Bomb before you buy
What is being planned in Iraq is not reconstruction but robbery
Monday April 14, 2003
On April 6, deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: there will be no role for the UN in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The US-run regime will last at least six months, "probably longer than that". And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. "There has to be an effective administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work. And that's coalition responsibility."
The process of how they will get all this infrastructure to work is usually called "reconstruction". But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather than rebuilding, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned and open for business.
The $4.8m management contract for the port in Umm Qasr has already gone to a US company, Stevedoring Services, and there are similar deals for airport administration on the auction block. The United States Agency for International Development has invited US multinationals to bid on everything from rebuilding roads and bridges to distributing textbooks. The length of time these contracts will last is left unspecified. How long before they meld into long-term contracts for water services, transit systems, roads, schools and phones? When does reconstruction turn into privatisation in disguise?
Republican congressman Darrel Issa has introduced a bill that would require the defence department to build a CDMA cellphone system in postwar Iraq in order to benefit "US patent holders". As Farhad Manjoo noted in the internet magazine Salon, CDMA is the system used in the US, not in Europe, and was developed by Qualcomm, one of Issa's most generous donors.
Then there's oil. The Bush administration knows it can't talk openly about selling Iraq's oil resources to ExxonMobil and Shell. It leaves that to people like Fadhil Chalabi, a former Iraqi petroleum minister and executive director of the Center for Global Energy Studies. "We need to have a huge amount of money coming into the country. The only way is to partially privatise the industry," Chalabi says.
He is part of a group of Iraqi exiles that has been advising the state department on how to implement privatisation in such a way that it isn't seen to be coming from the US. Helpfully, the group held a conference in London on April 6 and called on Iraq to open itself up to oil multinationals shortly after the war. The Bush administration has shown its gratitude by promising that there will plenty of posts for Iraqi exiles in the interim government.
Some argue that it's too simplistic to say this war is about oil. They're right. It's about oil, water, roads, trains, phones, ports and drugs. And if this process isn't halted, "free Iraq" will be the most sold country on earth.
It's no surprise that so many multinationals are lunging for Iraq's untapped market. It's not just that the reconstruction will be worth as much as $100bn; it's also that "free trade" by less violent means hasn't been going that well lately. More and more developing countries are rejecting privatisation, while the Free Trade Area of the Americas, Bush's top trade priority, is wildly unpopular across Latin America. World Trade Organisation talks on intellectual property, agriculture and services have all got bogged down amid accusations that the US and Europe have yet to make good on past promises.
So what is a recessionary, growth-addicted superpower to do? How about upgrading from Free Trade Lite, which wrestles market access through backroom bullying at the WTO, to Free Trade Supercharged, which seizes new markets on the battlefields of pre-emptive wars? After all, negotiations with sovereign countries can be hard. Far easier to just tear up the country, occupy it, then rebuild it the way you want. Bush hasn't abandoned free trade, as some have claimed, he just has a new doctrine: "Bomb before you buy".
It goes much further than one unlucky country. Investors are openly predicting that once privatisation takes root in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will all be forced to compete by privatising their oil. "In Iran, it would just catch like wildfire," S Rob Sobhani, an energy consultant, told the Wall Street Journal. Pretty soon, the US may have bombed its way into a whole new free trade zone.
So far, the press debate over the reconstruction of Iraq has focused on fair play: it is "exceptionally maladroit", in the words of the European Union's commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, for the US to keep all the juicy contracts for itself. It has to learn to share: Exxon should invite France's TotalFinaElf to the most lucrative oil fields; Bechtel should give Britain's Thames Water a shot at the sewer contracts.
But while Patten may find US unilateralism galling, and Tony Blair may be calling for UN oversight, on this matter it's beside the point. Who cares which multinationals get the best deals in Iraq's pre-democracy, post-Saddam liquidation sale? What does it matter if the privatising is done unilaterally by the US, or multilaterally by the US, Europe, Russia and China?
Entirely absent from this debate are the Iraqi people, who might - who knows? - want to hold on to a few of their assets. Iraq will be owed massive reparations after the bombing stops, but in the absence of any kind of democratic process, what is being planned is not reparations, reconstruction or rehabilitation. It is robbery: mass theft disguised as charity; privatisation without representation.
A people, starved and sickened by sanctions, then pulverised by war, is going to emerge from this trauma to find that their country had been sold out from under them. They will also discover that their new-found "freedom" - for which so many of their loved ones perished - comes pre-shackled by irreversible economic decisions that were made in boardrooms while the bombs were still falling. They will then be told to vote for their new leaders, and welcomed to the wonderful world of democracy.
7 Naomi Klein's latest book is Fences and Windows (Flamingo). A version of this article first appeared in the Nation