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John Simkin

Democracy in India

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In defence of the US electoral system, I would argue that the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution helps to ensure that no one branch of government dominates the other two. A President who experiences divided government (i.e. an opposition-controlled Congress) can have a very rough ride. Even a President with Congress in his own party’s hands can still experience difficulties given the relatively loose party discipline. This was certainly the case with Jimmy Carter and JFK.

Separation of powers is a key concept in the USA. Admittedly, the politicisation of the Supreme Court (particularly in the 1980s) does erode this concept somewhat. However, presidential nominations for public office have to be ratified by the Senate. The notoriously racist Robert Bork (a Reagan nominee for the Supreme Court) was rejected by the US Senate in the 1980s.

The political system in the USA is far from perfect, however. The Presidential election of 2000 clearly highlighted that. However, the USA is democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. Free elections take place at regular intervals. The US President is bound by the Constitution to hold the general election every four years. The House of Representatives is elected on a proportional basis. Electoral districts are reasonably equal. Politicians can be held to account in what is a very open political system. Rumsfeld and Rice were both recently grilled by Congressmen. Government is close to the people in that the federal states have a legislature, executive (the governor) and judiciary. Apart from the inequities of the electoral college system, my main gripe with the US electoral system has already been highlighted on this thread: the issue of campaign finance. No electoral system is perfect. The Indian people thought they were voting for Sonia Gandhi as PM.

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The original subject was "Democracy in India" but most of the postings refer to the American Constitution. Maybe we should open a new thread covering this topic.

I would like to go back to John's initial posting. I am interested in your comments on Sonia Gandhi's decision not to run for the post of Prime Minister. Furthermore I am interested in your opinion about one of the major reasons for her decision (according to German, British, American newspapers), namely the fervent campaign of the Indian nationalists against a foreign-born taking over the most influential position in India.

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One of the interesting things I found out about the writing of the US Constitution was the debate about whether the US should be a 'Spartan' democracy or an 'Athenian' democracy (this was one of the issues that Thomas Jefferson was passionate about). The former would be a democracy where only the 'qualified' would get to decide about things, whilst the latter was seen as bordering on mob rule. What the Founding Fathers were specifically anxious to avoid was the kind of development that has perhaps resulted in Sonia Gandhi's decision to withdraw …

The mechanism they built in to the Constitution to try to prevent this was the Electoral College, another one of the checks and balances. A US 'presidential' vote is actually a vote for members of the Electoral College. Jefferson et al thought that this would be enough to prevent a sort of cult of personality. In theory the Electoral College could decide to elect someone other than the person with the majority of the popular vote.

However, it didn't turn out that way in the USA, since people just don't see the Presidential election that way. It doesn't seem to have been possible for people to separate the office of Prime Minister from the person of Sonia Gandhi either.

The implications for Iraq are also worrying - if this populist zeal is a permanent feature of any system where people can vote for their rulers, then the odds are that Iraq will become an Islamic fundamentalist state, in my opinion.

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Guest Adrian Dingle
However, the USA is democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. Free elections take place at regular intervals.
No electoral system is perfect.

Thank you cd mckie, that's my point. That's why I took exception to John's original statement,

it (the Indian election) was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States).

that I still consider inaccurate and politically motivated.

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In my meager studies on the issue I find India to be an odd choice to put forward as a celebration of democracy. On the plus side, it seems to be an exception to my belief that a country cannot sustain a democracy without a dominant middle class. My understanding of India is that it has a middle class (by western civ standards of living) of 50-100 million people. Which is a larger number than most countries can boast, but it is still under 10% of the population.

Like the original post in this thread, I usually tell my students that the test of democracy is in the change of power. Poorer, less developed countries like Mexico can run "emocracies" for long periods of time that are actually elite dominated one-party systems.

As I see it Indian democracy has two major problems.

1. ethnic nationalism. The rival party to the Congress party is decribed as a Hindu nationalist party. For an incredibly diverse country, that has to be disheartening for the many ethnic and religious minorities.

2. dynasty in a voting box. The country has been dominated for most of its democratic existence by one political party and one family. The Nehru/Gandhi dyansty.

