Whose Chaos Is This Anyway?

The voice on the other end of the phone was as sweet and reassuring as I remembered from our brief time together in Baghdad. It belonged to an Italian peace activist who has spent much of the last year in Iraq working with a group of European and Iraqi comrades to monitor and resist the U.S. occupation of the country. Now she was being forced to leave. The intensifying violence in central and southern Iraq has turned even foreign peace activists into targets, despite the fact that some of them were risking their lives ferrying the wounded and medical supplies between Baghdad, Falluja, and other cities.

What struck me upon hearing Francesca’s voice — the names in this story have been changed — were her first words upon recognizing me: “Ah, Mark, e un casino,” she said, her voice filled with sadness tinged with desperation. In Italian, this phrase usually means something like “it’s crazy” or “it’s overwhelming.” (Mothers of young children use it a lot when you ask them how they’re doing.) But it has a darker meaning when said by an Italian in Baghdad these days. There, it means something closer to “total chaos and violence,” while also evoking images of the prostitution and perversion that accompany the wholesale breakdown of a social order.

With the burst of intense violence of the last few weeks the world press has decided that Iraq is descending into chaos. In fact, the descent has been longer and steeper than most people imagine. The last night of my trip to Iraq, I had dinner with Francesca, along with other Italian, French, and Filipino activists who for a year have been resisting the occupation as best they could — by building bridges with Iraqis on the grass-roots level, risking their lives to find out the myriad ugly truths about the occupation, and bringing that information to the international public. The increase in chaos was palpable during my almost two weeks there in the latter half of March, with suicide bombings (including the big one at the Jebal Lubnan Hotel that blew out the first three stories’ worth of its windows), not to speak of the nightly missile/RPG strikes and battles with U.S. troops on the city’s streets.

Even as the situation turned worse the activists I knew, along with Iraqi staff members of the organization Occupation Watch (
www.occupationwatch.org), and a group of American journalists and activists with whom I traveled to Iraq’s capital felt free to spend an evening out at Baghdad’s best Chinese restaurant discussing the current situation and future prospects for Iraq from a far more hopeful perspective than, only a few weeks later, seems imaginable. In fact, the very act of having Iraqi and international activists talking, working, eating and sometimes living together was itself an example of an alternative to imperial occupation or indiscriminately violent resistance.

Most of us believed that the situation “would get worse before it gets better,” as a French activist put it, and few of the internationals thought bringing in more foreigners made much sense for the near future, even though none of them had ever felt targeted for being foreigners. (A few weeks ago the insurgents still discriminated between people working for and against the occupation.) But they still felt there was a lot of important work to be done: Francesca discussed building ties to local communities by passing out flyers explaining the work of her organization, Bridge to Baghdad, on issues like Iraqis detained indefinitely without charge, civilian casualties, and the decrepit state of the country’s hospitals. Several of the Iraqis present talked about the need to dig deep into the nuts and bolts of the occupation, into the problems of the Draft Constitution, and the everyday violence plaguing the country.

The strategies then being considered by grass-roots activists across the political spectrum in Iraq reminded me of the anarchistic tactics recently favored by the global peace and justice movement. And it seemed to raise a possibility: If violence-related chaos could slow down the “reconstruction” of the country, even forcing the Americans and British to consider abandoning their allies on the Interim Governing Council, could a very different kind of anarchy and grass-roots activism challenge the larger order being imposed by the United States in Iraq?

Today, the answer seems to be a resounding, no, and not just because of the chaos a growing insurgency encourages. When it comes to creating chaos, no one can compete with the boys at the Pentagon and in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad. Which brings me back to Francesca’s words on the phone. What struck me instantly was that “casino,” when used negatively in Italian to describe life in Baghdad, had a similar meaning to the common Russian word for chaos, “bardok.” Used throughout the former Soviet Union to describe the situation since the end of communism, it too conjured up images of extreme chaos, and of brothels and prostitution. Both uses distill into a single word what the violence of “globalization,” or as it’s called in Iraq “privatization,” does to those on the receiving end of the enterprise.

