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Our rulers are brutal but they are vulnerable

This article is over 20 years, 10 months old
Acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy blows apart the myths put forward to justify American imperialism and points to how we can exploit the weaknesses of those who dominate the world
Issue 1854

WAY BACK in 1988, on 3 July, the USS Vincennes, a missile cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290 civilian passengers. George Bush the First, who was at the time on his presidential campaign, was asked to comment on the incident. He said quite subtly, ‘I will never apologise for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.’

I don’t care what the facts are. What a perfect maxim for the New American Empire. Perhaps a slight variation on the theme would be more apposite – the facts can be whatever we want them to be. Public support in the US for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the US 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. George Bush the Lesser went to the extent of saying it would be ‘suicidal’ for the US not to attack Iraq. It was Frenzy with a Purpose. Bush 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.

The war against Iraq has been fought and won and no Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found. Not even a little one. Perhaps they’ll have to be planted before they’re discovered. And then, the more troublesome amongst us will need an explanation for why Saddam Hussein didn’t use them when his country was being invaded.

There are those who say, so what if Iraq had no chemical and nuclear weapons? So what if there is no Al Qaida connection? So what if Osama Bin Laden hates Saddam Hussein as much as he hates the United States? Bush the Lesser has said Saddam Hussein was a ‘Homicidal Dictator’. And so, the reasoning goes, Iraq needed a ‘regime change’.

Never mind that 40 years ago, the CIA, under President John F Kennedy, helped orchestrate a regime change in Baghdad. In 1963, after a successful coup, the Ba’ath Party came to power in Iraq. Using lists provided by the CIA, the new Ba’ath regime systematically eliminated hundreds of doctors, teachers, lawyers, and political figures known to be leftists.

In 1979, after factional infighting within the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein became the president of Iraq. In April 1980, while he was massacring Shias, the US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi declared, ‘We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq.’ Washington and London overtly and covertly supported Saddam Hussein. They financed him, equipped him, armed him, and provided him with dual-use materials to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. They supported the eight-year war against Iran and the 1988 gassing of Kurdish people in Halabja, crimes which 14 years later were reheated and served up as reasons to justify invading Iraq.

The point is, if Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history (the opening move of Operation Shock and Awe), then surely those who supported him ought at least to be tried for war crimes?

Why aren’t the faces of US and UK government officials on the infamous pack of cards of wanted men and women? Because when it comes to Empire, facts don’t matter.

Yes, but all that’s in the past, we’re told. Saddam Hussein is a monster who must be stopped now. And only the US can stop him. It’s an effective technique, this use of the urgent morality of the present to obscure the diabolical sins of the past and the malevolent plans for the future. Indonesia, Panama, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan – the list goes on and on. Right now there are brutal regimes being groomed for the future – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics.

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).

In these past months, while the world watched, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was broadcast on live TV. A 7,000 year old civilisation slid into anarchy. Before the war on Iraq began, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) sent the Pentagon a list of 16 crucial sites to protect. The National Museum was second on that list. Yet the museum was not just looted, it was desecrated.

It was a repository of an ancient cultural heritage. Iraq as we know it today was part of the river valley of Mesopotamia. The civilisation that grew along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates produced the world’s first writing, first calendar, first library, first city and, yes, the world’s first democracy. King Hammurabi of Babylon was the first to codify laws governing the social life of citizens. It was a code in which abandoned women, prostitutes, slaves and even animals had rights. The Hammurabi code is acknowledged not just as the birth of legality, but the beginning of an understanding of the concept of social justice.

The US government could not have chosen a more inappropriate land in which to stage its illegal war and display its grotesque disregard for justice. The last building on the ORHA list of 16 sites to be protected was the Ministry of Oil. It was the only one that was given protection. Perhaps the occupying army thought that in Muslim countries lists are read upside down? The safety and security of Iraqi people was not their business. The security of Iraq’s cultural heritage or whatever little remained of its infrastructure was not their business.

