Hard News by Russell Brown

Dutton again

Neil Morrison feels that it was "beneath" me to have described Denis Dutton's most recent column in the Herald as an "embarrassing brain fart".

"Dutton makes a reasonable argument - if you disagree argue your case."

Well, I thought Alexander Gillespie's rebuttal in the Herald was quite sound, especially in its reiteration of history, which often gets a mangling in Dutton's spooky Year Zero arguments.

But, all right - and at the cost of time which would normally be spent on paying work - I was dismissive of Dutton's column for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is highly derivative - its main arguments, and the extravagant lip service paid to democracy, are a paraphrasing of both the National Security Strategy of the United States, and the Project for the New American Century, within which the original ideas were developed. If you've read this stuff, you've read Dutton's column.

As usual, Dutton - his own glibness notwithstanding - dismisses anyone who might disagree with him (especially if they be a New Zealander) as guilty of "intellectual laziness". But it is he who is being disingenuous when he declares that the National Security Strategy of the United States "resulted" last September from the emergent fear of terrorist mass-murder. He knows very well that its core idea - a self-interested America acting unilaterally as, in Colin Powell's words, "the biggest bully on the block", has been in development for more than 10 years.

Professed ultra-realist lobbies like PNAC tend, ironically, to ignore realities that don't suit them. The few postings on the PNAC website regarding post-war Iraq are pretty much exercises in denial. And Dutton's admiring characterisation of the NSSUS is, similarly, devoid of real-world complexity:

It is both a strategic document and a ringing declaration of principles: freedom and democracy for the whole of humanity not merely as an abstract philosophical ideal, but as an operational goal of American policy, indeed, as a security requirement of the US.

But what happens when radical Islamic parties, with sympathies and perhaps even direct links to terrorist groups, win popular elections? It happened in Algeria, and the West stood by when that country's military annulled an election to prevent the formation of an Islamic government. Would the US now take action to defend the democratic rights of even those it considers "evil"? That's far from clear.

The problem with the vision of democracy being marketed by Dutton and company is not just that it is highly selective - vile but strategically important regimes in the former Soviet republics continue to be rewarded and encouraged by the White House - but that it stops short of the democracy of nations.

"The US is determined to win the war against terrorists, even at the cost of disapproval from Europe or small countries such as New Zealand," he declares. So don't expect a vote because you won't get one.

And it's quite rational to have misgivings about the democratic standard being wrenched away from everyone else by a country where the democratic system is in such obvious need of reform. It is more than 10 years since a US presidential or congressional election attracted more than half of the voting age population. In New Zealand (and in Turkey for that matter) the equivalent figure is typically around 80 per cent.

The circumstances of the 2000 presidential election would have raised eyebrows had they been transplanted to a developing country: the candidate who won the popular vote lost; the pivotal state poll was overseen by the winning candidate's brother as governor and a secretary of state who was involved with his campaign team. The first journalist to declare a result was the winning candidate's cousin and one of the judges who confirmed the result was appointed by the candidate's father. The way in which many electors were struck from the state roll, or had their votes disallowed, was questionable. The best gloss that can be put on it is that it was quite a shambles.

The electorate in which the rest of the world is asked to place its trust seems not only estranged from democracy, but remarkably poorly informed. The January Knight-Ridder poll was, to put it bluntly, shocking. Asked how many of the September 11 hijackers had been Iraqis, fewer than one in five Americans were able to state the correct answer: none of the hijackers were Iraqis (nonetheless, two thirds of those polled were, at that time, against unilateral action by the US against Iraq). This is the signal event in recent American history; the one on which the war on terror and the new foreign policy is predicated. The thing that every American ought to have known about. But the people in this poll - and there were others like it - do not appear to have had a clue.

There are other problems with the American democracy: it seems increasingly incapable of reflecting the great and grand plurality of the nation. It is riven with vested interests. And, as Seymour Hersch reports in the New Yorker, real power seems to be vested in unelected appointees of the executive. So spare us the hectoring …

During the Cold War the US was forced to support autocratic regimes if they were allied against the Soviets. There is no reason to continue that strategy: the US is now set on an ideal of the world as a community of democracies.

How lovely. Even leaving aside the question of quite how the US was "forced" to aid the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile or turn a blind eye to slaughter in Indonesia, Dutton and the PNAC types seem quite immune to the idea of perverse or unwelcome consequences.

The Cold War was pursued with all of the moral certainty - more, even - than is currently being marshalled behind the new, imperial vision. But the people the US chose to back against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan became, in some cases, the terrorists that threaten it now. With the recent news that the US is proposing to back an "Islamist-Marxist" group to destabilise the regime in Iran (where hardline clerics have failed to follow the PNAC script and, instead of embracing democracy in the wake of Saddam's fall, cracked down on reformers) might that story not be played out again?

And by merely invoking the word "terror", do the Russians then get a free hand in Chechnya (where, remember, as many people were recently killed in attacks as in Riyadh and Casablanca put together) and the Indonesians in Aceh?

Dutton paints a rosy view of post-war Iraq, where "grateful" Iraqis "dance in jubilation". How are we to square this with this story, quoting two shocked New Zealand-resident Iraqis, just back from a visit to Baghdad:

"It's miserable. The infrastructure is in ruins and the city in chaos, but without security, no one can go back to work to rebuild the city."

