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Can Democracy Survive Bush's Embrace?

It started off as a joke and has now become vaguely serious: the idea that Bono might be named president of the World Bank. US Treasury Secretary John Snow recently described Bono as “a rock star of the development world,” adding, “He’s somebody I admire.”

The job will almost certainly go to a US citizen, one with even weaker credentials, like Paul Wolfowitz. But there is a reason Bono is so admired in the Administration that the White House might just choose an Irishman. As frontman of one of the world’s most enduring rock brands, Bono talks to Republicans as they like to see themselves: not as administrators of a diminishing public sphere they despise but as CEOs of a powerful private corporation called America. “Brand USA is in trouble... it's a problem for business," Bono warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The solution is “to re-describe 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, in the pseudo-academic language of corporate branding, 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, 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 U.S. help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-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 “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 at least briefly on the reality of the Iraqi example. The state of emergency was just renewed for its fifth month and the United Iraqi Alliance, despite winning a clear majority, still can’t form a government. The problem is not that Iraqis have lost faith in the democracy for which they risked their lives on January 30; it’s that the electoral system imposed on them by Washington is profoundly undemocratic.

Terrified at the prospect of an Iraq ruled by Iraqis, former chief US Envoy Paul Bremer designed elections that gave the US-friendly Kurds 27 percent of the seats in the National Assembly even though they make up as little as 15 percent of the population. And since the US-authored interim constitution requires an absurdly high majority for all major decisions, the Kurds now hold the country hostage. Their central demand is control over Kirkuk; if they get it, and then decide to separate, Iraqi Kurdistan will handily include the massive northern oil fields. Kurdish Iraqis have a legitimate claim to independence, as well as understandable fears of being ethnically targeted. But the US-Kurdish alliance has handed Washington a back-door veto over Iraq’s democracy. And with Kirkuk as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, if Iraq does break apart, Washington will still end up with a dependent, oil-rich regime—even if it’s somewhat smaller than the one originally envisioned.

This type of bald colonial interference is already threatening to turn Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” fairy tale into a nightmare. By all accounts, most Lebanese would like to see Syria withdraw from their country. But as the hundreds of thousands who participated in the March 8 pro-Hezbollah demonstration made clear, they are unwilling to have their desire for independence hijacked by the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv. By linking Lebanon’s independence movements to American designs for the region, the Bush Administration is weakening Lebanon’s secularists and religious moderates and increasing the power of Hezbollah. Which is precisely what Bremer did in Iraq: whenever he needed a good news hit, he had his picture taken at a newly opened women’s center, a trick that set the feminist movement back decades. (The centers are now mostly closed and hundreds of secular Iraqis who worked with the coalition in local councils have been murdered.)

The problem 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 secularists with little to offer but empty talk of “human rights” —a weedy weapon against the powerful swords of ethnic glory and eternal salvation.

George W. Bush likes to say that democracy has the power to defeat tyranny. He’s right and that’s precisely why it is so very dangerous for history’s most powerful emancipatory idea to be bundled into an empty marketing exercise. Allowing the Bush Administration to fold the liberation struggles of Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine into its own “story” is a gift to authoritarians and fundamentalists the world over. Freedom and democracy need to be liberated from Bush’s deadly embrace and returned to the movements of the Middle East that have been struggling for these goals for decades. They have a story of their own to finish.

This column was first published in The Nation.

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