But the security and safety of Iraq’s oilfields were. Of course they were. The oilfields were ‘secured’ almost before the invasion began. On 2 May Bush the Lesser launched his 2004 campaign hoping to be finally elected US President.

In what probably constitutes the shortest flight in history, a military jet landed on an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was so close to shore that, according to the Associated Press, administration officials acknowledged ‘positioning the massive ship to provide the best TV angle for Bush’s speech, with the sea as his background instead of the San Diego coastline’.

President Bush, who never served his term in the military, emerged from the cockpit in fancy dress – a US military bomber jacket, combat boots, flying goggles, helmet. Waving to his cheering troops, he officially proclaimed victory over Iraq. He was careful to say that it was ‘just one victory in a war on terror…which still goes on’.

It was important to avoid making a straightforward victory announcement, because under the Geneva Convention a victorious army is bound by the legal obligations of an occupying force, a responsibility that the Bush administration does not want to burden itself with. Also, closer to the 2004 elections, in order to woo wavering voters, another victory in the ‘War on Terror’ might become necessary. Syria is being fattened for the kill.

The distinction between election campaigns and war, between democracy and oligarchy, seems to be closing fast. According to a Gallup International poll, in no European country was support for a war carried out ‘unilaterally by America and its allies’ higher than 11 percent. But the governments of England, Italy, Spain, Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe were praised for disregarding the views of the majority of their people and supporting the illegal invasion. What’s it called? New Democracy? (Like Britain’s New Labour?)

In stark contrast to the venality displayed by their governments, on 15 February, weeks before the invasion, in the most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen, more than ten million people marched against the war on five continents. We were disregarded with utter disdain. 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.

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, the 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 on sale to the highest bidder. Democracy has become Empire’s euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism.

The machinery of democracy has been effectively subverted. Politicians, media barons, judges, powerful corporate lobbies and government officials overlap and fit together in an elaborate underhand configuration that completely undermines the lateral arrangement of checks and balances between the constitution, courts of law, parliament, the administration and, perhaps most important of all, the independent media that form the structural basis of a parliamentary democracy. Increasingly, the overlap is neither subtle nor elaborate.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has a controlling interest in major Italian newspapers, magazines, television channels and publishing houses.

In the US, Clear Channel Worldwide Incorporated is the largest radio station owner in the country. It runs more than 1,200 channels. Its CEO contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush’s election campaign. It organised pro-war patriotic ‘Rallies for America’ across the country and then sent correspondents to cover them as though they were breaking news. The era of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretence and start hiring theatre directors instead of journalists.

As America’s showbusiness gets more and more violent and warlike, and America’s wars get more and more like showbusiness, some interesting crossovers are taking place.

The designer who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which General Tommy Franks stage-managed news coverage of Operation Shock and Awe also built sets for Disney, MGM and Good Morning America. It is a cruel irony that the US, which has the most ardent, vociferous defenders of the idea of Free Speech, and (until recently) the most elaborate legislation to protect it, has so circumscribed the space in which that freedom can be expressed.

In a strange, convoluted way, the sound and fury that accompanies the legal and conceptual defence of Free Speech in America serves to mask the process of the rapid erosion of the possibilities of actually exercising that freedom. America’s media empire is controlled by a tiny coterie of people. Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has proposed even further deregulation of the communication industry, which will lead to even greater consolidation.

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?

In the three years of George Bush the Lesser’s term, the American economy has lost more than two million jobs. Outlandish military expenses, corporate welfare and tax giveaways to the rich have created a financial crisis for the US educational system.

According to a survey by the National Council of State Legislatures, US states cut $49 billion in public services, health, welfare benefits and education in 2002.

They plan to cut another $25.7 billion this year. That makes a total of $75 billion. Bush’s initial budget request to Congress to finance the war in Iraq was $80 billion. So who’s paying for the war? America’s poor. Its students, its unemployed, its single mothers, its hospital and home-care patients, its teachers and health workers.

