After those weapons of mass destruction never
appeared and Saddam's al-Qaeda connection proved but a figment of the overly
vivid neocon (and vice-presidential) imagination, the Bush administration wheeled
out the shiniest of American exports, democracy. It had worked for Ronald Reagan
in Central America in the 1980s, why not in Iraq, too? Suddenly, actual democratic
elections, which administration officials had headed off or tried to contain
from the moment Baghdad fell, were de rigueur, the very essence of our
mission in Iraq, the true reason that we Americans were placed on this Earth.
Who even recalled (or now recalls) the tawdry history of the American occupation,
of the way L. Paul Bremer, our hapless viceroy in Baghdad, and his kleptomaniacal
Coalition Provisional Authority did everything in their power, including canceling
local elections, to ward off democracy or any significant expression of the
Here's how, back in 2005, Juan
Cole described the administration's democratic urge for an electorate so
restricted that it might have made Saudi Arabia look liberal:
"First they were going to turn Iraq over to [neocon favorite Ahmed] Chalabi
within six months. Then Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years.
Then on November 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections
in May of 2004. The U.S. and the UK had somehow massaged into being provincial
and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer
was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group."
Then, of course, Ayatollah Ali Sistani insisted; the Bush people caved; the
Iraqis bravely turned out to vote in vast numbers; and those "purple fingers"
proved just so useful on the American home front. Think of it as importing democracy.
Unfortunately, the largely Shi'ite government elected proved awkward indeed
and, via our ambassador in Baghdad, flights
in by top officials, the power of the purse and the power of the gun, "pressure"
has been constantly applied to restrain and thwart them. With Iraq now in chaos
and seemingly at the edge of dismemberment, democracy restricted to Baghdad's
Green Zone and once again anathema to the president's top officials, it seems
the perfect moment to turn to the larger subject of exporting the American "model."
Let Chalmers Johnson, author of The
Sorrows of Empire and a man with a memory, make some sense of the subject.
Markets and Democracy
by Chalmers Johnson
There is something absurd and inherently false
about one country trying to impose its system of government or its economic
institutions on another. Such an enterprise amounts to a dictionary definition
of imperialism. When what's at issue is "democracy," you have the fallacy of
using the end to justify the means (making war on those to be democratized),
and in the process the leaders of the missionary country are invariably infected
with the sins of hubris, racism, and arrogance.
We Americans have long been guilty of these crimes. On the eve of our entry
into World War I, William Jennings Bryan, President Woodrow Wilson's first secretary
of state, described the United States as "the supreme moral factor in the world's
progress and the accepted arbiter of the world's disputes." If there is one
historical generalization that the passage of time has validated, it is that
the world could not help being better off if the American president had not
believed such nonsense and if the United States had minded its own business
in the war between the British and German empires. We might well have avoided
Nazism, the Bolshevik Revolution, and another 30 to 40 years of the exploitation
of India, Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, Korea, the Philippines, Malaya, and
virtually all of Africa by European, American, and Japanese imperialists.
We Americans have never outgrown the narcissistic notion that the rest of the
world wants (or should want) to emulate us. In Iraq, bringing democracy became
the default excuse for our warmongers – it would be perfectly plausible to call
them "crusaders," if Osama bin Laden had not already appropriated the term –
once the Bush lies about Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical, and biological threats
and its support for al-Qaeda melted away. Bush and his neocon supporters have
prattled on endlessly about how "the world is hearing the voice of freedom from
the center of the Middle East," but the reality is much closer to what Noam
Chomsky dubbed "deterring democracy" in a notable 1992 book of that name. We
have done everything in our power to see that the Iraqis did not get a "free
and fair election," one in which the Shia majority could come to power and ally
Iraq with Iran. As Noah Feldman, the Coalition Provisional Authority's law adviser,
put it in November 2003, "If you move too fast, the wrong people could get elected."
In the election of Jan. 30, 2005, the U.S. military tried to engineer the outcome
it wanted ("Operation Founding Fathers"), but the Shi'ites won anyway. Nearly
a year later in the Dec.15, 2005, elections for the national assembly, the Shi'ites
won again, but Sunni, Kurdish, and American pressure has delayed the formation
of a government to this moment. After a compromise candidate for prime minister
was finally selected, two of the most ominous condottiere of the Bush
administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld, flew into Baghdad to tell him what he had to do for "democracy"
– leaving the unmistakable impression that the new prime minister is a puppet
of the United States.
Hold the Economic Advice
After Latin America, East Asia is the area of the world longest
under America's imperialist tutelage. If you want to know something about
the U.S. record in exporting its economic and political institutions, it's
a good place to look. But first, some definitions.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once argued that democracy
is such an abused concept we should dismiss as a charlatan anyone who uses
it in serious discourse without first clarifying what he or she means by it.
