The Roman historian Tacitus famously put the
following lines in the mouth of a British chieftain opposed to imperial
Rome: "They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger?
they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor? They
ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they
hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but
a desert, they call that peace."
Or, in the case of the Bush administration, post-surge "success." Today, however,
success in Iraq seems as elusive as ever for the President. The Iraqi cabinet
is now refusing,
without further amendment, to pass on to Parliament the status
of forces agreement for stationing US troops in the country that it's
taken so many months for American and Iraqi negotiators to sort out. Key objections,
as Juan Cole points
out at his Informed Comment blog, have come from the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq, which is [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki's chief political
partner, the support of which he would need to get the draft through parliament."
That party, Cole adds tellingly, "is close to Tehran, which objects to the agreement."
The Iranian veto? Hmmm?
Among Iraqis, according to the
Dreyfuss Report, only the Kurds, whose territories house no significant
US forces, remain unequivocally in favor of the agreement as written. Frustrated
American officials, including Ambassador Ryan
Crocker ("Without legal authority to operate, we do not operate? That means
no security operations, no logistics, no training, no support for Iraqis on
the borders, no nothing?"), Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates ("Without a new legal agreement,'we basically stop doing anything'
in the country?"), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike
Mullen ("We are clearly running out of time?") are huffing and puffing,
and threatening if the agreement is not passed as is to blow the
Without a mandate to remain, American troops won't leave, of course. At year's
end, they will, so American officials insist, simply retreat to their bases
and assumedly leave Maliki's government to dangle in the expected gale. Clearly,
this is a game of chicken.
What's less clear is who's willing to go over the cliff, or who exactly is going
to put on the brakes.
In the meantime, the administration that, only four years ago, imposed conditions
on Iraq at least as onerous
as those nineteenth century colonial powers imposed on their colonies, can no
longer get an agreement it desperately needs from its "allies" in Baghdad. Could
this, then, be the $700 billion kiss-off? Stay tuned and, in the meantime, consider,
as described by TomDispatch regular Michael Schwartz, what the Bush administration
did to Iraq these last five years. Imagine it as a preview of the devastation
the administration's domestic version of de-Baathification is now doing to the
Schwartz's striking piece encapsulates a story he's been following closely
for years: the everyday economic violence that invasion and occupation brought
to Iraq. It's being posted in honor of the just-released latest TomDispatch
volume, his War
Without End: The Iraq War in Context, beautifully produced by Haymarket
Books. Think of this superb new work on the American war in Iraq as Tacitus
updated. In it, Schwartz offers a gripping history the best we have
of how (to steal a phrase from the Roman historian), "driven by greed? [and]
ambition," the US dismantled Iraq economically. It's a nightmare of a tale,
which you can watch Schwartz discuss in a brief video by clicking here.
If this be "success," then we truly are wandering in the desert. (By the way,
any author profits from the book will go to IVAW,
Iraq Veterans Against the War.) Tom
What the Good News from Iraq Really Means
By Michael Schwartz
As the Smoke Clears in Iraq: Even before the spectacular presidential
election campaign became a national obsession, and the worst economic crisis
since the Great Depression crowded out other news, coverage of the Iraq War
to next to nothing. National newspapers had long since discontinued their daily
feasts of multiple usually front page reports on the country,
replacing them with meager meals of mostly inside-the-fold summary stories.
On broadcast and cable TV channels, where violence in Iraq had once been the
nightly lead, whole news cycles went by without a mention of the war.
The tone of the coverage also changed. The powerful reports of desperate battles
and miserable Iraqis disappeared. There are still occasional stories about high-profile
bombings or military campaigns in obscure places, but the bulk of the news is
about quiescence in old hot spots, political maneuvering by Iraqi factions,
and the newly emerging routines of ordinary life.
A typical "return to normal life" piece appeared October 11th in the New
York Times under the headline, "Schools Open, and the First Test is
Iraqi Safety." Featured was a Baghdad schoolteacher welcoming her students by
assuring them that "security has returned to Baghdad, city of peace."
Even as his report began, though, Times reporter Sam Dagher hedged
the "return to normal" theme. Here was his first paragraph in full:
"On the first day of school, 10-year-old Basma Osama looked uneasy
standing in formation under an already stifling morning sun. She and dozens
of schoolmates listened to a teacher's pep talk probably a necessary one,
given the barren and garbage-strewn playground."