And who’s actually fighting the war? Once again, America’s poor. The soldiers who are baking in Iraq’s desert sun are not the children of the rich. Only one of all the representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate has a child fighting in Iraq. America’s ‘volunteer’ army in fact depends on a poverty draft of poor whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians looking for a way to earn a living and get an education.

Federal statistics show that African Americans make up 21 percent of the total armed forces and 29 percent of the US army. They count for only 12 percent of the general population.

It’s ironic, isn’t it – the disproportionately high representation of African Americans in the army and prison? Perhaps we should take a positive view, and look at this as affirmative action at its most effective. This year, on what would have been Martin Luther King Junior’s 74th birthday, President Bush denounced the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programme favouring blacks and Latinos.

He called it ‘divisive’, ‘unfair’ and ‘unconstitutional’. The successful effort to keep blacks off the voting rolls in the state of Florida in order that George Bush be elected was of course neither unfair nor unconstitutional. I don’t suppose affirmative action for White Boys From Yale ever is.

So we know who’s paying for the war. We know who’s fighting it. But who will benefit from it? Who is homing in on the reconstruction contracts estimated to be worth up to one hundred billon dollars? Could it be America’s poor and unemployed and sick? Could it be America’s single mothers? Or America’s black and Latino minorities?

Operation Iraqi Freedom, George Bush assures us, is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via corporate multinationals. Like Bechtel, like Chevron, like Halliburton. Once again, it is a small, tight circle that connects corporate, military and government leadership to one another. The promiscuousness, the cross-pollination is outrageous.

Consider this: the Defence Policy Board is a government-appointed group that advises the Pentagon. The Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity found that nine out of the 30 members of the Defence Policy Board are connected to companies that were awarded defence contracts worth $76 billion between the years 2001 and 2002.

One of them, Jack Sheehan, a retired Marine Corps general, is a senior vice-president at Bechtel, the giant international engineering outfit. Riley Bechtel, the company chairman, is on the President’s Export Council. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also on the Board of Directors of the Bechtel Group, is the chairman of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

When asked by the New York Times whether he was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, he said, ‘I don’t know that Bechtel would particularly benefit from it. But if there’s work to be done, Bechtel is the type of company that could do it.’

Bechtel has been awarded a $680 million reconstruction contract in Iraq. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, Bechtel contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaign efforts. Arcing across this subterfuge, dwarfing it by the sheer magnitude of its malevolence, is America’s anti-terrorism legislation.

The USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, has become the blueprint for similar anti-terrorism bills in countries across the world. It was passed in the House of Representatives by a majority vote of 337 to 79. According to the New York Times, ‘Many lawmakers said it had been impossible to truly debate or even read the legislation.’

The Patriot Act ushers in an era of systemic automated surveillance. It blurs the boundaries between speech and criminal activity creating the space to construe acts of civil disobedience as violating the law. Hundreds of people are being held indefinitely as ‘unlawful combatants’. (In India, the number is in the thousands. In Israel, 5,000 Palestinians are now being detained.) Non-citizens, of course, have no rights at all. They can simply be ‘disappeared’ like the people of Chile under Washington’s old ally, General Pinochet.

More than 1,000 people, many of them Muslim or of Middle Eastern origin, have been detained, some without access to legal representatives. Apart from paying the actual economic costs of war, American people are paying for these wars of ‘liberation’ with their own freedoms. For the ordinary American, the price of ‘New Democracy’ in other countries is the death of real democracy at home.

Meanwhile, Iraq is being groomed for ‘liberation’. (Or did they mean ‘liberalisation’ all along?) The Wall Street Journal reports that ‘the Bush administration has drafted sweeping plans to remake Iraq’s economy in the US image’.

Iraq’s constitution is being redrafted – its trade laws, tax laws and intellectual property laws rewritten in order to turn it into an American-style capitalist economy.

The United States Agency for International Development has invited US companies to bid for contracts that range between road building, water systems, textbook distribution and cellphone networks.

