The schizophrenia of American democracy

3 December 2003
Only in en
Most democracies today apply double standards concerning democratic principles - such as the rule of law and the respect for human rights - in domestic and in foreign politics; US being the prime example of such double standards. Daniele Archibugi looks at the case of the Iraq war and asks if the world's democracies have a mission to "democratize" other countries.

A dangerous form of schizophrenia affects the United States. If on the one hand they subject their domestic policies to democracy and its principles – the progressive expansion of political and civil rights being one example, on the other hand they violate them incessantly on foreign matters – such schizophrenia has never been so remarkable as under the administration of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. It is US national policy to consider anti-social, if not even criminal, the lighting of a cigarette in public places, the driving without seatbelts, the pulling of a cat’s tail or even the use of gender discriminating nouns. Interestingly though, such quibbles are soon forgotten the very same moment policies assume a foreign dimension. For instance, a democratically elected president risks the impeachment for lying about his relationship with an intern, but he remains practically untouched when lying about his enemy’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. In the latter case, it is sufficient for him to offer an apology in order to put everything behind him. Even over matters of terrorism, contrasting attitudes are plain. When on 18 April 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing claimed the lives of 168 civilians, inquiries, tribunals and investigation committees were quickly set up in order to identify and condemn those responsible. By contrast, the US response to the 9/11 attacks was to bomb and invade an entire country.

Undoubtedly 9/11 claimed many more lives than the Oklahoma City bombing did – almost 3000 people died in the fall of the Twin Towers – but whether this justifies the killing of an equal number of Afghan civilians is debatable.[1]

The US is very proud of its judicial system, to the extent that it has become a world-wide form of both big and small screen entertainment. It is well known that in the USA even serial killers and members of the Mafia are granted the right to defend their position in court. Yet, prisoners of war appear to have been denied this right. Still today, in violation of the oldest international conventions, hundreds of presumed Taliban terrorists, among which many minors,[2] are being kept confined within the Guantanamo camp, deprived of legal representation and oblivious to their charges.

Nevertheless, detention in Guantanamo compares as a privilege to the faith of the six presumed terrorists incinerated in Yemen by a CIA RQ1 “Predator Drone” plane, on 4 November 2002.[3] One of the six victims is thought to have been Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al-Qaeda member accused of complicity in the October 2000 terrorist attack against the USS Cole. The CIA maintains that all six victims were members of al-Qaeda, though the identity of the other five still remains uncertain. The US government divulged the news with excitement, to the amusement of the media. The development of an unmanned air-plane capable of hitting a target with precision, without jeopardising the lives of any American soldier, was celebrated as a great technological conquest. But when and where was the six presumed terrorists¹ trial held, and which tribunal has sentenced them to death?[4] Yemen’s intelligence claim to have provided the CIA with the exact coordinates of the presumed terrorists¹ location, though if a collaboration between the two countries¹ intelligence was really under way, what had stopped them from simply issuing an extradition order for the suspects?

In the absence of certainty concerning the identity of the victims, how could these be possibly found guilty? Evidence of guilt is a necessary precondition for the US judicial system. Clearly, the norms and considerations that dictated the Yemen case were very different from those applied to O.J. Simpson. The US administration still sustains that the Yemen episode was an example of legitimate action of war, failing to recall that one of the founding principles of the Geneva Convention forbids precisely the killing of disarmed combatants.

Another example of US rule breaching is provided by the massacre of the Taliban prisoners in the Mazar-e-Sharif Fort in Afghanistan. Several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners were killed by the Northern Alliance with the support of US and UK aviation troops.[5] According to international treaties – such as Art.12 of the Geneva convention relative to the treatment of prisoners – prisoners of war fall under the protection and guarantee of the winning parties, consequently placing a share of the responsibility burden on the shoulders of the US.

In July 1995 the world’s public opinion was shocked by the killing of 8,000 unarmed men by Karadzic’ and Mladic’ Bosnian-Serb paratroopers in Srebrenica. European governments remained indifferent whilst the US intervened. Yet, the similarities between the massacres at Mazar-e-Sharif Fort and Srebrenica are many, the sole exception being the failure to set up in Afghanistan an ad hoc tribunal similar to the one set up after the war in Bosnia for the judgement of crimes against humanity.

Cries for a fair judicial process are being silenced by the noise of the explosions caused by the bombs falling on Iraq as much as by those falling on the international rule of law. Wars of aggression – such as the invasion of states without a UN authorisation – are considered serious crimes and fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and if George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and General Franks had not been holders of an American passport, they would have received by now the same international warrant of arrest that was sent to Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic.

In spite of all of this, the only debate that is taking place within the US remains focussed on the legitimacy of preventive wars – something that was forbidden by international treaties back in the 17th century – as much as on its implications on the lives of its American soldiers. Polls reveal that the public’s consensus over the Iraqi occupation is slowly decreasing as a result of two main considerations: the dissolving threat of Iraq¹s weapons of mass destruction, and the number of American dead bodies being brought back into the country.[6] The killing of innocent Iraqi civilians as a result of the US invasion is not even listed in the poll among the possible reasons for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Yet, the number of American soldiers killed during the Iraqi invasion in September 2003 reached 294, whilst the Iraqi civilian victims are estimated to range between 6 and 8 thousand, with and unquantifiable number of dead Iraqi soldiers.[7] Occupying forces appear to have been vested with the right to dispose of the lives of the occupied peoples as they please, to the point that counting them has become an option. This has translated for all those countries waiting to be democratised by the US, into a clear message that states the superiority of American lives to all others.

