The world press on the crisis of democracy

Haaretz says freedom is imperiled in Israel, and Arundhati Roy writes it's under siege in the U.S.

Published May 23, 2003 10:47PM (EDT)

Israel, Muli Peleg in Haaretz

The disturbing public opinion poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute on the weakening of Israeli democracy passed in silence. The silence confirms the findings: A large number of Israelis have contempt for democracy and regard it as an irrelevant obstacle to reality here. The rest are apathetic or have lost hope for a dialogue with the first group...

Polar positions and differing interpretations of democracy's role create a variety of attitudes, most frequently contradictory, to ideological pluralism and coexistence. The two relevant concepts are the narrow or liberal approach and the broader, participatory approach to democracy.

The first emphasizes individual liberties, a clear separation between public and private, government efficacy and rule of law, and ideological pluralism. The second emphasizes participation and social activism, equality, and broadening the public arena beyond politics...

The Israeli model is authoritarian-hierarchal and narrow. The poverty of Israeli democracy goes back to the days of the pre-state yishuv, when ... the only way to protect the political entity was by preserving the coexistence of all political movements and strains within the society. Under those circumstances, the essences of democracy -- tolerance, broad participation and equal opportunity to influence the decisions of the public -- were forgotten and neglected. Israeli democracy was largely institutionalized as a form of government procedures and nothing more.

In addition, Israeli society is trapped in the shackles of collectivism. From the dawn of its establishment, Israeli society has been staked on collective parameters -- the nation, the people, religion, nationality, the ethnic group, the party. The trauma of the Diaspora and the Holocaust, which resulted in the sense of common destiny, the socialist heritage that takes pride in the social unit and dismisses the individual, and the psychological need to come together against ongoing external threats, were all combined to become responsible for the distortion of the collective. These circumstances resulted in the suffocation of individualism and the freedoms of the individual, in which normative democracies take pride.

The culture of debate, exchange of views, mutual fertilization -- instruments with which a full democracy is equipped -- do not exist, and therefore, the possibility of escaping the anti-democratic trap of Israeli society remains far off. In such a reality, the IDI's important public opinion poll will remain nothing more than a curiosity.

Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Al-Shibani in the Arab News

Let us assume that, given its reaction to 9/11 and the way it is now fighting terrorism, the United States were the governing authority here. What would be its reaction to the bombings in Riyadh?

First, the country's religious establishment would be blamed for the attack and as a result would be dismantled.

Universities and colleges teaching Shariah [Islamic law] would have to be reduced in size because they are breeding grounds for extremists. The curricula, especially those which teach Qur'anic jurisprudence and interpretation ... would have to be changed...

New prisons would be built to jail all those growing beards, which are a terrorist symbol, as well as imams and preachers. New techniques and tools of intelligence and surveillance would be devised to deal with the new situation, beginning by torturing the suspects' relatives, friends and everyone who happened to know or come across them. The borders with Yemen would be sealed to stop smuggling of arms into the country. Westerners would not be allowed to live in compounds because these are easy targets. Instead, they should mingle with the rest of the population...

It is an endless list of unjust measures that we have seen the United States adopt over the last two years.

We must, however, remember one thing. Among the many blessings conferred upon this country is that its rulers are more farsighted, experienced and responsive to their people's needs. They are more rational than to allow crimes committed by a group of deranged individuals to deflect their attention or steer them from the course they have set for their country. It is a course that takes into consideration the country's national interests. Following the bombings in Riyadh, the Kingdom has been accused of being a fertile ground for terrorists because it is a closed society, lacks democracy and freedom of expression and applies a strict religious code. How can those who voice these accusations explain the attacks that took place in Morocco, an open and democratic country which enjoys freedom of expression? Terrorism knows no boundaries. Why then single out Saudi Arabia?

India, Arundhati Roy in Outlook India

Public support in the U.S. for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the U.S. government and faithfully amplified by the corporate media.

Apart from the invented links between Iraq and al-Qaida, we had the manufactured frenzy about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction.

But this wasn't just your ordinary brand of friendly neighbourhood frenzy. It was Frenzy with a Purpose. It ushered in an old doctrine in a new bottle: the Doctrine of Pre-emptive Strike, aka The United States Can Do Whatever The Hell It Wants, And That's Official...

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently declared that U.S. freedoms are "not the grant of any government or document, but ... our endowment from God"...

So here we are, the people of the world, confronted with an Empire armed with a mandate from heaven (and, as added insurance, the most formidable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in history).

Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its sly new war cry. Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy-cutters. Death is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling this new product: Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (bring to a boil, add oil, then bomb)...

Democracy, the modern world's holy cow, is in crisis. And the crisis is a profound one. Every kind of outrage is being committed in the name of democracy. It has become little more than a hollow word, a pretty shell, emptied of all content or meaning. It can be whatever you want it to be. Democracy is the Free World's whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of taste, available to be used and abused at will.

