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  • Demystifying Iraq?
  • Richard Falk (bio)

"If you demystify something, you make it easier to understand"

—Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary

Why Demystification?

Mystification as a description of behavior is to be distinguished from the degree of uncertainty, confusion, and bias that inevitably accompanies any decision associated with contested facts, differing opinions, and choosing a course of action (Campbell 2005). Mystification implies some serious degree of deliberate or knowing deception with specific goals in mind, or at least a strong suspicion to that effect. In relation to the limited inquiry of this essay it refers to government explanations of official policies in the setting of war/peace concerns. To the extent that mystification is present, especially in a society premised on constitutional government, concerns about the legitimacy of policies and leaders should follow. Mystification, if deliberate and on matters of vital public safety, undermines trust that binds citizens to government and is inconsistent with the qualities of integrity that enable representative government to uphold the values of democracy (Ely 1993, 1980). "Politics" will always involve favoritism, even corruption, but even with cynical perceptions about the behavior of leaders, there is normally a widely shared belief that elected leaders will not knowingly [End Page 43] jeopardize the national security of the state for the sake of private gain or an undisclosed strategic project. Of course, leaders may believe, falsely, yet sincerely, that such a project enhances security, and can only be made politically palatable by way of mystification. This observation may pertain to some or even all of the inner circle of the Bush presidency with respect to recourse to the Iraq War, as will be argued below.

Mystification also, by concealing or deliberately lying about the true bases of policy, necessarily subverts both the role of law and informed citizen participation via electoral policy, and to the extent perceived, creates fear and anger in public space. A vigilant citizenry should treat perceived mystification, particularly on matters that affect the life and death of citizens and others, and that bear upon the security of the society and world, as such a serious abuse of governing authority as engaging procedures of accountability, including, at the very least, electoral repudiation, but also possible individual criminal accountability. The refusal of the majority of citizens, and cognate branches of government, to respond vigorously to such instances of perceived or demonstrated mystification is a sure sign of political decline, and if this acquiescence is persistent and pervasive enough, it is likely to cause the discrediting, and even the collapse, of a democracy. This discrediting is most acute among the minority that is enraged by its belief that a war has been publicly validated by reliance on a mystifying rationale. Currently, this belief is so embedded in anti-Bush constituencies in the American electorate as to give rise to fears that the government is embarked on a course of perpetual war and that a police state is imminent in the country, leading such individuals to contemplate living elsewhere. Of course, such reactions are likely to be treated by the leadership as tantamount to treason, leading to further alienation and a vicious cycle of repression and resistance.

There are sophisticated arguments abroad in the land at this time that look upon mystification as a necessary and natural prerogative of all political leaders, including the wisest and most virtuous. These ideological arguments are often associated with political theories of leadership that draw sharp distinctions between the masses, who are supposedly unable to comprehend the subtleties and hidden nuances of benevolent governance, and [End Page 44] elites, who are entrusted with the awesome responsibility of rulership that can only be fulfilled by reliance on special qualities of understanding and insight that concern truths and policy objectives too inflammatory to acknowledge. Especially in a democratically constituted society, the mobilization of support depends on finding a rationale for a preferred course of policy that the citizenry will accept, whether true or false. Another approach is to create the conditions via inculcated misperception that make what was previously unacceptable as a public rationale become acceptable. I believe that such a pattern of mystification bears centrally on all aspects of the American approach to the...


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