Want to Spread American Democracy Abroad?

Let the countries America occupies vote in US elections…

photo cred Daniel Cheung

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State under George W. Bush, Colin Powell, once said of the US invasion of Iraq, “if you break it you own it.”

But what would that actually look like in terms of real, practical, democratic accountability to the citizens of a foreign country living under US military occupation?

And this is before we take the tricky next step of addressing indirect occupation, e.g. cases where the US exercises indirect rule through various puppet regimes or coercion.

This 2007 interview in the Atlantic follows up with Powell on the question of the aftermath of the US invasion. He tackles the issue of accountability by focussing on a short list of US missteps and miscalculations, rather than addressing the philosophical, ethical, and political responsibilities of “breaking” a country, but it’s still a helpful insight into what US exceptionalism used to sound like when it was clearly articulated by intelligent people, even if they’re people who lie to the entire world, on television, at the UN.

I’ve long had this half-formed idea that if we really want the American public to take notice of how our policies and our military interventions impact the lives of people around the world then perhaps the most just, efficient, and democratic means of doing so would be to give those subject to US occupation the right to vote in US elections. Stick with me. I provide links and stuff.

What if we:

A. Made it a precondition of any US military action that will require the sustained presence of US ground troops (or air or naval bombardment of a sovereign nation) that “we the people” must also provide these subject populations with the right to vote in US elections, if we maintain a presence of say, more than one month? If you’re subject to US rule then you should have a US vote. Simple. QE-freakin’-D.

B. Returned to the notion that Congress should take the lead in making war?

Sound nuts? Is the notion of an endless war that’s already claimed at least a million lives in a fight against an abstract concept any more sensible? How did we get to the place where that decision was made for us? Well, for starters, we’ve seen the hoarding of executive authority at least since the Kennedy administration. How’s that been working out for us? Maybe we should let those on the receiving end of our ordnance have a say for a change? More voices calling the shots about their destinies seems like a pretty democratic way to go about democratizing the planet, if you ask me.

What’s more, failing to enfranchise those living under the authority of the US government makes the US the world’s largest proponent of Apartheid, with tens (maybe hundreds) of millions living under de-facto US rule, as third-class non-citizens, without representation, equal rights, or a means for seeking a “redress of grievances” to the chief political authority governing their daily lives.

This is before we get to the issues of corruption and the downward spiral of unaccountability, whereby nations seeking the benefits of an alliance with the US are encouraged by various means to ignore the voices of their own people in the interests of “regional stability” or the US national interest (take your pick).

But of course this is only a first pass assessment of the damage done by this policy of rule without accountability, or let’s call it the disenfranchisement of the occupied. The accountability vacuum isn’t so much a byproduct of occupation as it is an opportunity that drives the march to war itself, and it’s a very lucrative vacuum at that. For within this vacuum a select few are empowered to reap massive benefits from resource extraction, infrastructure and security contracts, and trade deals with US-backed puppet regimes.

And by playing ball with the US government and its favored corporate donors, these same pacified police states (we never hear much about our autocratic friends in Jordan, ever notice?) get positive spin in the Western press (or they simply pay for it themselves), while US hardware, intel, and political cover help their regimes to crush opposition voices and civil society organizations before they can hatch. And to add cynicism to injury, the US State Department often finds itself approving of military aid to despotic regimes while at the same time supporting (often highly suspect) opposition groups in these same countries. This multi-billion-dollar game of auto-cock-blocking democracy is all financed by the US taxpayer. And when you take into account the wars that pave the way to enhancing regional stability, we’re well into the trillions.

As an aside, occupation is a marketable industry in itself, as security consultants and surveillance technology firms assure their clients that their knowledge is battle-tested against real people when training police forces around the world, or selling their drones and their motion-sensor technology. Guess which country this company is from (it’s not the US)?

But we have to take the fight to the extremists.

Here’s a question we don’t here much in response to this bit of received wisdom…


In many cases religious institutions are the last gathering places for opposition and for dissent to be voiced or organized in oppressive societies, yet US security pundits and “experts” opine about the curiously persistent fusion of revolutionary movements with religiosity, as if political forces aren’t all but engineering such an outcome. There were secular opposition groups and resistance movements across the Middle East for decades by the way, but we don’t hear much about that history these days, or why things changed. Instead, resistance in the Middle East and in the Muslim world is often presented as part of an uninterrupted quest to expand the caliphate from the Seventh Century until today. But that’s for another article.