Therefore, let me indicate what I mean by democracy. First, the acceptance
within a society of the principle that public opinion matters. If it doesn't,
as for example in Stalin's Russia, or present-day Saudi Arabia, or the Japanese
prefecture of Okinawa under American military domination, then it hardly matters
what rituals of American democracy, such as elections, may be practiced.
Second, there must be some internal balance of power or separation
of powers, so that it is impossible for an individual leader to become a dictator.
If power is concentrated in a single position and its occupant claims to be
beyond legal restraints, as is true today with our president, then democracy
becomes attenuated or only pro forma. In particular, I look for the
existence and practice of administrative law – in other words, an independent,
constitutional court with powers to declare null and void laws that contravene
Third, there must be some agreed-upon procedure for getting rid
of unsatisfactory leaders. Periodic elections, parliamentary votes of no confidence,
term limits, and impeachment are various well-known ways to do this, but the
emphasis should be on shared institutions.
With that in mind, let's consider the export of the American economic, and
then democratic, "model" to Asia. The countries stretching from Japan to Indonesia,
with the exception of the former American colony of the Philippines, make up
one of the richest regions on Earth today. They include the second most productive
country in the world, Japan, with a per capita income well in excess of that
of the United States, as well as the world's fastest growing large economy,
China's, which has been expanding at a rate of over 9.5 percent per annum for
the past two decades. These countries achieved their economic well-being by
ignoring virtually every item of wisdom preached in American economics departments
and business schools or propounded by various American administrations.
Japan established the regional model for East Asia. In no case did
the other high-growth Asian economies follow Japan's path precisely, but they
have all been inspired by the overarching characteristic of the Japanese economic
system – namely, the combining of the private ownership of property as a
genuine right, defensible in law and inheritable, with state control of economic
goals, markets, and outcomes. I am referring to what the Japanese call "industrial
policy" (sangyo seisaku). In American economic theory (if not in practice),
industrial policy is anathema. It contradicts the idea of an unconstrained
market guided by laissez faire. Nonetheless, the American military-industrial
complex and our elaborate system of "military Keynesianism" rely on a Pentagon-run
industrial policy – even as American theory denies that either the military-industrial
complex or economic dependence on arms manufacturing are significant factors
in our economic life. We continue to underestimate the high-growth economies
of East Asia because of the power of our ideological blinders.
One particular form of American economic influence did greatly affect
East Asian economic practice – namely, protectionism and the control of competition
through high tariffs and other forms of state discrimination against foreign
imports. This was the primary economic policy of the United States from its
founding until 1940. Without it, American economic wealth of the sort to which
we have become accustomed would have been inconceivable. The East Asian countries
have emulated the U.S. in this respect. They are interested in what the U.S.
does, not what it preaches. That is one of the ways they all got rich. China
is today pursuing a variant of the basic Japanese development strategy, even
though it does not, of course, acknowledge this.
The gap between preaching and self-deception in the way we promote
democracy abroad is even greater than in selling our economic ideology. Our
record is one of continuous (sometimes unintended) failure, although most
establishment pundits try to camouflage this fact.
The Federation of American Scientists has compiled a list of over 201 overseas
military operations from the end of World War II until Sept. 11, 2001, in which
we were involved and normally struck the first blow. (The list is reprinted
by Gore Vidal in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated,
pp. 22-41.) The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not included. In no
instance did democratic governments come about as a direct result of any of
these military activities.
The United States holds the unenviable record of having helped install
and then supported such dictators as the Shah of Iran, General Suharto in
Indonesia, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto
Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko Mobutu in Congo-Zaire, not to mention a series
of American-backed militarists in Vietnam and Cambodia until we were finally
expelled from Indochina. In addition, we ran among the most extensive international
terrorist operations in history against
Cuba and Nicaragua because their struggles for national independence produced
outcomes that we did not like.
On the other hand, democracy did develop in some important cases as a result
of opposition to our interference – for example, after the collapse of the CIA-installed
Greek colonels in 1974; in both Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1975 after the
end of the U.S.-supported fascist dictatorships; after the overthrow of Ferdinand
Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; following the ouster of Gen. Chun Doo Hwan
in South Korea in 1987; and following the ending of 38 years of martial law
on the island of Taiwan in the same year.
One might well ask, however: What about the case of Japan? President Bush has
repeatedly cited our allegedly successful installation of democracy there after
World War II as evidence of our skill in this kind of activity. What this experience
proved, he contended, was that we would have little difficulty implanting democracy
in Iraq. As it happens though, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who headed the American
occupation of defeated Japan from 1945 to 1951, was himself essentially a dictator,
primarily concerned with blocking genuine democracy from below in favor of hand-picked
puppets and collaborators from the prewar Japanese establishment.
When a country loses a war as crushingly as Japan did the war in
the Pacific, it can expect a domestic revolution against its wartime leaders.
In accordance with the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, which Japan accepted
in surrendering, the State Department instructed MacArthur not to stand in
the way of a popular revolution, but when it began to materialize he did so
anyway. He chose to keep Hirohito, the wartime emperor, on the throne (where
he remained until his death in 1989) and helped bring officials from the industrial
and militarist classes that ruled wartime Japan back to power. Except for
a few months in 1993 and 1994, those conservatives and their successors have
ruled Japan continuously since 1949. Japan and China are today among the longest-lived
single-party regimes on Earth, both parties – the nucleus of the Liberal
Democratic Party and the Chinese Communist Party – having come to power in
the same year.
Equally important in the Japanese case, Gen. MacArthur's headquarters actually
wrote the quite democratic constitution of 1947 and bestowed it on the Japanese
people under circumstances in which they had no alternative but to accept it.
In her 1963 book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt stresses "the enormous
difference in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government
upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government."
She notes that, in post-World War I Europe, virtually every case of an imposed
constitution led to dictatorship or to a lack of power, authority, and stability.
Although public opinion certainly matters in Japan, its democratic
institutions have never been fully tested. The Japanese public knows that
its constitution was bestowed by its conqueror, not generated from below by
popular action. Japan's stability depends greatly on the ubiquitous presence
of the United States, which supplies the national defense – and so, implicitly,
the fairly evenly distributed wealth – that gives the public a stake in the
regime. But the Japanese people, as well as those of the rest of East Asia,
remain fearful of Japan's ever again being on its own in the world.
While more benign than the norm, Japan's government is typical of
the U.S. record abroad in one major respect. Successive American administrations
have consistently favored oligarchies that stand in the way of broad popular
aspirations – or movements toward nationalist independence from American
control. In Asia, in the post-World War II period, we pursued such anti-democratic
policies in South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indochina (Cambodia, Laos,
and Vietnam), and Japan. In Japan, in order to prevent the Socialist Party
from coming to power through the polls, which seemed likely during the 1950s,
we secretly supplied funds to the representatives of the old order in the
Liberal Democratic Party. We helped bring wartime Minister of Munitions Nobusuke
Kishi to power as prime minister in 1957; split the Socialist Party by promoting
and financing a rival Democratic Socialist Party; and, in 1960, backed the
conservatives in a period of vast popular demonstrations against the renewal
of the Japanese-American Security Treaty. Rather than developing as an independent
democracy, Japan became a docile Cold War satellite of the United States –
and one with an extremely inflexible political system at that.
The Korean Case
In South Korea, the United States resorted to far sterner measures. From the
outset, we favored those who had collaborated with Japan, whereas North Korea
built its regime on the foundation of former guerrilla fighters against Japanese
rule. During the 1950s, we backed the aged exile Syngman Rhee as our puppet
dictator. (He had actually been a student of Woodrow Wilson's at Princeton early
in the century.) When, in 1960, a student movement overthrew Rhee's corrupt
regime and attempted to introduce democracy, we instead supported the seizure
of power by Gen. Park Chung Hee.
Educated at the Japanese military academy in Manchuria during the colonial
period, Park had been an officer in the Japanese army of occupation until 1945.
He ruled Korea from 1961 until Oct. 16, 1979, when the chief of the Korean Central
Intelligence Agency shot him to death over dinner. The South Korean public believed
that the KCIA chief, known to be "close" to the Americans, had assassinated
Park on U.S. orders because he was attempting to develop a nuclear-weapons program
which the U.S. opposed. (Does this sound familiar?) After Park's death, Maj.
Gen. Chun Doo Hwan seized power and instituted yet another military dictatorship
that lasted until 1987.
In 1980, a year after the Park assassination, Chun smashed a popular
movement for democracy that broke out in the southwestern city of Kwangju
and among students in the capital, Seoul. Backing Chun's policies, the U.
S. ambassador argued that "firm anti-riot measures were necessary." The American
military then released to Chun's control Korean troops assigned to the UN
Command to defend the country against a North Korean attack, and he used them
to crush the movement in Kwangju. Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators
were killed. In 1981, Chun Doo Hwan would be the first foreign visitor welcomed
to the White House by the newly elected Ronald Reagan.
After more than 30 postwar years, democracy finally began to come to South
Korea in 1987 via a popular revolution from below. Chun Doo Hwan made a strategic
mistake by winning the right to hold the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. In
the lead-up to the games, students from the many universities in Seoul, now
openly backed by an increasingly prosperous middle class, began to protest American-backed
military rule. Chun would normally have used his army to arrest, imprison, and
probably shoot such demonstrators as he had done in Kwangju seven years earlier;
but he was held back by the knowledge that, if he did so, the International
Olympic Committee would move the games to some other country. In order to avoid
such a national humiliation, Chun turned over power to his co-conspirator of
1979-80, Gen. Roh Tae Woo. In order to allow the Olympics to go ahead, Roh instituted
a measure of democratic reform, which led in 1993 to the holding of national
elections and the victory of a civilian president, Kim Young Sam.
In December 1995, in one of the clearest signs of South Korea's maturing democracy,
the government arrested generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo and charged them
with having shaken down Korean big business for bribes – Chun Doo Hwan allegedly
took $1.2 billion and Roh Tae Woo $630 million. President Kim then made a very
popular decision, letting them be indicted for their military seizure of power
in 1979 and for the Kwangju massacre as well. In August 1996, a South Korean
court found both Chun and Roh guilty of sedition. Chun was sentenced to death
and Roh to 22-and-a-half years in prison. In April 1997, the Korean Supreme
Court upheld slightly less severe sentences, something that would have been
simply unimaginable for the pro forma Japanese Supreme Court. In December
1997, after peace activist Kim Dae Jung was elected president, he pardoned them
both despite the fact that Chun had repeatedly tried to have Kim killed.
The United States was always deeply involved in these events. In
1989, when the Korean National Assembly sought to investigate what happened
at Kwangju on its own, the U.S. government refused to cooperate and prohibited
the former American ambassador to Seoul and the former general in command
of U.S. Forces Korea from testifying. The American press avoided reporting
on these events (while focusing on the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators
in Beijing in June 1989), and most Americans knew next to nothing about them.
This cover-up of the costs of military rule and the suppression of democracy
in South Korea, in turn, has contributed to the present growing hostility
of South Koreans toward the United States.
Unlike American-installed or supported "democracies" elsewhere,
South Korea has developed into a genuine democracy. Public opinion is a vital
force in the society. A separation of powers has been institutionalized and
is honored. Electoral competition for all political offices is intense, with
high levels of participation by voters. These achievements came from below,
from the Korean people themselves, who liberated their country from American-backed
military dictatorship. Perhaps most important, the Korean National Assembly
– the parliament – is a genuine forum for democratic debate. I have visited
it often and find the contrast with the scripted and empty procedures encountered
in the Japanese Diet or the Chinese National People's Congress striking indeed.
Perhaps its only rival in terms of democratic vitality in East Asia is the
Taiwanese Legislative Yuan. On some occasions, the Korean National Assembly
is rowdy; fist fights are not uncommon. It is, however, a true school of democracy,
one that came into being despite the resistance of the United States.
The Democracy Peddlers
Given this history, why should we be surprised that in Baghdad,
such figures as former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul
Bremer III, former Ambassador John Negroponte, and present Ambassador Zalmay
Khalilzad, as well as a continuously changing cohort of American major-generals
fresh from power-point lectures at the American Enterprise Institute, should
have produced chaos and probable civil war? None of them has any qualifications
at all for trying to "introduce democracy" or American-style capitalism in
a highly nationalistic Muslim nation, and even if they did, they could not
escape the onus of having terrorized the country through the use of unrestricted
Bremer is a former assistant and employee of Henry Kissinger and Gen. Alexander
Haig. Negroponte was American ambassador to Honduras, 1981-85, when it had the
world's largest CIA station and actively participated in the dirty war to suppress
Nicaraguan democracy. Khalilzad, the most prominent official of Afghan ancestry
in the Bush administration, is a member of the Project for a New American Century,
the neocon pressure group that lobbied for a war of aggression against Iraq.
The role of the American military in our war there has been an unmitigated disaster
on every front, including the deployment of undisciplined, brutal troops at
places like the Abu Ghraib prison. All the United States has achieved is to
guarantee that Iraqis will hate us for years to come. The situation in Iraq
today is worse than it was in Japan or Korea and comparable to our tenure in
Vietnam. Perhaps it is worth reconsidering what exactly we are so intent on
exporting to the world.
Chalmers Johnson is, most recently, the author of The
Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic,
as well as of MITI and the Japanese Miracle (1982) and Japan: Who
Governs? (1995) among other works. This piece originated as "remarks" presented
at the East Asia panel of a workshop on "Transplanting Institutions" sponsored
by the Department of Sociology of the University of California, San Diego, held
on April 21, 2006. The chairman of the workshop was Professor Richard Madsen.