Blood, Contracts, and the Costs of Empire

Governing Absurd
What’s the most disturbing thing about the latest White House and Pentagon fiasco, sparked by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s announcement that only countries who supported the United States invasion of Iraq can bid for lucrative reconstruction contracts in the occupied nation?
It’s hard to say.  There’s just so much about this sorry episode to make one cringe. There’s the absence of the Iraqi peoples’ needs from the debate over Wolfowitz’s directive. Speaking outside the relevant mainstream discourse, Phyllis Bennis recently argued the radical notion that “the reconstruction of Iraq should be for the benefit of Iraqis,” and not a source of “reward” for “multinational corporations” based outside Iraq.  Consistent with that logical imperative, “Iraqi firms and workers should be hired to rebuild the community, not U.S. or international firms” (Bennis, “Talking Points – American Corporations Only, Please…,” ZNet [December 11, 2003], available online at   
“Iraqi Freedom” was the declared aim of the invasion, after all. Predictably, however, the Arab objects of “liberation” are being treated as little more than faceless background for another chapter in the 500-year conflict between the Great White Men of the West over the division of spoils in the “backward” periphery.
Then there’s the Monty-Pythonesque absurdity of Wolfowitz issuing his directive as George W. Bush dialed up the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia to ask them to write off Iraq’s foreign debt.
There’s the equally enjoyable (for Bush- and Wolfowitz-haters the world over) timing of the Pentagon directive with the mainstream media’s revelation that War Hawk Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company Haliburton overcharged the U.S. Army and thus U.S. taxpayers $61 million for gasoline used to help rebuild Iraq’s oil industry. Haliburton is a major contributor to the Bush campaign. The Democratic presidential campaign of Howard Dean made good use of the disclosure, noting the “George W. Bush is preventing entire nations from bidding on contracts in Iraq so his campaign contributors can continue to overcharge the American taxpayers.”     
There’s the White House “fuming” over Wolfowitz’s timing, not the ridiculous contradiction between policy A (punishing “Old Europe” for opposing US imperialism in Iraq) and policy B (asking “Old Europe” to facilitate US imperialism in Iraq by forgiving Iraqi debt).  The White House is (reportedly) angry at Wolfowitz for making the illogical doublethink that lay at the heart of America’s global agenda too obviously evident to other states. 

Double Standards
There’s the equally Orwellian inconsistency in the White House’s attitude toward other nations’ debt. The U.S. has long imposed crippling debt peonage on poor and weak nations in “the developing world.” It insists that these countries gut their public service sectors and natural resources to pay off loans granted to corrupt and authoritarian regimes that often brutally repress their subject populations under the cover and with the pivotal support of Uncle Sam. 
Post-invasion Iraq, however, is to be given a get-out-of debtors’-jail free pass because it is expected to demonstrate the positive effectiveness of the Bush Doctrine, which grants the U.S. the right to resort to force and even overthrow sovereign states at will, regardless of law and opinion at home and abroad. Occupied Iraq is supposed to showcase the virtues of U.S.-imposed “stabilization” and political transformation (falsely termed democratization) in the oil-rich Middle East, the world’s most strategically significant region in the climate-baking age of petro-capitalism. It helps, of course, that much of Iraq’s debt is owed to rival capitalist states.
There’s the dysfunctional absurdity of creating new barriers between Iraqis and experienced, knowledgeable German, French, and Russian firms that have long invested in Iraq’s economy. 
Then there’s the politically motivated inconsistency in the Pentagon’s determination of which countries to include and exclude from Iraqi reconstruction. Germany is frozen out “despite the fact,” Bennis notes, “that it allowed the Pentagon to use Germany for bases and transit and medical support, and sent significant numbers of troops to Kuwait in the run-up to the war.”  Turkey is included “despite its refusal to allow U.S. troops to open a northern front against Iraq from Turkish territory” (Bennis, “Talking Points”)  – a reflection, no doubt of Turkey’s perceived strategic value for American effort to control affairs in the Middle East.