Of course, the United States are not the only country committing war crimes. Paramilitary troops, oblivious to international cohabitation rules, commit much more horrifying crimes in Africa and on other continents. Among the super-powers, China continues its decennial occupation of Tibet, Russia engages in a ruthless battle with Chechnyan separatists, whilst a forgotten war in Liberia, that claims thousands of deaths every year, never makes the headlines. Even other democratic states, especially the old British and French empires, are known to have used methods deemed unacceptable within their old colonies, as any Indian or Algerian can testify.

Still, there is something very specific about America¹s schizophrenia that makes the whole world uncomfortable. It is not solely the consolidation of its hegemonic powers, nor its double standards. What feels unsettling is its belief, or should we say claim, that each and every one of its actions are geared towards benefiting those aggressed by promoting freedom, prosperity and democracy for all. The war against Serbia in 1999 should therefore be seen as an act of protection towards the Albanians in Kosovo, as much as the democratisation of a government that the US deemed unrepresentative. The invasion of Afghanistan too, would have served the purpose of destroying the infrastructures of terrorism as much as removing the terrifying regime instated by the Taliban. Similarly, the Iraqi occupation is justified by the need to destroy the – vanished – weapons of mass destruction as much as by the need to remove its bloody regime.

Of course, the removal from power of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, or the protection of the Albanian minorities in Kosovo are not wrong objectives, on the contrary, even moderate defenders of human rights must find themselves agreeing with these objectives. Yet, what necessitates greater reflection are not so much the ends, as the means pursued. Should not democratic states apply the same principles of democracy to both their domestic and their foreign policies? What would the reason be for disposing of and expending with inalienable rights the very same moment states cross national borders?

An influential American scholar, Larry Diamond,[8] maintains that just one generation would be sufficient for transforming all countries into democracies. Diamond may appear overly optimistic at first, but it is a fact that 121 countries out of the 192 in existence, have an elected government today. Much can be argued with reference to the effectiveness of their democratic status – political experts have purposely created the term “democradura” in order to account for the mixture of formally democratic characteristics and dictatorial practices within many African, Latin American, Asian and Eastern European governments – but what are the legitimate mechanisms available to them for increasing the proselytes?

States with consolidated democratic systems have concentrated within their own hands an enormous power which has permeated economical, political, cultural and – ultimately – military matters. These states are looked upon both with admiration and envy by billions of individuals who, legitimately, aspire to the ability to choose their own government and aim to see their own civil, political and cultural rights being respected. These are the same people wishing today for running water and electricity, and wishing tomorrow for a TV and a washing machine. Because rich states are also the ones with consolidated democratic systems, the idea that the key to a better quality of life lies in an elected government, cannot be deemed absurd. The schizophrenia of democratic states is therefore proving extremely dangerous since it is promoting the belief that democratic states preserve for themselves, and themselves only, a determined set of values which they are not prepared to share with others.

Already Robespierre warned against forcing happiness onto people, and America¹s obsession with democratising the world through un-democratic means must come to an end. This is not to entail that democratic states must not pursue the objective of extending their own political system to those 71 countries still governed by autocrats. There are strong reasons to believe that the majority of these countries¹ populations wish for the possibility to elect their own governments. Since Anschluss and its fatal plebiscite – with which Austria voted its annexing to the Reich – there has never been an analogous referendum through which citizens have pronounced themselves contrary to the institution of a democratic system.

Those who wish to promote democracy and its principles can do so legitimately on behalf of those individuals who have been deprived of the possibility to do so, as long as democracies use means compatible with their ends.

  • [1] Prof. Marc W. Herold estimates that the number of Afghan civilians killed ranges between 3000 and 3,500. http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold/AfghanDailyCount.pdf
  • [2] Among many accusations against the treatment of the presumed Taliban prisoners in the Guantanamo camp, see Amnesty International, “USA: Guantánamo detainees – the legal black hole deepens”, Press Release (March 12 2003). For the claim that under-age individuals were among the prisoners see “US detains children at Guantanamo Bay”, (April 23 2003).
  • [3] Extracts from the press can be found on the CIA¹s site: http://intellit.muskingum.edu/cia_folder/cia2000s_folder/cia2002yemen.html
  • [4] For one of the few critical analysis, see Laurie Calhoun, “The Strange Case of Summary Execution by Predator Drone”, , vol. 15, no. 2, 2003, pp. 209-214.
  • [5] Kim Sengupta, “Three-day fight for fortress leaves hundreds dead”, (UK), (November 28 2001), mentions 450 persons killed. Similar estimates were supplied by Nicholas Watt, Richard Norton-Taylor and Luke Harding, “Allies Justify Mass Killing of Taliban Prisoners in Fort”, (UK), (November 29 2001). Alex Perry, “Inside the Battle at Quala-I-Jangi” , (December 1 2001, also available at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,186592-1,00.html), already three days after the slaughter transformed a tragedy into a sort of a Rambo-style movie subject.
  • [6] The decrease of support by the American general public concerning the Iraqi invasion has been documented by the CNN-Gallup poll http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/06/30/sprj.irq.iraq.poll/
  • [7] This is the figure reported by Antiwar.com (September 18 2003), see http://www.antiwar.com/ewens/casualties.html. The number of Iraqi civilian victims, according to the NGO Iraq Body have been estimated to be between 6,131 and 7,849 (18 September 2003), see: http://www.iraqbodycount.net/
  • [8] The essay by Larry Diamond, “Universal Democracy”,  n. 118, summer 2003, is also available in full under the title “Can the Whole World Become Democratic? Democracy, Development, and International Politics”, Center for the Study of Democracy, University of California, Irvine: http://repositories.cdlib.org/csd/03-05

Published 3 December 2003

Original in English
First published in

© Daniele Archibugi / Eurozine

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