This glimpse of the degraded conditions at one Baghdad public school, amplified
in the body of Dagher's article by other examples, is symptomatic of the larger
reality in Iraq. In a sense, the (often exaggerated) decline in violence in
that country has allowed foreign reporters to move around enough to report on
the real conditions facing Iraqis, and so should have provided US readers
with a far fuller picture of the devastation George Bush's war wrought.
In reality, though, since there are far fewer foreign reporters moving around
a quieter Iraq, far less news is coming out of that wrecked land. The major
newspapers and networks have drastically reduced their staffs there and
with a relative trickle of exceptions like Dagher's fine report what's
left is often little more than a collection of pronouncements from the US
military, or Iraqi and American political leaders in Baghdad and Washington,
framing the American public's image of the situation there.
In addition, the devastation that is now Iraq is not of a kind that can always
be easily explained in a short report, nor for that matter is it any longer
easily repaired. In many cities, an American reliance on artillery and air power
during the worst days of fighting helped devastate the Iraqi infrastructure.
Political and economic changes imposed by the American occupation did damage
of another kind, often depriving Iraqis not just of their livelihoods but of
the very tools they would now need to launch a major reconstruction effort in
their own country.
As a consequence, what was once the most advanced Middle Eastern society
economically, socially, and technologically has become an economic basket
case, rivaling the most desperate countries in the world. Only the (as yet unfulfilled)
promise of oil riches, which probably cannot be effectively accessed or used
until US forces withdraw from the country, provides a glimmer of hope that
Iraq will someday lift itself out of the abyss into which the US invasion
Consider only a small sampling of the devastation.
The Economy: Fundamental to the American occupation was the desire
to annihilate Saddam Hussein's Baathist state apparatus and the economic system
it commanded. A key aspect of this was the closing down of the vast majority
of state-owned economic enterprises (with the exception of those involved in
oil extraction and electrical generation).
In all, 192 establishments, adding up to 35% of the Iraqi economy, were shuttered
in the summer and fall of 2003. These included basic manufacturing processes
like leather tanning and tractor assembly that supplied other sectors, transportation
firms that dominated national commerce, and maintenance enterprises that housed
virtually all the technicians and engineers qualified to service the electrical,
water, oil, and other infrastructural systems in the country.
Justified as the way to bring a modern free-enterprise system to backward
Iraq, this draconian program was put in place by the President's proconsul in
Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III. The result? An immediate depression that only deepened
in the years to follow.
measure of this policy's impact can be found in the demise of the leather goods
industry, a key pre-invasion sector of Iraq's non-petroleum economy. When a
government-owned tanning operation, which all by itself employed 30,000 workers
and supplied leather to an entire industry, was shuttered in late 2003, it deprived
shoemakers and other leather goods establishments of their key resource. Within
a year, employment in the industry had dropped from 200,000 workers to a mere
By the time Bremer left Iraq in the spring of 2004, the inhabitants of many
cities faced 60% unemployment. Meanwhile, the country's agriculture, a key component
of its economy, was also victimized by the dismantling of government establishments
and services. The lush farming areas between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers
suffered badly. The once-thriving date palm industry was a typical casualty.
It suffered deadly infestations of pests when the occupation eliminated a government-run
insecticide spraying program. Even oil refinery-based industrial towns like
Baiji became cities of slums when plants devoted to non-petroleum activities
This economic devastation fueled the insurgency by generating desperation,
anger, and willing recruits. The explosion of resistance, in turn, tended to
obscure at least for western news services the desperate circumstances
under which ordinary Iraqis labored.
As violence has subsided in Baghdad and elsewhere, demands for relief have
come to the fore. These are not easily answered by a still largely nonfunctional
central government in Baghdad whose administrative and economic apparatus was
long ago dismantled, and many of whose key technical personnel had fled into
exile. Meanwhile, in early 2006, the American occupation declared that further
reconstruction work would be the responsibility of Iraqis. It is not clear into
what channels the growing discontent over an economy that remains largely in
the tank and a government that still cannot deliver ordinary services will flow.
Electricity: A critical factor in Iraq's collapse has been its decaying
electrical grid. In areas where the insurgency raged, facilities involved in
producing and transmitting electricity were targeted, both by the insurgents
and US forces, each trying to deprive the other of needed resources. In addition,
Bremer eliminated the government-owned maintenance and engineering enterprises
that had been holding the electrical system together ever since the UN sanctions
regime after the 1991 Gulf War deprived Iraq of material needed to repair and
upgrade its facilities. Maintenance and replacement contracts were given instead
to multinational companies with little knowledge of the existing system and
due to cost-plus contracting every incentive to replace facilities
with their own proprietary technology. In the meantime, many Iraqi technicians
left the country.
The successor Iraqi governments, deprived of the capacity to manage the system's
reconstruction, continued the US occupation policy of contracting with foreign
companies. Even in areas of the country relatively unaffected by the fighting,
those companies did the lucrative thing, replacing entire sections of the electric
grid, often with inappropriate but exquisitely expensive equipment and technology.
A combination of factors including pressure from the insurgency, the soaring
costs of security, and an almost unparalleled record of endemic waste and corruption
led to costs well beyond those originally offered for the already overpriced
projects. Many were then abandoned before completion as funding ran out. Completed
projects were often shabbily done and just as often proved incompatible with
existing facilities, introducing new inefficiencies.
In one altogether-too-typical case, Bechtel
installed 26 natural gas turbines in areas where no natural gas was available.
The turbines were then converted to oil, which reduced their capacity by 50%
and led to a rapid sludge buildup in the equipment requiring expensive maintenance
no Iraqi technicians had been trained to perform. In location after location,
the turbines became inoperative.
Even before the invasion, the decrepit electrical system could not meet national
demand. No province had uninterrupted service and certain areas had far less
than 12 hours of service per day. The vast investments by the occupation and
its successor regimes have increased electrical capacity since the invasion
of 2003, but these gains have not come close to keeping up with skyrocketing
demand created by the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops, private security
personnel, and occupation officials, as well as by the introduction of all manner
of electronic devices and products in the post-invasion period. Recent UN reports
indicate that, in the last year, electrical capacity has slipped to less than
half of demand. With priority going to military and government operations, many
Baghdad neighborhoods experience less than two hours of publicly provided electricity
a day, forcing citizens and business enterprises to utilize expensive and polluting
In spring of this year, 81% of Iraqis reported that they had experienced inadequate
electricity in the previous month. During the heat of summer and the cold of
winter, these shortages create real health emergencies.
In 2004, the UN estimated that $20 billion in reconstruction funds would be
needed for a fully operative electrical grid. The estimates now range from $40
billion to $80 billion.
Water: The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through the country
from the northwest to the southeast, have since time immemorial irrigated the
rich farming land that lay between them, nurtured the fish that are a staple
of the Iraqi diet, and provided water for animal and human consumption. American-style
warfare, with its reliance on tank, artillery, and air power, often resulted
in the cratering of streets in upstream Sunni cities like Tal Afar, Falluja,
and Samarra where the insurgency was strongest. One result was the wrecking
of already weakened underground sewage systems. In the Sadr City section of
Baghdad, for instance, where much fighting has taken place and American air
power was called in regularly, there is now a lake of sewage clearly visible
on satellite photographs.
The ultimate destination of significant parts of the filth from devastated
sewage systems was the two rivers. Five years worth of such waste flowing through
the streets and into those rivers has left them thoroughly contaminated. Their
water can no longer be safely drunk by humans or animals, the remaining fish
cannot be safely eaten, and the contaminated water reportedly withers the crops
Iraq's never-adequate water purification system has proven woefully insufficient
to handle this massive flow of contamination, while inadequate electric supplies
insure that the country's few functional purification plants are less than effective.
In many cities, the sewage system must be entirely reconstructed, but repairs
cannot even begin without a viable electrical system, a reinvigorated engineering
and construction sector, and a government capable of marshalling these resources.
None of these prerequisites currently exist.
Schools: Education has been a victim of all the various pathologies
current in Iraqi society. During the initial invasion, the US military often
commandeered schools as forward bases, attracted by their well-defined perimeters,
open spaces for vehicles, and many rooms for offices and barracks. Two incidents
in which American gunfire from an occupied elementary school killed Iraqi civilians
in the conservative Sunni city of Falluja may have been the literal sparks that
started the insurgency. Many schools would subsequently be rendered uninhabitable
by destructive battles fought in or near them.
Under the US occupation's de-Baathification policy, thousands of teachers
who belonged to the Baath Party were fired, leaving hundreds of thousands of
students teacherless. In addition, the shuttering of government enterprises
deprived the schools of supplies including books and teaching materials
as well as urgently needed maintenance.
The American solution, as with the electric grid, was to hire multinational
firms to repair the schools and rehabilitate school systems. The result was
an orgy of corruption accompanied by very little practical aid. Local school
officials complained that facilities with no windows, heating, or toilet facilities
were repainted and declared fit for use.
