A recent cartoon summed up the Iraq war. Next to a toppled Saddam statue stood a small sign: "Coming soon, on this site, a new Starbucks." Corporate America is salivating to "rebuild" Iraq and reap the profits. It is an outrageous scam.
But progressives who look at Iraq and see only the corporate scam are missing the bigger picture: the ideology that frames the public's view of Iraq. As long as that ideology remains unchallenged, it will be next to impossible to stop the corporate scam, or the spread of American empire.
Progressives who condemn the Starbucks-ization of Iraq find plenty of sympathy in the liberal elite. On talk shows and editorial pages, liberals dispute with conservatives about the details of the "rebuilding" process. But every word of this mainstream debate reinforces the basic view both sides share: the Iraqis must choose between order, American-style, and the endless misery of chaotic savagery. A dark legacy of backwardnesss, religious obscurantism, and totalitarian terror are coming to an end in Iraq, according to the mainstream ideology. After a transitional phase of chaos, Iraqis will eventually enjoy a shining new order-an endless vista of individual freedom, prosperity, and progress that only our modern Western civilization can offer. Our job is to teach them how to do it.
This may sound like obnoxious cliché. In our most influential media, though, it passes for virtually unquestioned truth. Listen, for example, to the liberal pundit Thomas Friedman. (I like Tom because, although he's a cheerleader for U.S. imperialism, he's a crudely honest cheerleader. His lively metaphors tell us exactly what's on the liberal mind.)
Tom says that U.S. forces in the Middle East are a "Roto-Rooter truck." In other words, the people who govern nations he doesn't like are not human beings. They are just mucky sewer slime. Now that the slime has been cleaned out in Iraq, that country is "our new baby," our "51st state." Since the Iraqi people are too immature to have their own government yet, U.S. forces must be the "parents." The child-like Iraqis "need a firm hand guiding them. . 'Shock and awe' is not just for war-making. It's an everyday tool for running this place."
It's not just Iraq, of course. Before the Iraq war began, Tom said bluntly that there are many juvenile states, too unruly to govern themselves. The globe "is divided between the World of Order and the World of Disorder," he wrote. The World of Order includes the U.S., the E.U., Russia, India, and China. The World of Disorder includes "failed states," "rogue states" (the "axis of evil"), and "messy states," like Pakistan, Colombia, Indonesia, and "many Arab and African states." Friedman wants to send the U.S. Roto-Rooter to clean out not only the "messy" states, but the whole World of Disorder, that chaotic kindergarten so badly in need of our wise, loving parenting.
Not all the pundits put so much faith in tough love as a parenting style. But in papers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, nearly all share Friedman's view of the basic situation in Iraq: the U.S. is a beacon of moral purity, scouring the mess and bringing order out of chaos. Neither liberals nor conservatives ever suggests that the U.S. attack created the chaos. They all assume that Iraq fell into chaos because the natives there are too politically immature to govern themselves. We must teach them how to live in a civilized political and social order.
Across the mainstream political spectrum, the U.S. is seen as a well-meaning parent challenged by an unruly child. Good Iraqis will behave like good children, we are told. They will cooperate with the wise grown-ups and follow their instructions. As the good Iraqis grow up, they can gradually take more responsibility for controlling their own lives. Bad Iraqis will refuse to behave. Naturally, they will have to be punished.
Like all parents, the U.S. pundits and editorialists discuss the finer points of tactics: When and how should you let the children have a say in decisions about their lives? When do you use positive reinforcements, and when negative consequences? When is punishment called for? What form should it take?
Unlike most parents, though, our "experts" are not primarily concerned about
the well-being of the Iraqi "children." When liberals complain about the
Bush administration's corporate scam, few say it's outright wrong. Their concern is almost always the public image of the U.S. The critics warn that such crude greed is unseemly and embarrassing. They treat the Bush administration like an overbearing bullying parent, who lives in a house with big windows and no curtains. "What will the neighbors think," they ask. How can we create world order if other nations don't trust us to be wise loving parents? The liberals also fear retaliation from other nations, whose corporations are rudely cut out of the action. If you want an enduring empire, you need partners to help you, they warn the right-wing unilateralists. But liberals understand that this scramble for windfall profit is just how capitalism works. For them, it's the system that made America great. And they are as sure as conservatives that the U.S. wants to be a wise loving parent, doing the right thing.
The American corporate empire depends on this whole condescending, paternalistic ideology, viewing the U.S. as the force of order and people of color as inherently disordered. It's the way white people in America have been talking about "the natives" for the last four centuries. The American public tolerates the corporate scam because they take this ideology as unquestioned truth. They have never heard anything else. As long as it goes unquestioned, the corporate empire is free to spread as far as its guns and bombs will take it. If the ideology begins to falter, though, the empire can not long endure.
If we really want the Iraqis to be liberated, we will have to free them from more than Bechtel, Haliburton, and Starbucks. We will have to free them from the ideology that creates and justifies imperialism. First, of course, we will have to free ourselves.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org