It should also be noted that many of the West’s Muslim allies are terrified of the faithful in their own communities. Secret police were known to spy inside of mosques in Tunisia and Egypt, and elsewhere, for years, and likely still do. I recall one Egyptian friend relating to me that it was widely known that security services observed those who prayed Fajr in the mosque he frequented (Fajr is the dawn prayer, and the first of five daily prayers in Islam, and often the mark of the most devout, given the challenge of waking before dawn). These police stakeouts weren’t intended to identify the most pious in order to hand our merit badges for following the state’s religion, but to identify the more devout Muslims as those who would presumably be those most susceptible to radicalization… or if we pull our heads out of the secular-vs-extremist binary for a moment, those most likely to have lost their fear of reprisals from the government for voicing a dissenting opinion. Those who take their faith seriously aren’t simply a threat because they are candidates for suicide vests. They are people like your church-going uncle who may have quietly found refuge in the certainty of divine mercy and justice. And they are people who might feel emboldened to speak out against dictators, even knowing what awaits dissenters in the region’s notorious torture prisons.

But when it comes to what their leaders tell our leaders, and what our media tells us, all of this oppression of Muslims by other Muslims can be neatly packaged as, our Muslim allies policing ‘the problem Muslims’, instead of crushing dissent.

This is to say, it’s complicated, and things are rarely what they appear when it comes to image and reality in Western reporting on the Middle East. So much so that Muslim autocrats governing Muslim populations have their own secret police spying on Muslims… for being too Muslim, and then telling Western leaders and Western audiences (and their own populations) that they are cracking down on “terrorists” rather than crushing civil society or any prayer for democracy. We don’t make a good name for ourselves with the locals by subsidizing regimes who oppress their own people, and these regimes have been playing us for suckers with the “terrorism” card for decades. These regimes are more often than not the incubators and the exporters of extremism.

I’m not saying that Jeffersonian principles will take root the instant the US stops messing around in other people’s backyards. But this is to say that we are doing lots of “stupid shit”.

But, there are those who choose not to play ball of course.

What of those governments, leaders, and peoples, who decide to object and take the principled position when they see that they’re under US rule without a vote or a voice in their own futures? What if leaders decide to listen to their people and nationalize their oil industry after decades of exploitation of their own resources based on contracts made during the era of the British Empire, and make a go at implementing democracy and claiming what’s theirs? Well, there are ways to un-complicate these situations very quickly, see Iran, 1953… or the epidemic of helicopter and plane crashes, and coups in Latin America in the 70’s and 80’s.

Taxation without representation:

If a war was fought nearly two and a half centuries ago over the notion of “taxation without representation”, and this notion continues to hold true as a baseline for defining tyranny, then what of the ultimate form of taxation without representation?

The heaviest form of taxation that can be extracted from a population is life itself. And surely this human “tax” carries more moral weight and represents more of an entitlement to the enfranchisement of subject populations than duties placed on tea and textiles and the rights of a minority population of landed white males.

When citing the grounds for independence, those making the case pointed out that every other reasonable means of appeal had been exhausted:

“when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”…

While the speeches of our leaders may say one thing, the “object” of our various occupations seem to declare something altogether different. And when the “design to reduce” populations under our unaccountable rule (a.k.a. “despotism”) becomes clear, does it not endow a subject peoples not only with certain rights but with certain core, and fundamentally American, “duties”?

First subject populations must have access to a forum and an audience to have their voices heard. This serves two purposes.

It’s my understanding that the First Amendment is the mechanism by which we not only ensure the people’s right, “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, but that it’s also the metric and the standard we use to determine if a government has lost its mandate to govern. Put another way, it’s both how we register our complaints with how we are being governed and how we determine if the lines of communication between the people and the government are still open.

And while all state power (so far as I can tell), is ultimately predicated upon the threat of force, when force is the only source of a state’s mandate to govern (as would seem to be the case in the context of an uninvited military occupation), anyone who respects the arguments outlined in the US Declaration of Independence and the rights outlined in the First Amendment must conclude that a population, under US military rule, has two basic rights:

1. To vote in US elections on all US issues (both foreign and domestic) as people’s subject to US rule. And to have the solitary voice, as uniquely subject peoples, in determining the continued presence of US forces on their soil.

2. And if the former right is withheld, the subject population has the right to armed resistance, a right guaranteed under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which the US is a signatory.

Just some food for thought. I’ll try to put out more of these things as I have time. Feel free to push back, question, etc… let’s just keep it civil.

Also, please check out my podcast, Latitude Adjustment.