An appeal to the rural regions of the country seems to have been what drove the push for the celebrity/icon name of Sonia Gandhi. I have not yet heard a clear range of policies associated with Sonia Gandhi. I don't think most of the people who voted for her did either. They trusted in her name and her party.

She seems to be acting more like a reluctant heir to a throne worried about the fallout of becoming a world leader than an aspiring politican in a democratic system.

Her mother-in-law(?) Indira Gandhi didn't behave like a very good democrat in the 1970s. (tinkering with an election, declaring martial law)

Jawaharlal Nehru failed to find a democratic solution to the Himilayan provinces and religious fighting has torn that area up for fifty years.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, after she chose to have the Golden Temple of Amritsar raided in an attempt to supress the Sikh separatist movement in Punjab.

Rajiv Gandhi, who assumed leadership after his mother died, lost his position because of scandal. He seemed to be on track of regaining his position in an election year when he was assassinated by an ethnic Tamil militant.

I applaud India in its ability to build on the legacy of mohandas Gandhi and create a relatively stable democracy.

But for all of its socialism it has the greatest disparity between rich and poor on this planet. And I wouldn't trade my US citizenship for a place in India's democracy under any means.

As for 2000 being a sign that the powers control elections. You must remember that it was local inefficiency and a very close vote count that put the election into dispute. There may be more perfect ways to run a democracy and I share the concerns of the influence on power and money on elections, but I think the United States has generally been a model of a successful and effective democracy.

I also interpret low voting numbers different than others. I think voters tend to be motivated by fear more than love. Staying away from the polls, IMHO, is a sign of stability and trust more than it is a sign that people see no hope with a pathetic government so they won't even go to the polls to vote for a third party.

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I'm sorry but I must disagree with Eeyores comment regarding poor voter turnout. It may well be the case that in the US people are so trusting of their leaders (because clearly if you aren't you are unpatriotic!) that they will passively sit there and allow anyone who fancies taking over the country to do just that, however, in the UK I have never voted for the party I genuinely belived in and instead voted against the party that I disliked the most.

For example, I voted Labour when I was at university because I didn't want a conservative government again. I would much rather have voted Liberal or Green, but at that time and in that place I knew that it would have been a 'wasted vote'. The result of 'first past the post' elections is governments that no-one really believes in, but 'are better than the alternative'.

That reason alone is enough to stop people voting because they know that their vote carries no weight, or worse, elects a party whose politics they don't believe in.

Currently in Canada our choices lie between a Liberal government who are reeling from an embezzelment scandal, and a Conservative Opposition of total nutters! What is the point in voting for either of them?!

The CBC have just screened a show called 'Screw the Vote' which is supposed to counter voter apathy in the young, however, even if it does get them excited about voting for five minutes, the minute they start to evaluate their options (fraudster vs fascist) we will be back to square one. In the words of a very wise man, "Don't vote, the Government will get in".


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Talk about "voter apathy" being a problem reminds me of Berthold Brecht's comment on the East German government - "they why don't they just dissolve the electorate and vote in a new one!"

In the 1960s there was a comic poster "Vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions" but it could not be used now because it would be seen as encouraging terrorism.

Watching young people streaming out onto the streets to oppose Blair's war last year suggested to me that their "apathy" is not the problem. It is the perception that whoever you elect it will make no difference.

If you want privatisation vote Tory, or Labour.

If you support the war vote Labour, or Tory.

....well you get the picture.

Perhaps if the unions broke from Labour and started fielding their own candidates it would be a different story ... some trade unionists want this but on the whole the leaders would be content with a cosmetic shift from Blairism to Brown(ism).

Derek McMillan


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Hello all!

This is a very interesting topic of discussion. It seems that a great deal of the issues have already been tabled, specifically in regards to the US version of democracy, however, I felt compelled to jump in.

I know very little about democracy as it exists in India, so I am not able to contribute on that account, however, I would like to point out in no uncertain terms that 'democracy,' as a concept that can be 'rubber-stamped' to fit within any given country, omitting differences in caste, ethnicity, religious affiliations, history, etc., is simply moronic. Furthermore, to believe that 'democracy' works so well in the US that a similar brand can and should be exported elsewhere, is sheer hypocrisy.

