Day 4 — Kuwait City
I had a conversation today with our fixer, Faris, that’s stuck in my head. Because it was late (almost 2 a.m. — we were looking for illegal street races) and Faris and I were getting punchy, talk veered in weird directions. We kept getting into these discussions about America and democracy. Probably just a sign of the times, what with war clouds gathering on the horizon and all. It felt like I was back in college.
Faris is 23 years old, British-educated. Like the bulk of the young Kuwaitis we’ve interviewed this week, he digs America, big time. I like Faris a lot. Of all the Kuwaitis we’ve met, he’s the one I’ve gotten to know the best because he’s hanging around us all the time. I wanted Faris to explain why Kuwaitis are so fascinated by Western and American culture, at least on a superficial level.
“Kuwaitis don’t just love America, they love Americans, American culture, what America represents,” he said, his Swiss Rolex spilling light all over the dashboard of his German VW bug. And just what exactly does America represent, I ask him? “Freedom,” he smiles. Below is the part of our interview that struck me the most:
Gideon: “But don’t you care that you don’t live under a democracy? One of the biggest concerns in America is that you can participate in your government on every level, that you can vote, speak out and have ensured rights for everyone.”
Faris: “Yeah, but I mean, what can I say? The sheik, he’s taking care of the country. He’s taking care of the people, you know? I don’t think people mind as long, you know, as long as they’re being taken care of.”
What’s weird about this conversation is that it is almost completely antithetical to the conversations I’ve just had with the Marines at the border. The one thing I walked away with, after talking to those young, armed men, is that they won’t be fighting this war because of terrorism or politics or current events. Part and parcel, those all fall into the mix. But mostly the Marines are out there because they believe in Democracy — capital D — as a higher, nobler cause that is worth dying for. It’s like that old maxim from high school civics class: England is an island, France is a country, Germany is a people but America is an idea. The Marines are not necessarily fighting for any one president or policy, but for the old fashioned American ideal that freedom is the natural right of all men and that its definition should always be expanded. Many of the Marines I spoke to liked that there are protests at home. They want to see protests in Baghdad. They’d take a bullet for stuff like that.
So for an American like me, brought up idealistic about the virtues of a working democracy, Kuwait is a strange place to be. It has a caste system — royal caste, citizen caste, working caste. Those distinctions are so clearly delineated — amongst the hyper-rich royal/ruling family, the lush life of the Kuwaiti citizens and the Third World citizens who struggle with little prospect of citizenship — that I wonder whether or not our Kuwaiti allies are somewhat missing the point of America.
I watched a clip of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on CNN this morning in which he talked about how this war will not be about oil, but rather about the promotion of democracy (and, implicitly, the freedoms it guarantees) in the Middle East. I hope that noble principles like democracy are the root cause — or at least the realized end — of this conflict. But I’m skeptical because of countries like Kuwait. Kuwait, the ally who plays host to hundreds of thousands of American troops, is hardly a democracy and hasn’t gotten any more democratic since its 1991 liberation by U.S. and allied troops. Political parties are illegal, women can’t vote and its parliament has a dodgy history of getting suspended by the ruling Al-Sabah family. There is not a single legally recognized human rights agency there. But we certainly aren’t about to wage war with Kuwait.
The devil’s advocate would wonder aloud, “If this war is about spreading democracy, why isn’t United States, so committed to bringing democracy to Iraq, picking the same fight with other regimes in the region?” The simple answer is that the Kuwaiti royal family aren’t despots. They do not systematically kill or intimidate their own citizens the way Saddam Hussein does. But it’s a weird gray area in that our friends have things in common with us and things in common with our enemies. Where do we draw the line at what is an acceptable level of democracy? Please don’t read this and think that I’m advocating an invasion of Kuwaiti or some sort of Democratic crusade in the region. I’m not. I just am starting to find that the contradictions of this looming conflict with Iraq are curious, and I wish my government were doing more to explain them to me.