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Playing dominoes in Iraq

By John Hickman - posted Monday, 13 February 2006

Compare the foreign policy content in George W. Bush’s 2005 and 2006 State of the Union addresses and it is evident that official Washington is still leaning heavily on “democratisation-by-example” as justification for the War in Iraq. Imposing democracy on the Iraqis, according to neoconservative thinking, must trigger a wave of democratisation across the Arab and Muslim world and usher in Immanuel Kant’s long awaited Democratic Peace. The problem with this happy millennial expectation is that it is contradicted by events: no wave of democratisation is sweeping the Middle East.

Tallying the geographic references in Bush’s fourth and fifth State of the Union addresses reveals a rhetorical disengagement from the real world. While there were 24 references to Iraq or Iraqis in the 2005 speech, there were only 16 references in the 2006 speech. That democracy in Iraq is a disappointment would be an understatement. The complete electoral dominance of the pro-Iranian fundamentalist Shi’a and the corresponding eclipse of secular Shi’a politicians, the civil war waiting to erupt and the continuing strength of the Sunni insurgency all suggest that the brand new democratic institutions will last no longer than the United States military occupation.

While there were four references to Palestinian or Palestinians in 2005, there only two in 2006. The election upset that brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority would have shaken the faith of even the most committed believer. Afghanistan fell from three in 2005 to two references in 2006, which is perhaps a reflection of the economic dependence of the country on opium and heroin, the number of warlords elected to the Afghani parliament and the revival of the Taliban insurgency.


Saudi Arabia fell from two to only one reference between the two speeches, perhaps a reflection of its tepid democratic reforms. Saudi men but not women were allowed to vote in non-partisan elections for powerless local assemblies in 2005. At that rate the desert kingdom may emerge as a fully functioning liberal democracy sometime in the early 22nd century.

The number of references to Egypt actually increased from one to two. Obviously desperate for good news about democracy in the Middle East for the 2006 speech Bush observed that Egyptians had, “voted in a multi-party presidential election”. However he neglected to observe that the election was rigged to re-elect the pro-American dictator President Hosni Mubarak and that secular opposition candidate Ayman Abdul Aziz Nour was arrested for his troubles.

There were seven references to Iran in 2006 - up from only three in 2005 - but the increase had nothing to do with democratisation. Teheran stands accused of attempting to go nuclear and supporting terrorism, and more generally of waiting to harvest the political crop that Washington foolishly sowed in neighboring Iraq.

In contrast to Iran, Pakistan was mentioned not once in 2006 and only once in 2005. Bush couldn’t mention close military ally Pakistan this time because it has done exactly what Iran is merely accused of doing: acquiring nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism. Of course the crucial difference between the two countries is that while Iranian nuclear weapons might target Israeli cities, Pakistani nuclear weapons target Indian cities. Both Israel and India might be liberal democracies but the lives of several million wealthy, white and monotheistic Israelis are more valuable to decision-makers in Washington than the lives of tens of millions of poor, brown and polytheistic Indians.

Given the failures of “democratisation by example”, the 2006 State of the Union address also offered a hint of the next rationale for the War in Iraq: geopolitics. Despite the best efforts of the administration, and its friends in the media, most Americans are still aware that democratisation is the only rationale for the War of Iraq offered, after desperate searching failed to turn up any evidence of existing weapons of mass destruction or links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the 9-11 attacks. If they were dispensable then so too is “democracy by example”.

Sixteen paragraphs into his speech, Bush asserted that a sudden withdrawal of US forces from Iraq would leave “a strategic country” under the control of Sunni Islamists and show that US commitments were unreliable. This is nonsense. When the US military ultimately withdraws, the Iranians will probably end up controlling oil rich southern Iraq and perhaps the rest of the country as well. US commitments in international affairs are always contingent, just like those of other powers. The real world notwithstanding, it seems likely that the administration’s next rhetorical justification for the War in Iraq will reprise a favourite from the War in Vietnam four decades ago: the domino theory.

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About the Author

John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College, USA. He may be reached at

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