However, the USA is democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. Free elections take place at regular intervals.

As in the past in the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The US President is bound by the Constitution to hold the general election every four years. The House of Representatives is elected on a proportional basis.

House Representative are elected to 2 year terms with no check on consecutive terms. 2 years is about enough time to figure out just what the hell it is they're supposed to be doing, before having to campaign for re-election. IMHO, this term should be extended to 4 years, and limited to a 2 year consecutive. I agree with you on the proportion.

Without going too far overboard, there are quite a few US citizens today that believe strongly that the cause of the dramatic increase of the price of oil is directly due to actions of the Executive office, and their desire for support in the ongoing campaign in Iraq, and as leverage in the upcoming elections.

Furthermore, for reports concerning investigations into the causes of 9/11 to be postponed until 2005, safely after elections, is an anathema. That is a direct cause of allowing a second consecutive term of office. Every 4 years, so what? Maybe it should be every 6, with no consecutive term permitted.

Electoral districts are reasonably equal.

In terms of scale? Typically we have seen major scandals and corruption widespread when viewing certain specific voting districts, e.g. the 'black vote.'

Politicians can be held to account in what is a very open political system. Rumsfeld and Rice were both recently grilled by Congressmen.

I couldn't disagree more. There is no accountability, or the inquiries would have gone higher. Note that the trade-off on having Condoleeza testify publicly concerning 9/11 was that no other White House staff would be compelled to do the same. And when you consider the value of the testimony she gave..... Rumsfield should have been forced to resign. I admire Bush as a politician for his ability to constantly distance himself, and maintain an aloof, unaccountable stance. When discussions began surrounding investigations of 9/11, he offered to give advice.

Where are the punitive actions that one would assume should normally be the consequence of leading a country into war, without sufficient cause or evidence? Instead, we have finger-pointing, sword falling, and changes of venue - however the facts remain that the credibility of the UN has been undermined, International law and the Soverignty of Independent Nation States has been trampled, and the overall consequence has only been to escalate rather than ameliorate, the ongoing crisis with muslim radicals worldwide.

Going back to Ford - what gave him the right to pardon Nixon? The Executive Office? What about accountability?

Let's look at the balance of Powers - without going into too much detail, the balance appears to be heavily weighted in the Executive Branch. This has been an evolutionary process. Today IMHO, the system for checks and balances hardly applies, given the sheer power of the Executive Branch. The 'War Powers Act' a case in point.

Now let's look at the Supreme Court. Not accountable to the people, not generally elected, appointed for lifetime terms. The initial belief was that a lifetime appointment would limit the potential for bribery, etc. Is that not a fact? However, lets take the recent duck hunting expedition with Justice Scalia. Let's also look at the activities of Dick Cheney. For Justice Scalia to not recuse himself is intolerable. I can't even offer a customer to go out to lunch, as their policy now dictates that this is seen as a favor which could compromise a given situation, but duck hunting, using US tax dollars, multiple airplanes and staff, etc., with the very same individual whom you are investigating for his involvement in an energy scandal - that's okay. Not only is it okay, but there's not a dammed thing you can do about it.

"More than twenty newspaper editorials have demanded that Supreme Court Justice Scalia recuse himself from hearing the case regarding Vice President Cheney's energy task force meetings -- all because they did a little duck hunting together. Robert Destro, a law professor at Catholic University of America, called the accusations "a bunch of hooey." (Stop with the jargon already!) Scalia has also attempted to quash suspicions that the trip was an play by the Veep to influence Scalia's decision in the case. "No, no, no," Scalia told reporters, "Of course Cheney's not trying to buy my vote! Do you think he's stupid? He only pays after the vote is cast. The duck hunting was just the final payment for throwing the election. When he takes me to the Vineyard in July, that will be the payback for the privacy decision." Besides, added Scalia, "We only shot the sodomite ducks."


The founding Fathers didn't recognize that Politics would become a career. You participated out of duty and obligation, but then returned to the farm. Another limit I would introduce would be to consecutive elections to the US Senate.