The dwindling central government presence made schools inviting arenas for
sectarian conflict, with administrators, teachers, and especially college professors
removed, kidnapped, or assassinated for ideological reasons. This, in turn,
stimulated a mass exodus of teachers, intellectuals, and scientists from the
country, removing precious
human capital essential for future reconstruction.
Finally, in Baghdad, the US military began installing ten-foot tall cement
walls around scores of communities and neighborhoods to wall off participants
in the sectarian violence. As a result, schoolchildren were often separated
from their schools, reducing attendance at the few intact facilities to those
students who happened to live within the imprisoning walls.
This fall, as some of these walls were dismantled, residents discovered that
many of the schools were virtually unusable. The Times's Dagher offered
a vivid description, for instance, of a school in the Dolaie neighborhood which
"is falling apart, and overwhelmed by the children of almost 4,000 Shiite refugee
families who have settled in the Chukouk camp nearby. The roof is caving in,
classroom floors and hallways are stripped bare, and in the playground a pile
of burnt trash was smoldering."
The Dysfunctional Society: Much has been made in the US presidential
campaign of the $70 billion oil surplus the Iraqi government built up in these
last years as oil prices soared. In actuality, most of it is currently being
held in American financial institutions, with various American politicians threatening
to confiscate it if it is not constructively spent. Yet even this bounty reflects
the devastation of the war.
De-Baathification and subsequent chaos rendered the Iraqi government incapable
of effectively administering projects that lay outside the fortified, American-controlled
Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad. A vast flight of the educated class to Syria,
Jordan, and other countries also deprived it of the managers and technicians
needed to undertake serious reconstruction on a large scale.
As a consequence, less than 25% of the funds budgeted for facility construction
and reconstruction last year were even spent. Some government ministries spent
less than 1% of their allocations. In the meantime, the large oil surpluses
have become magnets for massive governmental corruption, further infuriating
frustrated citizens who, after five years, still often lack the most basic services.
International's 2008 "corruption perceptions index" listed Iraq as tied
for 178th place among the 180 countries evaluated.
The Iraq that has emerged from the American invasion and occupation is now
a thoroughly wrecked land, housing a largely dysfunctional society. More than
a million Iraqis may have died; millions have fled their homes; many millions
of others have been scarred by war, insurgency and counterinsurgency operations,
extreme sectarian violence, and soaring levels of common criminality. Education
and medical systems have essentially collapsed and, even today, with every kind
of violence in decline, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous societies on
As its crisis deepened, the various areas of social and technical devastation
became ever more entwined, reinforcing one another. The country's degraded sewage
and water systems, for example, have spawned two consecutive years of widespread
cholera. It seems likely that this year, the disease will only subside when
the cold weather makes further contagion impossible, but this "solution" also
guarantees its reoccurrence each year until water purification systems are rebuilt.
In the meantime, cholera victims cannot rely on Iraq's once vaunted medical
system, since two-thirds of the country's doctors have fled, its hospitals are
often in a state of advanced decay and disrepair, drugs remain scarce, and equipment,
if available at all, is outdated. The rebuilding of the water and medical systems,
however, cannot get fully underway unless the electrical system is restored
to reasonable shape. Repair of the electrical grid awaits a reliable oil and
gas pipeline system to provide fuel for generators, and this cannot be constructed
without the expertise of technicians who have left the country, or newly trained
specialists that the educational system is now incapable of producing. And so
On a daily basis, this cauldron of misery renews powerful feelings of discontent,
which explains why American military leaders regularly insist that the country's
current relative quiescence is, at best, "fragile." They believe only the most
minimal reductions in US forces in Iraq (still hovering at close to 150,000
troops) are advisable.
Even if Washington prefers to ignore Iraqi realities, military officials working
close to the ground know that the country's state of disrepair, and an inability
to deal with it in any reasonably prompt way, leaves a population in steaming
discontent. At any moment, this could explode in further sectarian violence
or yet another violent effort to expel the US forces from the country.
Michael Schwartz's new book, War
Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket, 2008), has just been released.
It explains just how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the US to dismantle
the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside that country.
A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Schwartz has written
extensively on popular protest and insurgency. His work on Iraq has appeared
in numerous outlets, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and Contexts.
A video of him discussing "wrecked Iraq" can be seen by clicking here.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008 Michael Schwartz