The US, unlike the empires of old Europe, has always preferred to exercise its hegemony indirectly. It has relied on local relays – uniformed despots, corrupt oligarchs, pliant politicians, obedient monarchs – rather than lengthy occupations. It was only when rebellions from below threatened to disrupt this order that the marines were dispatched and wars fought.

During the cold war, money was supplied indiscriminately to all anti-communist forces (including the current leadership of al-Qaida); the 21st-century recipients are more carefully targeted. The aim is slowly to replace the traditional elites in the old satrapies with a new breed of neo-liberal politicians who have been trained and educated in the US. This is the primary function of the US money allocated to "democracy promotion". Loyalty can be purchased from politicians, parties and trades unions. And the result, it is hoped, is to create a new layer of janissary politicians who serve Washington.

This jost recent variant of "democracy promotion" has now been applied in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it will hit Haiti (another occupied country) in November. Create a new elite, give it funds and weaponry to build a new army and let them make the country safe for the corporations.

The 2004 Afghan elections, even according to some pro-US commentators, were a farce, and the much vaunted 73% turnout was a fraud. In Iraq, the western media were celebrating a 60% turnout within minutes of the polls closing, despite the fact that Iraq lacks a complete register of voters, let alone a network of computerized polling stations. The official figure, when it comes, is likely to be revised downwards (according to Debka, a pro-US Israeli website, turnout was closer to 40%).

The "high" turnout was widely interpreted as a rejection of the Iraqi resistance. But was it? Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's many followers voted to please him, but if he is unable to deliver peace and an end to the occupation, they too might defect.

The only force in Iraq the occupiers can rely on are the Kurdish tribes. The Kurdish 36th command battalion fought alongside the US in Falluja, but the tribal chiefs want some form of independence, and some oil. If Turkey, loyal Nato ally and EU aspirant, vetoes any such possibility, then the Kurds too might accept money from elsewhere. The battle for Iraq is far from over. It has merely entered a new stage.

Despite strong disagreements on boycotting the elections, the majority of Iraqis will not willingly hand over their oil or their country to the west. Politicians who try to force this through will lose all support and become totally dependent on the foreign armies in their country.

The popular resistance will continue. Many in the west find it increasingly difficult to support this resistance. The arguments for and against it are old ones. In 1885, the English socialist William Morris celebrated the defeat of General Gordon by the Mahdi: "Khartoum fallen — into the hands of the people it belongs to". Morris argued that the duty of English internationalists was to support all those being oppressed by the British empire despite disagreements with nationalism or fanaticism.

The triumphalist chorus of the western media reflects a single fact: the Iraqi elections were designed not so much to preserve the unity of Iraq but to re-establish the unity of the west. After Bush's re-election the French and Germans were looking for a bridge back to Washington. Will their citizens accept the propaganda that sees the illegitimate election (the Carter Center, which monitors elections worldwide, refused to send observers) as justifying the occupation?

The occupation involved a military and economic invasion as envisaged by Hayek, the father of neo-liberalism, who pioneered the notion of lightning air strikes against Iran in 1979 and Argentina in 1982. The re-colonization of Iraq would have greatly pleased him. Politicians masking their true aims with weasel words about "humanity" would have irritated him.

What of the media, the propaganda pillar of the new order? In Control Room, a Canadian documentary on al-Jazeera, one of the more disgusting images is that of embedded western journalists whooping with joy at the capture of Baghdad. The coverage of "elections" in Afghanistan and Iraq has been little more than empty spin. This symbiosis of neo-liberal politics and a neo-liberal media helps reinforce the collective memory loss from which the west suffers today.

Carl Schmitt, a theorist of the Third Reich, developed the view that politics is encompassed by the essential categories of "friend" and "enemy". After the second world war, Schmitt's writings were adapted to the needs of the US and are now the bedrock of neocon thinking. The message is straightforward: if your country does not serve our needs it is an enemy state. It will be occupied, its leaders removed and pliant satraps placed on the throne.

But when troops withdraw, satrapies often crumble. Occupation, rebellion, withdrawal, occupation, self-emancipation is a pattern in world history.

At the Nuremberg trials, Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, was charged for providing the justification for Hitler's pre-emptive strike against Norway. Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Jack Straw in a dock of the future? Unlikely, but desirable.

Tariq Ali's latest book is 'Bush in Babylon: the Recolonization of Iraq'.

(c) 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.