In terms of the bi-partisan system that has developed here, it's almost laughable. You vote black, or you vote white [no pun intended]. And when you vote, you are cognizant of the lack of qualifications on both sides, and that your vote is almost meaningless anyway, since most often the Electoral College decides, and when it comes down to a draw, you have to smack your head with a brick several times in order not to question why the final voting discrepancies appeared in the very state governed by one of the candidates' brother. Apathy? Or lunacy?

As Rowena stated in this forum, more often than not, it's more a question of voting for the lesser of the two evils.

This person states the facts quite eloquently, in terms of recommendations for changing the present 50/50 dilemma here in the US.

A system that allows multiple parties to compete effectively will better represent the populace, reduce voter apathy, and will broaden ever narrowing platforms.


By Kelly Ferguson

How have we, as a nation whose constitution begins, “We the people,” allowed the political process to get so far out of our own hands? We now have a representational democracy, which is neither representative of our population, nor—as we saw in the 2000 presidential elections—a democracy. Each election year we are forced to choose between two candidates, both handpicked by the corporate and special interest backed duopoly. However, alternative political parties do exist, whose candidates are beholden only to the will of the voters. Unfortunately, during campaign season you will hear very little, if anything, about third party candidates, who must struggle to be heard over the torrent of publicity created by the two main parties. The media, highjacked by millions of advertising dollars, only covers candidates endorsed by the major parties, and so a vast number of potential voters will never even know they had a choice beyond “the lesser of two evils.”

If we are to have a true democratic society, the American political system must be restructured to allow all political parties equal campaign opportunities. Proponents of the status quo will claim that our political system is open to any number of political parties, but in reality the present electoral process favors only the main two. Many factors within our political system conspire to limit the number of parties. Such limitation has resulted in poor voter turnout, political stagnation, and a government that does not reflect the cultural or ethnic diversity within this nation.

To enact change, we must first eliminate what I refer to as the “fallacy of the wasted vote.” I have often heard from friends and family alike, that my votes for a third party candidate are being wasted. In truth, the only wasted vote is the one not cast. However, steps can be taken to ensure the value of each vote is maximized. Winner-take-all elections must be replaced by Proportional Representation. Such a format will make each vote more valuable. Proportional Representation may seem odd to those of us conditioned to our present political system, but it allows for representation for both majority and minority parties. In this system, local and regional elections are held over a greater area, and the number of seats each party occupies depends on the percentage of votes each receives. For example, if an election was held for ten available seats and the Republicans, Democrats, and Reformists received 40%, 40%, and 20% of the votes cast, respectively, each party would be represented, even without a majority. The Republicans and Democrats would hold four seats each and the Reform party would fill the two remaining seats. Under this system, minority parties stand a much better chance of being elected to office. The German Green party holds the third highest number of political seats in their country, but the American Green party, which regularly receives 5-7% (and has received as much as 11%) of the votes cast, holds only a few regional seats. Most European countries have replaced winner-take-all elections in favor of proportional representation. In fact, much of the world has already adopted such a system, yet as Steven Hill writes, “we continue to use an antiquated winner-take-all voting system that most major democracies have long since abandoned because of its unrepresentative and undemocratic nature.”

In elections where Proportional Representation is not feasible, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) can be implemented. Under this system, each voter picks a second candidate, in addition to their first choice. In a given race, if no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the race. His or her votes then go to each voter’s second choice. This process continues until a candidate has a majority of the votes. Under IRV, voters can show their support for emerging parties, and the issues they bring up, without the fear that their vote will be wasted or help elect a candidate they dislike. In this way, IRV also helps eliminate the dubious “spoiler” moniker given to many third parties. For if a third party receives 10% of the vote, with IRV all of those votes would be transferred to another candidate.

Multiple parties will better represent the populous, reduce voter apathy, and will broaden ever narrowing platforms. The present two party political system has little to offer would-be voters. Opponents of reform argue that low voter turnout is due to apathy or indifference, but this is not the case. According to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, “It may be that non-voters are not as apathetic as many think. It’s possible that they have decided to reject an electoral process they consider unfair, untrustworthy and irrelevant to their lives.”

