facts.

One reason that Washington’s Middle East policy has adversely affected democracy here in the United States is simply that the policy itself has relied on partnership with non-democrats, going back to the key point of entry of US policy in the region -- complicity in the coup in Iran in 1953. Not only did this put the US in the position of inheriting the role hitherto discharged by British colonialism, but it dictated a certain choice of ally. Gen. Zahedi, the instrument of the coup that deposed Mohammad Mossadeq and restored the Pahlavi king, had during World War II been the chief partisan of Nazi interests in Persia. This was well understood by the new American interests that found and paid him.

Now we have Capt. Gary Sick and others to suggest that, at the very least, the Iranian connection was employed to “tilt” a US presidential election, in 1980. Even if the extreme version of this interpretation remains unproven, there is no doubt that the secret government, the national security state-within-a-state, as revealed by the clumsy scrutiny of Congress, owes its existence to secret diplomacy in the Middle East. The king of Saudi Arabia knew a great deal more about the working of the Reagan foreign policy and the Reagan White House than any senator or elected official did. Israeli “national security” operatives like the late Amiram Nir were consulted far more frequently than the State Department. (Those who viewed ABC’s “Nightline” show last October 2 might have noticed that, faced with a policy quarrel with Washington, some Israelis have decided to release at least some tapes that compromise George Bush’s administration. The possibility of simple blackmail should not be excluded from calculations involving client skullduggery.)

We often fail even to employ a democratic language when discussing these matters of ostensible realpolitik. I just wrote “some Israelis.” I could have written “the Israelis.” But Israel is a state perhaps half of whose Jewish citizens are prepared to endorse a compromise with their Palestinian neighbors. The system of ethnic lobbying, arms trading and covert action that links our two states is designed to lock such voices out of the democratic process in both countries, and sad to say often succeeds in doing so. Who, in the current sordid wrangle over loan guarantees, has put forth the case of the anti-colonial peace camp inside Israel itself?

Though we hear incessantly that there is only one democracy in the Middle East, there are at least three democratically minded peoples to whom, in some sense, the US has taken on some as yet unfulfilled obligation. The Palestinians, who can practice pluralism only in exile or under occupation but who nonetheless do practice and value it, have been given to understand that they have a right to self-determination. At present they live under the provisions of a Pax Americana, and don’t care for it. The Kurds, to whom extravagant promises have been made in the past by American statesmen, and who have been asked to make immense sacrifices in the cause of American foreign policy, are aligned with democratic opposition forces in several Middle Eastern countries. In the small area of northern Iraq under their physical control, which I visited earlier this year, there is a striking “hundred flowers” atmosphere of competing parties, banners and wall posters. Finally, the democratic Republic of Cyprus has repeatedly been promised a deliverance from its current state of partition -- a partition which, accompanied as it is by the settlement of colonists from outside and by a military occupation, is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Greeks and important numbers of Turks.

In each of these three cases, the United States has continued to side with the stronger party in the dispute, to arm the occupier and the oppressor. (This is cloudier in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, but the lapse of official enthusiasm even for the modest demands of a Talabani or a Barzani is striking nonetheless.) Without democratic allies, there cannot be a democratic foreign policy. And, without a democratic foreign policy, it may be utopian to expect democracy itself to remain free of oligarchic practices which we only find out about when it’s too late.

Filed under: