Forcing Square Pegs Into Round Holes

While the original pretext offered to the Australian people for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the presence of weapons of mass destruction and their certain use against Western targets, the justification has now moved from the pragmatic to the ideological. As Prime Minister Howard has repeatedly articulated, the project is now one of bringing democracy to Iraq. Such an exercise is, he told the Institute of Public Affairs recently, nothing less than a “test of our values” and our determination as a people.

Clearly, the Prime Minister has embraced President Bush’s messianic vision of a “global democratic revolution” beginning in Iraq but ultimately extending across the Middle East. It is, our leaders opine, only through the democratization of the Middle East that we can know peace and security. Of course, the Middle East has never been democratic and yet has never threatened any Western nation.

Underpinning all the rhetoric of democratization and “freeing” the Iraqi people is the belief that there is one universal set of values to which all humankind subscribes and aspires. It’s a dangerously naive idealism that has placed Australia on a course that heads only towards disaster and disappointment.

As ostensible conservatives, George W. Bush and John Howard should understand that societies are complex organisms that have evolved and continue to evolve in response to unique conditions and experiences. That they cannot readily be “transformed” by either social engineering or force is a cornerstone principle of conservative thought. The utopian vision of democratic revolutions has its origins more in the idealism of the French Revolution and the Left than the hard-nosed realism of the Right.

There is no doubt that Iraqis, like Australians and Americans, love and desire freedom. However, if freedom doesn’t mean the right to complete self-determination, unfettered by interests other than one’s own, then that freedom is less than worthless – it’s oppression.

The problem that America faces is that the Iraqi project is predicated on the idea that, if given the opportunity, Arabs and Muslims would embrace secularism, democracy, and social liberalism as enthusiastically as a starving man would embrace food. One need only examine America’s forays into “public diplomacy” to understand the cultural hubris that lies at the heart of current White House thinking. Radio Sawa broadcasts American music into Arab homes and Hi Magazine is a lifestyle magazine typical of the sort consumed by youth in the West; marketing Western pop stars, Western fashions and decidedly Western cultural and social attitudes to intrinsically conservative Muslim societies.

Unfortunately, the imposition of American culture and values are not seen by Muslims as being the solution but rather this is the very core of the problem. The campaign to bring secular democracy and Western values to the Muslim world is not preventing the clash of civilizations, because this is the clash of civilizations itself.

So what do Muslims really want? They want what everyone wants: freedom to choose their own destiny and a government that represents their own interests. It’s a freedom that is fundamental and one that features outside the narrow, export-grade definition of freedom being thrown around by the United States and its allies.

However, after sinking hundreds of billions of their nation’s wealth and sacrificing so many young lives, could America’s commitment to freedom ever accommodate a populist Iraqi government that reflected the anti-Israeli, anti-American sentiment of its constituents?

Instead, it seems certain that America and her allies will continue with the elaborate charade that the ongoing occupation is for the good of the Iraqi people; each attack on Westerners by Iraqi insurgents will then be cited as further proof of the need to remain; and as more atrocities are committed by allied soldiers to maintain the occupation and counter a popular insurgency, President Bush will offer more apologia to the Muslim world about how this is not what America is really about.

This may not be what America – or indeed the West – is about, but it is what occupation has always been about. If we are to continue to try and force the square pegs of secular democracy and Western culture into the round wholes of a conservative Muslim society, then we will continue to see escalating resistance and escalating allied violence to contain that insurgency. The Australian Prime Minister is therefore correct. Our continued participation in an increasingly brutal and failing attempt to spread democracy at the barrel of a gun is indeed a test of our character. However, he is desperately wrong when he says the right choice is to remain on this course.