Until quite recently, right up to the 1980s, democracy did seem as though it might actually succeed in delivering a degree of real social justice.

But modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy -- the 'independent' judiciary, the 'free' press, parliament -- and moulding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalisation has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.

So here it is -- the World's Greatest Democracy, led by a man who was not legally elected. America's Supreme Court gifted him his job. What price have American people paid for this spurious presidency?

Canada, Adnan R. Khan in Maclean's

Fresh from the front lines, the 12 American soldiers under Lieut. Lars Nadig's command in Baghdad's Kharada district are fighting another kind of war. The enemy has melted into the shadows of the Iraqi capital's dimly lit streets, and now the 25-year-old Virginia native is forced to try to bring peace to a city awash in chaos by solving disputes over property and seizing weapons. Live gunfire, a steady chorus, is a minor nuisance to these men. "Everyone's got a gun," says Nadig, pulling a loaded, silver-plated nine-mm handgun out of his pocket as another gunshot sounds no more than a block away. "That's probably just some local guy, happy that he has running water again."

Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says the U.S. must act quickly to restore order. "If we continue this confusion," he said in his office in Baghdad, "this wonderful victory we have achieved will turn into a quagmire."

Worried that the Iraqi situation is spinning totally out of control, last week the White House recalled Jay Garner, the retired general who was the top civilian administrator in the country, and replaced him with career diplomat and counterterrorism expert Paul Bremer. The administration also recalled Middle East diplomat Barbara Bodine, who was in charge of reconstruction efforts in Baghdad. "Garner and Bodine didn't have the management skills," a State Department official directly involved with the Iraqi reconstruction program told Maclean's. "They didn't take charge and they didn't make things happen fast enough. But Bremer is a 'can-do' guy and he'll get the country back on its feet. We're making a course correction."

And in one of his first moves, Bremer also ordered U.S. soldiers to increase their patrols in Baghdad.

But many have become tired of policing. "The next round is supposed to be better trained for a peacekeeping mission," said one private. "They were supposed to be here already but at this point, we don't know what's going on." Slago speaks for many when he says, "The war was a lot more fun than this." Still, the troops set out daily on their patrols, struggling to maintain some semblance of order in the city. "Whenever I go out on a call, I try to tell these people they have to become self-reliant," says Nadig. "One of these days, I'm not going to be here." But if the current chaos continues, U.S. forces are unlikely to be heading home anytime soon.

Russia, Megan Merrill in the Moscow Times

Mobutu Sese Soko's police arrested Arsen Mandanoi's father for belonging to a socialist opposition party. Mobutu's forces later killed Mandanoi's sister and beat his mother so badly she was hospitalized. Afraid for his life, Mandanoi fled Zaire in 1992 for Russia, the only country that would give him a visa.

But now Mandanoi is preparing to flee Russia as well.

"I ran away from my country," the 35-year-old refugee said. "But here it is like a prison. I'm not free. We are nothing here."

Like most African refugees in Russia, Mandanoi lives in legal limbo and grim poverty. He is consistently harassed by police and twice has ended up in the hospital after beatings by skinheads. After 11 years of living in fear, Mandanoi is getting out.

"Here there is no life, no future," he said. "I'd prefer to live in a country where there is law."

Mandanoi said that when he is beaten, his attackers sometimes call him a monkey or ask why he is in Russia. "When they beat me I just ask, 'Why? All human beings are the same. God doesn't care that we are black.'"

The Moscow Catholic Chaplaincy provides a different kind of support: helping refugees go back home. In the last three years the parish has helped nearly 50 refugees return to Africa. "Our first job is to discourage people from staying," [a chaplain] said. "My advice to Africans is that Russia is not the place to seek refugee status."

Alemayehu was accepted by the United States in April for resettlement.

"There are a lot of refugees who are waiting for this," he said. "Not only me. I will not think of the dark days that are coming, just the bright days."

Samba Jean-Michel said the United States also accepted him for resettlement in February. He is eagerly awaiting word on a departure date.

"Here human rights don't exist," he said. "Yesterday I was watching television when Putin was saying 'human rights.' But it's a farce. It's only words. We are nobody. Absolutely nobody."

Egypt, Samir Amin in Al-Ahram

American democracy today constitutes the advanced model of what I have called "low intensity democracy".

The combination of a dominant religious practice -- and its exploitation through fundamentalist discourse -- with the absence of political consciousness among the oppressed classes gives the U.S. political system an unprecedented margin of manoeuvre, through which it can destroy the potential impact of democratic practices and reduce them to benign rituals.

However, we must not let ourselves be deluded. It is capital, alone, which takes all the decisions, and only when it has done so does it then mobilise the American ideology to serve its cause. The means which are deployed -- the unprecedented and systematic use of disinformation -- can then serve their purpose, by isolating critics and subjecting them to a permanent and odious form of blackmail. In this way, the establishment can easily manipulate "public opinion" by cultivating its stupidity.

