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Brand USA is in Trouble

Sure, there is a certain irony in being urged to get off the couch by the company that popularised the "drive-thru", helpfully allowing customers to consume a bagged heart attack without having to get out of the car and walk to the counter. And there is a similar irony to Bush urging the people of the Middle East to remove "the mask of fear" because "fear is the foundation of every dictatorial regime", when that fear is the direct result of US decisions to install and arm the regimes that have systematically terrorised for decades. But since both campaigns are exercises in rebranding, that means facts are besides the point.

The Bush administration has long been enamoured of the idea that it can solve complex policy challenges by borrowing cutting-edge communications tools from its heroes in the corporate world. The Irish rock star Bono has recently been winning unlikely fans in the White House by framing world poverty as an opportunity for US politicians to become better marketers. "Brand USA is in trouble ... it's a problem for business," Bono warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The solution is "to redescribe ourselves to a world that is unsure of our values".

The Bush administration wholeheartedly agrees, as evidenced by the orgy of redescription that now passes for American foreign policy. Faced with an Arab world enraged by the US occupation of Iraq and its blind support for Israel, the solution is not to change these brutal policies: it is to "change the story".

Brand USA's latest story was launched on January 30, the day of the Iraqi elections, complete with a catchy tag line ("purple power"), instantly iconic imagery (purple fingers) and, of course, a new narrative about America's role in the world, helpfully told and retold by the White House's unofficial brand manager, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Iraq has been reframed from a story about Iraqi 'insurgents' trying to liberate their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi 'stooges' to a story of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with US help, against the wishes of Iraqi Ba'athist fascists and jihadists."

This new story is so contagious, we are told, that it has set off a domino effect akin to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism. (Although in the "Arabian spring" the only wall in sight—Israel's apartheid wall—pointedly stays up.) As with all branding campaigns, the power is in the repetition, not in the details. Obvious non sequiturs (is Bush taking credit for Arafat's death?) and screeching hypocrisies (occupiers against occupation!) just mean it's time to tell the story again, only louder and more slowly, obnoxious-tourist style. Even so, with Bush now claiming that "Iran and other nations have an example in Iraq", it seems worth focusing on the reality of the Iraqi example.

The state of emergency was just renewed for its fifth month and Human Rights Watch reports that torture is "systematic" in Iraqi jails. The Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena's double nightmare provides a window into the pincer of terror in which average Iraqis are trapped: daily life is a navigation between the fear of being kidnapped or killed by fellow Iraqis and the fear of being gunned down at a US checkpoint.

Meanwhile, the ongoing wrangling over who will form Iraq's next government, despite the United Iraqi Alliance being the clear winner, points to an electoral system designed by Washington that is less than democratic. Terrified at the prospect of an Iraq ruled by the majority of Iraqis, the former chief US envoy, Paul Bremer, wrote election rules that gave the US-friendly Kurds 27% of the seats in the national assembly, even though they make up just 15% of the population.

Skewing matters further, the US-authored interim constitution requires that all major decisions have the support of two-thirds or, in some cases, three-quarters of the assembly—an absurdly high figure that gives the Kurds the power to block any call for foreign troop withdrawal, any attempt to roll back Bremer's economic orders, and any part of a new constitution.

Iraqi Kurds have a legitimate claim to independence, as well as very real fears of being ethnically targeted. But through its alliance with the Kurds, the Bush administration has effectively given itself a veto over Iraq's democracy—and it appears to be using it to secure a contingency plan should Iraqis demand an end to occupation.

Talks to form a government are stalled over the Kurdish demand for control over Kirkuk. If they get it, Kirkuk's huge oil fields would fall under Kurdish control. That means that if foreign troops are kicked out of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan can be broken off and Washington will still end up with a dependent, oil-rich regime—even if it's smaller than the one originally envisioned by the war's architects.

Meanwhile, Bush's freedom triumphalism glossed over the fact that, in the two years since the invasion, the power of political Islam has increased exponentially, while Iraq's deep secular traditions have been greatly eroded. In part, this has to do with the deadly decision to "embed" secularism and women's rights in the military invasion. Whenever Bremer needed a good-news hit, he had his picture taken at a newly opened women's centre, handily equating feminism with the hated occupation. (The women's centres are now mostly closed, and hundreds of Iraqis who worked with the coalition in local councils have been executed.) But the problem for secularism is not just guilt by association. It's also that the Bush definition of liberation robs democratic forces of their most potent tools.

The only idea that has ever stood up to kings, tyrants and mullahs in the Middle East is the promise of economic justice, brought about through nationalist and socialist policies of agrarian reform and state control over oil. But there is no room for such ideas in the Bush narrative, in which free people are only free to choose so-called free trade. That leaves democrats with little to offer, but empty talk of "human rights"—a weedy weapon against the powerful swords of ethnic glory and eternal salvation.

But we shouldn't be surprised that the Bush administration, despite telling stories about its commitment to freedom, continues to actively sabotage democracy in the very countries it claims to have liberated. Rumour has it McDonald's also continues to serve Big Macs.

This version of the column appeared in The Guardian.

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