For Reasons of “National Security”
There’s the transparently disingenuous nature of the claim that restricting bids to firms from the U.S. and “friendly” (Bush’s term for nations that went along with the invasion) states is required for reasons of “national security.”  The most likely reasons are very different.
Wolfowitz’s directive is meant partly to bribe other nations to contribute troops under U.S. command to help the White House extract itself with as little more politically problematic American bloodshed as possible from the quagmire they have created in Iraq.  At the same time, Wolfowitz and the White House (which defended Wolfwitz’s directive, for all its “fuming”) want to send a message about future American “preventive” wars: “line up with us we act on our new doctrine of pre-emptive war and regime change or else.”  The message, which contains no small measure of sheer vengeful spite, is aimed particularly at Germany, France, and Russia, whose policymakers committed the unpardonable sin of acting in accordance with their populations’ overwhelming opposition to the invasion. They must learn that it is an inexcusable transgression to take orders from their own citizens instead of the cowboy and his “posse”(as Bush like to call his team of advisors) in Crawford and Washington.
A leading formulator of the unilateralist Bush Doctrine, Wolfowitz may have issued his edict partly to pre-empt potential White House moves towards genuine multilateralism as a way out of the Iraq mess. 

Military Strength and Economic Weakness
More generally, the “American corporations only” order provides special assistance to American corporate executives who give heavily to the Republican Party and need all the imperial state protection they can get from more efficient and dynamic multinational firms based in Western Europe and Japan. As Richard B. Duboff documents in the latest Monthly Review, American economic performance continues to decline relative to the leading industrial, commercial and financial competition in Western Europe and Asia, a problem that leaves U.S. multinationals and other American firms ever more dependent on military strategies to advance their economic interests (DuBoff, “U.S. Hegemony: Continuing Decline, Enduring Danger,” Monthly Review, v.55, n.7 [December 2003]: 1-15). Ironically, America’s over-investment in the military and its related under-investment in domestic society and economy are major reasons for that decline.

“International Law?”
There’s the revolting callousness of Bush II’s dismissive response to a reporter who asked him if Wolfowitz’s order might violate international trade law.  “International law?  I better call my lawyer; he didn’t bring that up to me” (“Remarks By the President After Meeting With the Cabinet,” December 11, 2003, available online at
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/12/20031211-1.html). It was a chilling comment on various levels, suggesting that Bush sees himself (with some reason) as a de-facto world monarch, a state unto himself. His response would have been a bit more humorous if he hadn’t challenged the already tenuous balance of global order that makes human survival possible by undertaking the unprovoked invasion and takeover of a sovereign nation – an action that sets an ominous precedent and violates the highest edicts of post-Nuremberg world law. 

Blood and Profit
Last but not least, there’s the openly, atavistic, Nazi-like linkage made by the White House between imperial bloodshed and the right to dominate economic affairs in occupied lands.  “Let me make sure everybody understands,” Bush told a reporter last Thursday, “that men and women from our country, who proudly wear our uniform, risked their life (sic) to free Iraq.  And the expenditure of U.S. dollars will reflect the fact that U.S. troops and other troops risked their life (sic)” (“Remarks By the President”).
The president has an interesting way of characterizing soldiers’ reluctance to be court-martialed and even executed (failing to respect orders to engage in war is a potential capital offense under military law) for refusing to follow his deadly-force invasion orders. 
But, the reporter tried to ask, shouldn’t countries like Germany and France be rewarded with reconstruction access if they agree to forgive Iraqi debt?  “The taxpayers understand,” Bush responded, “why it makes sense for countries that risk lives to participate in the contracts in Iraq.  It’s very simple.  Our people risk their lives. Coalition – friendly coalition folks risk their lives, and therefore, the contracting is going to reflect that.  And that’s what the taxpayers expect.  Thank you.”  
Given the grotesque imbalance between American (deaths in the hundreds) and Iraqi (deaths in the tens of thousands, including more than 8,000 civilians) casualties, maybe Bush should have argued that it also “makes sense for countries that TAKE lives to participate in contracts in Iraq.”  
When, the reporter should have asked, did the Bush administration decide to openly embrace to the feudal and fascist doctrine that world economic spoils are doled out on the basis of (supposed) battlefield valor?  It’s too much, of course, to expect the reporter to know and press the fact that the “grand imperial strategy” behind America’s invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with “freeing” Iraqis.