Thieves and armed criminal gangs were terrorising ordinary Iraqis and "unfortunately the invasion forces are doing little to stop them".

Many women, who were a "substantial part of the workforce", were afraid to leave their homes due to the number of rapes on the streets, he said.

Three of his sisters and several of his brothers had stopped going to work because they did not feel safe.

"We witnessed two car-jackings, and saw looting and bodies lying in the street. We saw children playing with unexploded munitions. Unfortunately we couldn't stop them in every case."

During their three-week stay in the city, the pair visited hospitals, oil refineries, drug stores and the Health Ministry.

Ironically, in such an oil-rich nation, fuel shortages had brought the whole city to a grinding halt, Mr Karhiy said.

"There is no petrol for cars, so even people who want to go to jobs can't get there. There's no LPG for cooking.

"About 80 per cent of Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, only gets six hours of electricity a day. I don't know what the situation is like in the rest of the country."

The people were "hurt in their spirit" more than in physical suffering, which they were used to under 13 years of United Nations sanctions.

"People feel defeated; Baghdad is burning, everywhere you see demolished buildings, but the people are hurt in their spirit. We didn't see anyone celebrating like on television.

"The irony is about half the people we met - and we met a lot of people - wished for the old government back. People are angry and frustrated with the occupying forces for failing to do anything to make life better."

Perhaps the currently dangerously unstable nation will come right; perhaps a government can be anointed that is acceptable to the majority of its people. Or maybe we won't be so lucky. At present, it seems very hard to justify the blithe certainties of Dutton and his ideological allies, not only in Iraq, but in the wider war on terror.

As the Time magazine story put it in the wake of the attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca - a week after Bush declared al-Qaeda to be "on the run":

And so a comforting mirage - the idea that the swift, successful end of the war in Iraq had somehow made the world safer from terrorism - shimmered and vanished.

And yet, Dutton remains supremely confident:

Dire predictions of a Middle East conflagration caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have not come true. The so-called Arab street has been stunned and in some quarters is quietly respectful of the Americans following the Iraq attack.

How are we to reconcile that analysis from a lofty vantage point in Christchurch, with this reportage from the European edition of Time magazine?

The Arab street is rumbling. For weeks, protesters across the Middle East burned Israeli and American flags and brandished banners in support of the Palestinians. Satellite channels broadcast reports on Palestinian suffering, as well as talk shows on which guests vent their rage. But the Arabs are not only shooting off their mouths. From bases in southern Lebanon, Hizballah and Palestinian guerrillas stepped up rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli targets. A band of Egyptian teenagers even tried to sneak into Israel, saying they wanted to join the battle.

My vision of democracy is less lofty, more prosaic than Dutton's. Mostly, I don't want my elected representatives to lie to me, and I expect accountability. I can think of no good reason why Donald Rumsfeld's disgraceful failure of disclosure - he chaired a congressional panel examining the potential threat of North Korea's nuclear programme without revealing that he was a director of the Swiss company supplying the reactors - is not already a scandal. I like to think that it would have been so in a Westminster democracy.

And then there is the question of the weapons. It is clear now, if it wasn't before, that the truth regarding any global threat posed by Iraq was manipulated by both the US and British governments. According to the Guardian, it has now emerged that even Powell and the British foreign secretary Jack Straw didn't entirely believe what they were saying before the war.

Time characterised the apparent misuse of weapons intelligence thus this week:

But if the Bush team overreached, one nagging question is, Why? A defense expert who has spent 20 years watching Republicans argue about foreign policy from the inside believes the hard-liners' agenda isn't about Iraq or even oil. It's simply that the most zealous defenders of America's role in the world are congenitally disposed to overreact to every threat - which leads them to read too much into the intelligence. "They came in with a world view, and they looked for things to fit into it," says Lawrence Korb, who served in the Reagan Pentagon and now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you hadn't had 9/11, they would be doing the same things to China."

Indeed, Dutton's own descent into neocon paranoia is particularly interesting. Not so long ago, he was hailing "the gradual growth of a prosperous middle class in China and in India" as the greatest unreported story of our time: "They place an important value on social stability. Countries with prosperous middle classes are less likely to declare war on one another: they have too much to lose. In the modern world, war is a pastime for losers and ideologues; the middle classes tend to be neither … the emerging middle class of Asia will change the human face of the world."

By last month, in another hectoring Herald column, he was flailing Helen Clark's characterisation of the regional security situation (made not long after his own, apparently very similar, original comments about Asia) as "truly repellent", and placing us "at the edge of what is becoming an explosively unstable region. China might go completely to pieces in the next 20 years."

Well, which is it, Denis? And is war still "a pastime for losers and ideologues"?

None of this is to say that Saddam was not an ogre, that millennial terrorists do not pose a grave threat, or that no element of the US policy has borne or will bear fruit - the belated pressure being applied to Israel for a Middle East settlement could yet procure a victory for peace (although, as with almost everything in this argument, there is a very great deal yet to be seen), just that the combination of a blind sense of mission and woefully haphazard execution that has been on display the past two years poses a considerable risk. You can attack Amnesty International all you like, but its recent conclusion that the US-led war on terror has helped make the world's people "more insecure today than at any time since the end of the Cold War" should give pause for thought.

I'm with Eric Schlosser when he says "My own views tend towards a suspicion of all absolute theories and a strong belief in thought that knows its limits." And these people, frankly, do not know their limits. At all.