The media loves anniversaries, the grimmer the better. On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, our newspapers and TV news were filled to the brim with retrospectives on the origins of the Iraq war, reassessments of how it was conducted by the Bush administration, and reconsiderations of the current quagmire-cum-civil-war in that country.
An amazing aspect of this sort of heavy coverage of events past is the degree of consensus that quickly develops among all mainstream outlets on certain fundamental (and fundamentally controversial) issues. For example, the question of “what went wrong” in
The invasion was initially successful, but the plan for the peace was faulty. Bush administration officials misestimated the amount of resistance they would find in the wake of
Bottom line: General Eric Shinseki was right. If the
This, I think, is a fair summary of the thinking on
A Hurricane of Privatization
The claim that the war has an economic foundation may sound strange in the context of American media coverage, because it is so unfamiliar. So let me begin by agreeing with two key points in the currently fashionable media analysis: The initial attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime was a success and there was a moment — just after the fall of
We do not remember much of this now, but just after Saddam was toppled the American victors announced that a sweeping reform of Iraqi society would take place. The only part of this still much mentioned today — the now widely regretted dismantling of the Iraqi military — was but one aspect of a far larger effort to dismantle the entire Baathist state apparatus, most notably the government-owned factories and other enterprises that constituted just about 40% of the Iraqi economy. This process of dismantling included attempts, still ongoing, to remove various food, product, and fuel subsidies that guaranteed low-income Iraqis basic staples, even when they had no gainful employment.
Without going into the tortured details (forcefully described at the time by Naomi Klein in an indispensable Harpers article), this neo-liberal “shock treatment” was adapted from programs undertaken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank all around the globe in the 1990s, including those that immiserated Russia after the USSR collapsed and that helped to bankrupt Argentina. Because the privatizers of the Bush administration were, however, in control of a largely prostrate and conquered country, the Iraqi reforms were enacted more swiftly and in a far more draconian manner than anywhere else on the planet. Within six months, for example, the American occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), had promulgated all manner of laws designed to privatize everything in
At the same time, state-owned enterprises were to be demobilized and sidelined. They were to be prevented from participating either in repairing facilities damaged during the invasion (or degraded by the decade of sanctions that preceded it) or in any of the initially ambitious reconstruction projects the
The elimination of all protections for local commerce quickly threw the market wide open to large multinational marketing companies. This resulted in an immediate surge of sales to the Iraqi middle class of previously unobtainable goods like air conditioners, cell phones, and all manner of electronic devices. Though few remember this today, many American journalists reported the influx of such goods as an early sign of coming prosperity — and of how successful an economy could begin to be once freed from the oppressive binds of state control and state ownership.
As it happened, though, this surge did not last into the winter of 2003-4. The problem, it turned out, was that the CPA-induced economic “opening” to multinational competition administered a series of death blows to locally based enterprises. First of all, shops selling any item that could be imported by foreign companies found themselves in the unenviable position of competing with lower-priced goods that the multinationals could either provide at such prices or afford to sell at a loss to capture the market (i.e., run the local competition out of business). So a depression swept through small business in
Second, the demobilization of the army and the sidelining of state enterprises resulted in an almost immediate unemployment crisis. Even though many state enterprises continued to pay employees (for doing nothing) and the Coalition Provisional Authority belatedly decided to pay Saddam’s former soldiers (also for doing nothing), this money did not regularly reach the targeted groups. The fragmentary administration set up by the occupation was monumentally inefficient at delivering any services, including paychecks, and significant sums were evidently simply gobbled up by increasingly corrupt remnants of the Baathist administrative apparatus. As a result, millions of unemployed workers and soldiers, lacking the money to feed their families, also lacked the money to support local merchants.
These depressed neighborhoods became incubators for ferocious criminal gangs, who sought to redress their own economic hardship by looting public buildings and private dwellings of anything that might yield a return on the black (or export) market. Looting, which began with the fall of the government, became a permanent feature of Iraqi urban life once the occupation dismantled the Iraqi police force. As time passed without the establishment of effective law enforcement, criminality became organized and systematic, targeting professionals and shopkeepers who had substantial assets or retained incomes; while kidnapping for ransom became a regular fact of life for prosperous Iraqis.
As this crisis deepened, multinational corporations found they had sold just about all the appliances the market could bear and were no longer making sufficient profits to continue their marketing efforts in much of
A Response of Savage Repression
This economic debacle affected different parts of the country with differing degrees of severity. Containing a large proportion of the government apparatus and the commerce of the country,
The Shia cities in the South were strongly affected, but not as profoundly as the “Sunni Triangle.” After 12 years of post-Gulf-War-I autonomy under the Anglo-American “no-fly zone,” the Kurds were largely shielded from the economic destruction. In effect, their isolation from the Iraqi economy now insulated them as well from the neo-liberal depression wrought by the U.S occupation.
Naturally, then, the discontent was most ferocious in Sunni areas, substantial in Shia areas, and relatively mild in the Kurdish ones. By the fall of 2003, as anger mounted, so did the protests, with the largest and most insistent coming from Sunni cities and the Sunni areas of
At first, many of the protests were peaceful, focusing either on local economic issues, or on general conditions that were worsening, not improving, after months of occupation. Typically, people demanded services and jobs from the CPA. It is now lost to history, but the run-up to the ferocious first battle of Falluja in April, 2004 — triggered by the mutilation of four private security contractors — actually began a full year earlier when American troops fired on a peaceful protest organized around a host of local issues, killing 13 Iraqi civilians. It was exactly this sort of ferocious reaction to peaceful protest that made the
In fact, in 2003, the occupation response to protests was forceful, almost gleeful, repression. Top officials of the CPA and the
This policy might have worked if, as Bush administration officials regularly claimed, the resistance had indeed been nothing but remnants of the Saddam regime, thirsting for a return to power. It might even have worked — or at least worked somewhat better — if the growing resistance had rested only on the anger people felt about the occupation of their homeland by an alien army. In these circumstances, protestors might have decided to bide their time in the face of overwhelming demonstrations of force.
It was, however, an unworkable policy in the face of a deepening disaster caused by the CPA’s own economic nostrums which, by generating new problems, kept recruiting new protestors (and deepening the anger of existing rebels). In this context, the CPA’s heavy-handed responses were like oil to the flames. The rear guard of a deposed regime was a tiny part of their problem when protest and rebellion were fundamentally being fueled by a rapidly growing economic depression endangering the livelihoods of a majority of the Iraqi population.
In such circumstances, each act of repression added the provocation of brutality, false arrest, torture, and murder to the economic crimes that triggered the protests to begin with. And each act of repression convinced more Iraqis that peaceful protest would not work; that, if they were going to save their lives and those of their families, a more aggressive, belligerent approach would be necessary.
Ignoring Eternal Verities
In this context, the American policy of repression backfired royally, stoking an ever angrier, more violent, more widespread, better supported resistance. Eventually, in both Sunni and Shia areas, major uprisings occurred and, in the Sunni cities, these developed into more-or-less continuous warfare that, by November, 2005, resulted in about 700 small-scale military engagements per week.
Certainly, an alien army entered
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]