Grand Illusions



Majid Tehranian

University of Hawaii and Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research


May 7, 2003

Wars work like narcotics; they produce illusions.  This is true for those who engage in wars and for those who become victims of war propaganda.  For war leaders, this means that they often have to fool themselves before they can fool others. 

Instructed by his mentor Aristotle, Alexander was under the illusion that he is uniting Greek and Persian civilizations.   Napoleon believed that he is spreading the French democratic ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.   In his war projects, Hitler wanted to ensure the rule of the Aryan master race.  Saddam Hussein was on a mission to unite the Arab nation against the Persians, Jews, and Americans.   Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to unite the Islamic world against all domestic and foreign infidels.   Sharon is hoping to force the Palestinians into submission.  The suicide bombers are trying to cow a militarily stronger Israel into submission.

The war in Iraq is no less prone to illusions.   The proclaimed aim is to bring democracy to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.  But building democracy is not like making an omelet.   You cannot build a democratic regime by breaking a few heads. Historically, the United States was a world pioneer in democratic formation.  Yet, it took the United States a few decades before it recognized the rights of people without property to vote.  It took 144 years before women gained their right to vote.   It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1964 that African-Americans in the Southern states began to enjoy voting privileges.   Yet, in the presidential elections of 2000, many African-Americans in Florida were effectively denied that right.  

Iraq is a complex country with three distinctly different ethnic groups dominating the south, central, and northern parts of the country.  When in 1918, the British inherited Iraq from the Ottoman Empire as a mandate, they decided to put the three parts into a unitary state.  The imperial logic was to divide and rule.   However, to obtain indirect rule in the British style, they also privileged the Sunni Arabs (20% of the population) against the Kurds (20%) and Shi'ites (60%).   Saddam Hussein more or less represented this Sunni minority in a secular Baathist regime.  Now that he is gone, it is not surprising that the majority demands its democratic rights of representation. 

As an occupying power, the United States faces three distinctly different options, including (1) to find another potentate like Saddam Hussein to rule Iraq with an iron hand, (2) to build genuine majority rule against its own short-term interests, or (3) to withdraw and let a more benign force to undertake the task of establishing peace and security in a deeply divided, multicultural society.

The task will be difficult, costly, and time consuming.  If wisdom prevails in Washington, this task will be left to the United Nations.  But present UN cannot undertake it unless it is granted a Peace Police Force and funding to reconstruct the physical and social infrastructure of an unhappy country.  The task of building democracy must be left to the Iraqi people who have more knowledge of their own country than others.


Majid Tehranian is Professor, School of Communications, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Tokyo and Honolulu.  His latest book is Bridging a Gulf: Peacebuilding in West Asia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003).  


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