Soon after Bush the Second announced that he wanted American farmers to feed the world, Dan Amstutz, a former senior executive of Cargill, the biggest grain exporter in the world, was put in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam’s policy director, said, ‘Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission.’

The two men who have been shortlisted to run operations for managing Iraqi oil have worked with Shell, BP and Fluor. Fluor is embroiled in a lawsuit by black South African workers who have accused the company of exploiting and brutalising them during the apartheid era. Shell, of course, is well known for its devastation of the Ogoni tribal lands in Nigeria.

Tom Brokaw (one of America’s best-known TV anchors) was inadvertently succinct about the process. ‘One of the things we don’t want to do’, he said, ‘is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we’re going to own that country.’

Now that the ownership deeds are being settled, Iraq is ready for New Democracy. So, as Lenin used to ask, What Is To Be Done? We might as well accept the fact that there is no conventional military force that can successfully challenge the American war machine. Terrorist strikes only give the US government an opportunity that it is eagerly awaiting to further tighten its stranglehold.

Within days of an attack you can bet that Patriot II would be passed. To argue against US military aggression by saying that it will increase the possibilities of terrorist strikes is futile.

It’s like threatening Brer Rabbit that you’ll throw him into the bramble bush. Anyone who has read the documents written by the Project for the New American Century can attest to that.

The government’s suppression of the Congressional committee report on 11 September, which found that there was intelligence warning of the strikes that was ignored, also attests to the fact that, for all their posturing, the terrorists and the Bush regime might as well be working as a team.

They both hold people responsible for the actions of their governments. They both believe in the doctrine of collective guilt and collective punishment. Their actions benefit each other greatly.

The US government has already displayed in no uncertain terms the range and extent of its capability for paranoid aggression. In human psychology, paranoid aggression is usually an indicator of nervous insecurity. It could be argued that it’s no different in the case of the psychology of nations. Empire is paranoid because it has a soft underbelly.

Its ‘homeland’ may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable.

Our strategy must be to isolate Empire’s working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small, no victory too insignificant.

We could reverse the idea of the economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by Empire and its allies. We could impose a regime of People’s Sanctions on every corporate house that has been awarded with a contract in post-war Iraq, just as activists in this country and around the world targeted institutions of apartheid.

Each one of them should be named, exposed and boycotted. Forced out of business. That could be our response to the Shock and Awe campaign. It would be a great beginning.

Another urgent challenge is to expose the corporate media for the boardroom bulletin that it really is. We need to create a universe of alternative information.

The battle to reclaim democracy is going to be a difficult one. Our freedoms were not granted to us by any governments. They were wrested from them by us. And once we surrender them, the battle to retrieve them is called a revolution. It is a battle that must range across continents and countries. It must not acknowledge national boundaries but, if it is to succeed, it has to begin here. In America.

The only institution more powerful than the US government is American civil society. The rest of us are subjects of slave nations. We are by no means powerless, but you have the power of proximity. You have access to the imperial palace and the Emperor’s chambers.

Empire’s conquests are being carried out in your name, and you have the right to refuse. You could refuse to fight. Refuse to move those missiles from the warehouse to the dock. Refuse to wave that flag. Refuse the victory parade. Hundreds of thousands of you have survived the relentless propaganda you have been subjected to, and are actively fighting your own government.

In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the United States, that’s as brave as any Iraqi or Afghan or Palestinian fighting for his or her homeland. If you join the battle, not in your hundreds of thousands, but in your millions, you will be greeted joyously by the rest of the world.

And you will see how beautiful it is to be gentle instead of brutal, safe instead of scared. Befriended instead of isolated. Loved instead of hated. I hate to disagree with your president. Yours is by no means a great nation. But you could be a great people. History is giving you the chance. Seize the time.

Copyright © Arundhati Roy 2003.

This is an edited version of the lecture ‘Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)’. It was first presented at the Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, on 13 May 2003, in an event sponsored by the Centre for Economic and Social Rights ( and the Lannan Foundation (, which recently awarded Arundhati Roy the 2002 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom. You can read the full version at


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