Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Iraq War Debacle Was Truly a Debacle For Some

Yes, once one factors in not only the humongous number of war dead, maimed, and displaced, it nothing short of disaster. And yet, some folks (KBR, Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.) have managed to do quite well for themselves. From a recent argument called Iraq's broken pieces don't fit together:
The orgy of failure and corruption in 2007 was an unmitigated disaster for Iraqi society, as well as an embarrassment for the American occupation. From the point of view of long-term American goals in Iraq, however, this storm cloud, like so many others, had a silver lining. The Iraqi government's incapacity to perform at almost any level became but further justification for the claims first made by Bremer at the very beginning of the occupation: that the country's reconstruction would be best handled by private enterprise.

Moreover, the mass flight of Iraqi professionals, managers and technicians has meant that expertise for reconstruction has simply been unavailable inside the country. This has, in turn, validated a second set of claims made by Bremer: that reconstruction could only be managed by large outside contractors.

This neo-liberal reality was brought into focus in late 2007, as the last of the money allocated by the U.S. Congress for Iraqi reconstruction was being spent. A "petroleum exodus" (first identified by the Wall Street Journal) had long ago meant that most of the engineers needed for maintaining the decrepit oil business were already foreigners, mostly "imported from Texas and Oklahoma".

The foreign presence had, in fact, become so pervasive that the main headquarters for the maintenance and development of the Rumaila oil field in southern Iraq (the source of more than two-thirds of the country's oil at present) runs on both Iraqi and Houston time. The American firms in charge of the field's maintenance and development, KBR and PIJV, have been utilizing a large number of subcontractors, most of them American or British, very few of them Iraqi.

These American-funded projects, though, have been merely "stopgaps". When the money runs out, vast new moneys will be needed just to sustain Rumaila's production at its present level.

According to Harpers Magazine senior editor Luke Mitchell, who visited the field in the summer of 2007, Iraqi engineers and technicians are "smart enough and ambitious enough" to sustain and "upgrade" the system once the American contracts expire, but such a project would take upwards of two decades because of the compromised condition of the government and the lack of skilled local engineers and technicians. The likely outcome, when the American money departs, therefore is either an inadequate effort in which work proceeds "only in fits and starts"; or, more likely, new contracts in which the foreign companies would "continue their work", paid for by the Iraqi government.

With regard to the petroleum industry, therefore, what the refugee crisis guaranteed was long-term Iraqi dependence on outsiders. In every other key infrastructural area, a similar dependence was developing: electrical power, the water system, medicine, and food were, de facto, being "integrated" into the global system, leaving oil-rich Iraq dependent on outside investment and largesse for the foreseeable future. Now, that's a 20-year plan for you, one that at least 4.5 million Iraqis, out of their homes and, in many cases, out of the country as well, will be in no position to participate in.

Most horror stories come to an end, but the most horrible part of this horror story is its never-ending quality. Those refugees who have left Iraq now face a miserable limbo life, as Syria and other receiving countries exhaust their meager resources and seek to expel many of them. Those seeking shelter within Iraq face the depletion of already minimal support systems in degrading host communities whose residents may themselves be threatened with displacement.

From the vast out-migration and internal migrations of its desperate citizens comes damage to society as a whole that is almost impossible to estimate. The displacement of people carries with it the destruction of human capital. The destruction of human capital deprives Iraq of its most precious resource for repairing the damage of war and occupation, condemning it to further infrastructural decline. This tide of infrastructural decline is the surest guarantee of another wave of displacement, of future floods of refugees.

As long as the United States keeps trying to pacify Iraq, it will create wave after wave of misery.
Not exactly happy, uplifting news. That last excerpt gives you the gist, but the whole thing is worth reading to get a good understanding of the extent of human suffering created in Iraq as a result of the US invasion and occupation. The narrative we usually receive from center-left (as narrowly defined in the US) is of a war that was poorly executed. Get some competent folks in the White House, and Iraq will be put back together again.

The far less feel-good narrative is that those who pushed for and executed the war knew exactly what they were doing, and are quite comfortable with the massive human displacement that has resulted. In other contexts, it gets referred to as "shock therapy," and indeed Naomi Klein refers to Iraq as just one more test case for Friedmanesque neoliberalism in her recent book, The Shock Doctrine (here's a video that gives you some idea of what to expect from the book - not a substitute for reading the book of course!!). Heck, RickB of Ten Percent makes something of a reference to Klein's book in his post The Surge Doctrine - which is what turned me on to the article I just excerpted (a tip o' the hat to you RickB!). The complete drain of qualified scholars and technicians has guaranteed that Iraq - or whatever it eventually becomes - will be stuck with US and UK firms running the country (for a hefty fee, of course), while the rest of the government is little more than a hollowed-out shell. For some corporate executives, it's quite a racket they're running. The masses of now-disposable humanity, kept largely out of sight and out of mind is by design. Those few Iraqis who manage to make any semblance of a living there will accept ridiculously low wages without complaint for fear of losing even that pittance. As long as the chaos remains contained outside of The Green Zone, everything is just hunky-dory.

In another context, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas referred to the mass-displacement caused by NAFTA as genocidal. That would seem quite an apt summary of what's going on in Iraq.

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