Class and the Costs of Empire
Here’s something else “to make sure everybody understands”: beneath the faux-populist, crypto-fascist, blood-and-soil rhetoric of the plutocratic Bush II administration (the wealthiest White House in history), the people shipped out to inflict and face lethal violence in Iraq are very predominantly working class in origin (see David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes, “Military Mirrors Working-Class America,” New York Times, March 30, 2003).  Lacking standard middle- and upper-class pathways to American success, these working-class recruits include many who enlisted mainly because military service is their best available way to meet the skyrocketing costs of a college education (e.g. Jessica Lynch) and some even assigned to imperial duty as an alternative to rampant American mass incarceration. They come from the lower and lower-middle orders of a savagely disparate class society, the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation by far (see my “Forbidden Connections: Class, Cowardice and War,” ZNet Magazine, July 25, 2003, available online at
http://www. dissidentvoice.org/Articles7/ Street_ Forbidden- Connections.htm).  They receive little if any benefit from the awarding of lucrative billion-dollar contracts to giant multinational U.S. firms like Bechtel and the price-gouging war-profiteering Haliburton.
Those profits flow very disproportionately to the already super-rich masters of war and empire, who exhort their social and political inferiors on to death and destruction from the privileged corporate skyboxes of aristocratic class privilege.  The masters “hide in their mansions while young people’s blood, flows out of their bodies and gets buried in the mud” (Bob Dylan, “Masters of War,” 1963).  The soldiers’ blood, soaking into the sands and spilling onto the streets of Iraq on a regular basis, is being sacrificed for the profits of the privileged few, who “fasten the bullets for the others to fire and sit back and watch while the death count gets higher” (Dylan).
The state is pleased to “risk the lives” of its least privileged citizens, while the rich and powerful are free to profit from the suffering of the lower orders. The soldiers’ sacrifice is imposed from above, under conditions of vastly unequal power and in accordance with imperial designs that make Bush’s statements about troops “risking their life” (sic) to “free” Iraqis obscene. 

The Domestic Functions of Empire
The soldiers’ deaths and injuries are the most tragic parts of the massive and many-sided price ordinary Americans pay for the masters’ empire.  The price includes the colossal diversion of public funds and attention away from urgent “homeland” problems like endemic poverty, homelessness, hunger and unemployment (for an interesting look at a small part of the overall costs, see The National Priorities Project’s useful “The Cost of War for States and Cities,” at
www.nationalpriorities.org/Issues/Military/Iraq/ CostOfWar.html) and the related creation of a political climate in which it becomes all too easy for the nationalist right wing to equate domestic dissent with “anti-Americanism” and even treason.   It is a useful time, perhaps, to review Noam Chomsky’s reflections on class, power, and empire in his recently re-issued For Reasons of State (New York, NY: The New Press, 2003), originally published in 1970 and still quite relevant for those who want to understand the nature, origins, and functions of contemporary U.S. policy:
“Perhaps a word might be added with regard to the commonly heard argument that the costs of the Vietnam War prove that the United States has no imperial motives…The costs, of course, are profits for selected segments of the American economy, in large measure.  It is senseless to describe government expenditures for petroleum, jet planes, cluster bombs, or computers for the automated air war simply as ‘costs of intervention.’ There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration of the strength of the United States economy relative to its industrial rivals.  These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of society.  The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.  In this respect, the empire serves as a device for internal consolidation of power and privilege, and it is quite irrelevant to observe that its social costs are often great or that as costs rise, differences may also arise among those who are in positions of power and influence.” (p.47)
Paul Street (
[email protected]) is a regular ZNet commentator.  He writes on race, class, imperialism and thought-control.  


Leave a comment