Thanks to this context, the American ruling class has developed a kind of total cynicism, enveloped in an outer casing of hypocrisy which is perfectly transparent to foreign observers, but somehow invisible to the American people themselves...

Encouraged by their recent successes, the extreme right now has a tight hold on the reins of power in Washington. The choice on offer is clear: either accept U.S. hegemony, along with the super-strength "liberalism" it promotes, and which means little more than an exclusive obsession with making money -- or reject both. In the first case, we will be giving Washington a free hand to "redesign" the world in the image of Texas. Only by choosing the second option may we be able to do something to help rebuild a world that is essentially pluralist, democratic and peaceful.

Had they reacted in 1935 or 1937, the Europeans would have been able to halt the Nazi madness before it did so much harm. By delaying until 1939, they contributed to its tens of millions of victims. It is our responsibility to act now, so that Washington's neo-Nazi challenge may be contained and eliminated.

Hong Kong, Stephen Zunes in Asia Times

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has traditionally been the most important U.S. ally in the Arab or Islamic world. It is run exclusively by a royal family that allows neither public dissent nor an independent press. Those who dare challenge the regime or its policies are punished severely. There is no constitution, there are no political parties, and there is no legislature. It was under such an environment of repression that Osama bin Laden and most of his followers first emerged.

Long shielded by the monarchy's willingness to supply the United States with cheap oil, to subsidize the U.S. arms industry with major weapons purchases, and to make lucrative deals with other major U.S. corporate interests, the U.S. has allowed this family dictatorship to get away with practices that would have been considered unacceptable from almost any other country.

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have revealed their blatant hypocrisy by wailing about the plight of Afghan women while being dismissive of the treatment of Saudi women; by condemning the rigid Islamic laws in Iran as human-rights violations while defending the even more repressive variants in Saudi Arabia as somehow an inherent part of their culture; by demanding that Palestinian statehood be dependent on establishing a leadership committed to democracy and accountability, while backing the corrupt and autocratic Saudi leadership.

Human-rights activists for years have been raising doubts about the close strategic relationship both Democratic and Republican parties have had with the Saudi regime, particularly the massive arms transfers and military training, including its repressive internal security apparatus. Such critics have railed against the regime's misogyny, theocratic fascism, and links to terrorism, but to no avail. Despite the close ties between Washington and Riyadh, there have never been any congressional hearings -- under either Republican or Democratic leaderships -- regarding human-rights abuses by the Saudi government.

F Gregory Gause III, a contemporary specialist on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, notes, "The truth is the more democratic the Saudis become, the less cooperative they will be with us. So why should we want that?" Such a policy raises both serious moral questions as well as serious doubts about whether the U.S. really cares about freedom for Iraq while it helps make possible repression by other Arab governments.

Germany, Klaus Brinkbäumer in Der Spiegel

Philip de Camp -- son of a general and a member of the U.S. Army for the past 23 years, commander of Task Force 4-64 of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, which captured Baghdad -- has two new missions: the Nakha School has to be reopened so that its 460 boys can return to school, and the gas station a few blocks away needs to be able to sell gasoline without gun battles at the pump...

In the courtyard of the Nakha School de Camp tells the teachers: "You must take your destiny into your own hands, and you must protect yourselves. That's freedom. That's what America is like. You are responsible for yourselves and the community." He speaks quickly and broadly, and not even Hamad Ali Hussein, the English teacher, understands him. "The Mister is certainly going to a lot of trouble," says the English teacher, as de Camp leaves, "but before we had a government, and now we have none." Then, very quietly, he adds: "We just don't want them here. The Mister is part of the power that has occupied our country. Illegally." The rift between the West and the East has never been as deep as that which has now formed between America and Iraq.

The soldiers teach democracy and freedom by wearing mirrored sunglasses and shouting at some people who walk by carrying a table: "You Ali Baba?" There were too many suicide attacks during the war, too many Iraqi fighters in civilian clothing -- the American soldiers have no desire to protect Iraqis, nor are they interested in building trust or in trusting any Iraqis. What they do want, now that they war has ended, is to avoid becoming the target of an attack.

Of course, there are also people in this palace like Colonel Eric Wesley, a quiet and thoughtful man, who believe "that the incredible experiment of creating a democratic state in this region and then returning Iraq to the Iraqis" can truly succeed. They also believe that Syria and Jordan must develop better relations with the West and Israel. And that somehow a better Middle East is being born on the scrap yard that is Baghdad, and that this will somehow lead to a better world. This is because people like 38-year-old Colonel Wesley see themselves as "soldier statesmen." They love these assignments, in which they are "at the forefront of the United States' national strategy and at the world's focal point." They love this mixture of military and politics, and the power that lies in the connection. Wesley, commanding officer of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, is in charge of 3500 troops. On April 7, he directed the battle for Baghdad from the TOC (Tactical Operation Center) on the outskirts of the city, at least until a missile hit Wesley's Humvee and killed five men. He survived. And now he is directing the peace.

By Compiled by Laura McClure

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