Democratising Iraq is supposedly just the core of a larger plan, wrought by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, for transformation of the entire Middle East.
So intense has been the rhetoric surrounding this idea that it is taken as a given in most reporting on Iraq.
Such talk increased dramatically after Bush delivered a highly publicised speech for the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a political organisation which promotes the cause of democracy around the world, on 6 November 2003.
Starting with a stirring history of the worldwide "democratic revolution", supposedly unleashed by Ronald Reagan, he singled out the Middle East as the exception, suggesting that its turn had come.
In what some saw as a decisive break with past US policy, he said: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
Democracy was, he said, a key weapon in the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Some few quibblers might have noted that it was not so much the US excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom as helping to cause it that was the root of the problem but, in general, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Those who demurred did so on the basis of the idea that such aims were too grandiose, and that perhaps Arabs were not suited for democracy.
US President Bush vastly
increased the NED's budget
In his state of the union address, Bush put flesh on this skeleton, calling for an expansion of the NED's budget from $40 to $80 million in 2005, the extra funds to go entirely to the Middle East.
In January, the Office of Management and Budget said that $458 million would be spent on "democracy promotion" in Iraq alone in the first six months of this year.
Together with the military occupation and the road map, which is supposedly premised on the idea that Palestinians must have a democratic state in order to negotiate with Israel, these initiatives comprise the "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East".
White man's burden
So it would seem that the Bush administration's grand mission is to bring democracy to the Middle East, at least in part to deal with the religious extremism that leads to terrorism.
Some, like scholar Daniel Pipes, go further and talk of the need for an "Islamic reformation".
All of this has sparked a renaissance of the "white man's burden," as a new generation of imperial apologists explain that colonialism is the way to bring democracy and enlightenment to what Bush once called the "dark corners" of the earth.
And yet there is a false note to this idealistic vision.
The Bush administration, in everything from its assault on civil liberties to its cult of official secrecy and executive privilege, is at least the most anti-democratic presidency since Richard Nixon.
Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney seem to believe in force as not only the essence of politics but its entirety.
Pipes is an Islamophobic bigot and Bush is a fundamentalist Christian who constantly talks about his "crusade" in the Middle East.
But what kind of reform is actually, rather than rhetorically, being sought?
In Afghanistan, when the US-convened Loya Jirga was all but certain to return a result the US didn't want (election of Zahir Shah as interim president), the US shut down the meeting and pressured Shah to resign, then presenting the Jirga with its pre-picked Hamid Karzai as a fait accompli.
When the Iraqi opposition groups meeting under US auspices in April and May of last year proved too intractable, Paul Bremer decided to forgo elections and appoint a governing council.
At the same time, he cancelled local elections in many areas. Even after the "transfer of sovereignty" was decided on, the US plan called for caucuses, appointed assemblies, everything but elections; it had to learn a lesson about democracy at the hands of Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani and the 100,000 supporters of his who marched in the streets of Baghdad.
And surely protection of individual rights has something to do with democracy as well?
[The US] had to learn a lesson about democracy at the hands of Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani
The US has instituted official press censorship in Iraq and sparked a showdown with Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army when it shut down their newspaper, not for inciting violence, but for reporting claims the CPA decided were untrue.
Roughly 20,000 people are being held with no effective right of habeas corpus, incommunicado, arrested for purely arbitrary reasons with no standards of evidence required and, as we now know, tortured, brutalised and degraded.
NED's tainted history
The oddly-named NED has a long history not of promoting democracy but of controlling, subverting, and even rolling back democratic processes.
It played a key role, along with overt military coercion, in causing the Sandinistas to lose the critical 1990 election in Nicaragua and tried unsuccessfully to stop the popular groundswell that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti in the same year.
The organisations that plotted the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela were funded by the NED, effectively working in tandem with administration official Otto Reich, who met and planned with the coup plotters.
NED-orchestrated unrest in Haiti
led to Aristide's removal
In Haiti, the International Republican Institute, closely associated with the NED, manufactured a "democratic opposition" group (the Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184); when it couldn't get anywhere by electoral means (Aristide offered an election, but he would have won overwhelmingly), the same groups created a campaign of violence that ended in a US kidnapping of Aristide in February 2004.
Democracy promotion should be made of sterner stuff and yet, in the face of all this, the refrain is still somehow that the US is trying to bring democracy to Iraq, but simply failing to do so.
The truth is that the US has made its goals and long-term policy in Iraq clear.
On 17 April 2003, the New York Times ran an article about US plans for four permanent military bases in Iraq.
In May, the US rammed Resolution 1483 through the Security Council; this gives the "coalition" control of Iraq's oil revenues.
In September, Paul Bremer passed laws allowing for 100% foreign ownership of most Iraqi companies, calling for a 15% flat tax, and more.
Now, we have an interim law that requires that the new "sovereign" government of Iraq keeps those illegally passed laws without alteration until after new elections. The four military bases have become 14.
Paul Bremer permits the full
foreign ownership of Iraqi firms
The US will maintain a force of more than 130,000 troops in Iraq, but will also appoint Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez as commander of the new Iraqi "army".
The new US ambassador, John Negroponte, who was known as "proconsul" when he was ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s and responsible for running a large part of the Reagan administration's dirty war against the Sandinistas, told the Senate foreign relations committee that the new sovereign government would "not need law-making authority".
What is a sovereign government with a foreign occupying army, no army under its own command, no law-making authority, and no control over its own revenues?
The Bush administration may well wish to have elections in Iraq at some future point.
In Afghanistan, it has been pushing swift elections even though only 15% of Afghans are registered to vote (in Iraq, the food ration cards make a serviceable voter registration system).
It will be overjoyed to have elections as long as there is only one candidate (of whom they approve) or as long as the result is under control, the way it would be in Afghanistan.
The real goals are and have been clear since before the war.
Voter registration in Afghanistan
Iraq must be made a permanent military outpost of an expansionist American military-imperial network that includes, in a looser sense, much of eastern Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East.
Its government should be a tightly controlled client state, not a client state with its own independent agendas, as Saudi Arabia has been.
The oil of the Middle East is now too important, not just as a source of supply to the US, but as a source of leverage over the other powers that need it (Europe, China and Japan) to allow Arabs more than a marginal degree of control over it.
That is the true transformation of the Middle East.
Not towards greater democracy or more elections, but toward greater and more overt American military/political domination.
In so far as elections and protecting human rights advance that goal, the US will push for them; if collective punishment, the massacre of civilians, torture, and authoritarianism advance the goal, Falluja and Abu Ghraib show that the US can do that too.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the blog EmpireNotes.org and author of Full Spectrum Dominance: US Power in Iraq and Beyond. He can be reached at email@example.com