A viable multiparty system within the US is possible, but it will only come about after several changes are made to the present two party system. Proportional Representation and IRV are the keys to opening the door of opportunity for small independent parties. With more choices available, voter turnout is sure to increase, and such a system will result in representation of both the majority and the minority. If all parties are given equal opportunities, multiparty races will become the rule, not the exception. The political stagnation we see today can be eliminated, but only if we, as the voting public, make our voices heard over the din of campaign season.

- lee

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As an aside to some research I have been performing, I stumbled on to an extremely dangerous man, believed dead, who worked for Oliver North during his gun / DRUG smuggling boondoggle with Iran and Nicaragua. From all accounts, massive quantities of cocaine were flown in on a frequent basis to Florida.

To the question of a balance of power - how could these operations have occurred without the consent and knowledge of one of the three main branches of power? Can democracy be successfully 'imposed' following bloody, military insurrections?

Here's the questions I'd like to ask, 'Democracy at what price?' And 'Do the means justify the end?' And, Can 'Democracy' flourish if it is forcefully transposed?

From the facts I gathered, it's a well known fact that Mr. North engaged numerous drug smugglers for BOTH the generation of funds and the smuggling of weapons to assist in the violent overthrow of the then supported governments of both of these nations - I don't have the details as to whether or not these governments were democratically elected, but in Iran during the days of the coup instigated through the CIA and Kermit Roosevelt, they certainly were.

The drugs would have been distributed for sale directly on US soil. Is he then really a hero? What about accountability? I would recommend extreme caution in discussing Oliver North with any current agents of the DEA.



A North backer shows his support.

For many conservative Americans, Oliver North's covert involvement in the selling of arms to Iran to support anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua was a heroic act in support of democracy.

Others saw North as someone who lied to Congress to support an illegal war, which cost the lives of over 30,000 Nicaraguan people.

Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, praised Oliver North as "a genuine American hero" at the 10th anniversary celebration of North's testimony before Congress in the Iran-Contra hearings.

America's involvement in Nicaragua violated the Boland Amendment, which cut off aid to the contras in 1984. Conservatives saw North's covert actions as a brave act that helped to loosen communism's grip on the world.

"The Boland Amendment, which was passed by the liberals in Congress, was just another obstacle and obstruction to the fight against the communists," Representative Dan Burton said at the anniversary celebration. "Ollie North found innovative ways to help, and I congratulate him for that."

When the scandal was exposed, Oliver North took the fall for the entire Reagan administration. North testified before Congress in the Iran-Contra hearing on July 8, 1987. Accused of violating international law and the U.S. Constitution, North was convicted in 1989 of three federal crimes: aiding in the obstruction of Congress, accepting illegal gratuities and destroying documents related to arms sales to Iran to finance the contra war. He was fined $150,000 and sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.

A year later the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that, because North testified under immunity, the conviction would have to be reviewed to ensure that none of the witnesses were influenced by North's testimony. After key witnesses said that they had been influenced by testimony North gave before Congress, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh dropped all charges.

"You have to figure out relatively soon in life what's worth dying for," North said in a promotional film screened at the anniversary celebration. "You also have to figure out what's worth living for. I've figured out this country is worth living and dying for."

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Just to take up a couple of the points Lee raises about Proportional Representation …

Sweden has a proportional representation system, which has only succeeded in producing a 'majority' government (defined as a government where *one* party has a majority of the seats in parliament) once. Swedish governments have to be coalitions, and there's always a lot of horse-trading immediately after an election. The split between the two blocs (called 'bourgeois' and 'non-bourgeois' in Swedish) is usually 51%-49%. There's a 4% limit to election, which means that a party has to get 4% of the national vote or a larger proportion (which I forget at the moment) of the vote in one specific constituency in order to be elected. After an election, there's a system for accounting for the votes for the parties which fall below the limit (not by reassigning those votes, but by re-calculating the size of the electorate without those votes).

Although there's plenty of political argument in Sweden, there's also a fairly stable consensus about the basic ideas about how the country should be run. There seems, for example, to be a large majority in favour of 'high taxes + a welfare state', which is often cited as the reason for the inability of the 'bourgeois' bloc to take power, since there policies always seem to involve cutting taxes and cutting benefits.

This unstated consensus may be a precondition for a PR system. What do you think?

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The need for the press to occupy an adversary role was clear to America's founding fathers. That is why they made freedom of the press the first guarantee of the Bill of Rights. Without press freedom, they knew, the other freedoms would fall. For government, by its nature, tends to oppress. And government, without a watchdog, would soon oppress the people it was created to serve.

The experience of ascending the pinnacle of power changes the men who must exercise power. Some men can grow and be strengthened by the process. Most are diminished. When Lyndon Johnson was President, it was possible sometimes to glimpse the gangling adolescent from the Texas dirt farm. And somewhere under the brittle shell of Richard Nixon lurks the quiet, studious youngster in Whittier who wanted to be a railroad engineer. But in the White House, they no longer were the men they once had been. The aging process for all human beings tends to replace

idealism with cynicism; for the powerful the change is often more pervasive.

The men of the press seldom remind the leaders of their obligations, nor the citizens that they are the true owners of power. All too many who write about government have been seduced by those who govern. The press, like the powerful, often forgets its obligations to the public. Too many Washington reporters consider it their function to court the high and mighty rather than condemn them; to extol public officials rather than expose them.

It is far more pleasant to write puffery about the powerful, of course, than it is to probe their perfidy. Public officeholders are usually likable; that is why they got elected. Many reporters are taken in by this personal charm, are awed by the majesty of office; and they become publicists rather than critics of the men who occupy the offices.

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In his speech last November to mark the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush explicitly committed himself to supporting "the world democratic movement", not only in the Middle East but in Asia and Africa.

What the anti-imperialists can't bear to acknowledge is that there might be a link between the spread of democracy since the second world war and the role of the US. Despite the cynicism of US foreign policy during the cold war, American power has on balance done more to foster than to frustrate democracy. Think of the 1940s, when the two worst rogue regimes in history - Nazi Germany and nationalist Japan - were first defeated and then democratised.

The point - which is borne out by the experience of both Germany and Japan - is that after American military intervention, the return to "full sovereignty" can and must be gradual.

Sovereignty is not an absolute but a relative concept. As the Stanford political scientist Steve Krasner has said, much of what passes for sovereignty in today's world of interdependent polities and supra-national institutions is in fact just "organised hypocrisy". It is precisely the kind of government Iraq needs. For history shows that limited sovereignty can, in conditions of economic and political instability, be preferable to full sovereignty.

Take the case of post-war Germany, overrun by allied forces in the spring of 1945. The first elected West German government did not take office until as late as the spring of 1949. It was not until the Federal Republic joined Nato in October 1953, that it was accorded "the full authority of a sovereign state". Even then the victorious powers retained control over Germany's historic capital, Berlin. And, of course, substantial numbers of American and British troops remained in West Germany for another 50 years.

We do not, of course, know how West Germany would have fared if the Americans, as they originally intended, had pulled out after just a couple of years and left the Germans to it. What we do know is that limited sovereignty worked, allowing Germans to relearn the practice of democratic politics.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scan dal, many Europeans have assumed that Iraq's only hope lies with a swift termination of the Anglo-American occupation. They fail to consider how much worse things in Iraq couldget if that wish were granted. Do they not see the risks of a major civil war? Have they forgotten what happened in Lebanon in the late 1970s?

The "organised hypocrisy" of limited sovereignty may sound unsatisfactory to the bien pensant critics of American imperialism. But it is preferable to an over-hasty American exit from Iraq - and a possible descent into chaos. Better that Iraq's sovereignty should be limited than torn apart.

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One of the main problems I have with US retention of power in Iraq - which is what I think we're really talking about when we use the term 'limited sovereignty' - is that it probably isn't going to work! By this I mean that 'limited sovereignty' isn't likely to bestow upon Iraq a peaceful, stable and law-abiding government ('democratic' is perhaps too much to hope for). The occupation seems to lack legitimacy in the eyes of most Iraqis, which means for me that any 'government' the Americans sponsor is also likely to lack legitimacy.

If I'm right, then the choice is between chaos soon or chaos later … with later chaos being on a much larger scale than earlier chaos. But that's what you get when you try the imperialist option, isn't it.

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