Chaos and the Fading Prospects of Peace and Democracy

Indeed, it’s the continuous chaos of everyday life that makes it so hard for Iraqis to tell friend from foe, that leads to peace activists being kidnapped, that makes it impossible for progressive-minded Islamic religious figures to offer protection to my friends who’ve been risking their lives in Iraq the past year. Chaos even makes it harder to do the digging necessary to understand just what the “Coalition” is up to.

Chaos means the four to six hours without electricity in Baghdad out of each twenty-four, including during that dinner of ours. It means having to travel with a satellite phone, a regular Iraqi cell phone (“Iraqnafone”), and a special CPA phone with a 914 (Westchester, NY) area code just to stay in touch with people. Even then, most of the time you can’t call one type of phone from the others. It also means desperately under-equipped hospitals, bullet-ridden ambulances, and millions of dollars earmarked for school rehabilitation siphoned into the pockets of U.S. contractors and their Iraqi middlemen.

It’s hard to assess how much of the chaos now evident in Iraq is just the product of war and occupation generally; how much is the product of Bush administration ill-planning, arrogance, and pure stupidity; and how much has been planned, or at least welcomed, by elements in the administration. Most Iraqis opt, almost automatically, for option C. As one Iraqi military psychiatrist who worked closely with the CPA and the American military at the start of the occupation argued, “They can’t be that incompetent. It has to be at least partly deliberate.” What convinced him beyond all else was the CPA’s refusal to allow the collection of data for a program he had developed to track levels of post-traumatic stress disorder in Iraqi children since the occupation — this after they had already funded the study, sent in an American doctor to help implement it, and even put the computers in place to begin collecting the data. He still has no idea how many children suffer from such disorders, but in his words, “It could be millions, and how can we build a stable society with such trauma?”

If it’s true that at least some of the chaos in Iraq has, to one degree or another, been consciously let loose on the land, the broadest reason is obvious. As Ali (an Iraqi friend who worked for the UN before a suicide bombing drove that organization out of the country) explained, “One thing is clear; it is impossible to build a peaceful alternative to the occupation when the chaos reaches its current levels.” As late one night he and another friend, Hassan, both now working for an international NGO as translators and drivers, plied me with Arak, the national drink of Iraq, they recounted life under, and after, Saddam Hussein. Hassan explained how, having escaped a death sentence personally signed by Saddam, he’d become a Buddhist and lived for a time in Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as we spoke of peace, Ali and Hassan drilled me on how to disassemble and reassemble one of the three AK-47s in their 200 square-foot apartment. (If I were Iraqi, they laughed, I’d have been court-martialed for being so inept.)

I’m far from a gun enthusiast, but as they pointed out, “In Iraq, you never know when you’ll have to use your Kalashnikov.” And these guys are committed peace activists. What’s sad is that while months ago Hassan had forsworn traveling with a weapon, after the fighting in Falluja broke out he emailed me that he now had no choice but to keep one with him at all times and was preparing to “fight” if the American incursions didn’t end soon. What chance does peace have when peace activists are armed and feel the urge, even the necessity, to use their weapons?

Clearly, as long as the violence continues at anything near present levels, the chance of building a truly democratic, progressive alternative to the status quo is nil. Indeed, perhaps the worst thing about the chaos ruling Iraq, along with the insecurity it brings, is that it denies civil society the possibility of promoting any alternatives to collaboration with or violent religious opposition to the occupation.

Watching a similar dynamic at work for over a decade in the Occupied Territories, I had grown ever more frustrated with Palestinian society for not being able to build a nonviolent means of resisting an occupation that only digs in deeper in response to the violent resistance it breeds. But seeing the dynamic evolve before my eyes in Iraq has given me a better understanding of why it’s so difficult for Palestinians, or Iraqis, to build such a movement. What Colgate University Professor Nancy Ries calls the “planned chaos” of an occupation, coupled with the economic “structural adjustment” that is a euphemism for the harsh imposition of a market economy controlled by corporate giants on “socialist” systems, steamrolls over any attempts at resistance through the kinds of tactics favored by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Multiple Levels of Chaos and Incompetence

The question is: How much of the chaos is deliberate and how much due to arrogance, incompetence, and stupidity? There would seem to be at least three circles of chaos involved in the occupation of Iraq. I don’t know official Washington well enough to determine exactly who fits into which category, but it’s likely that President Bush and some of his senior military planners and top political advisors fall into the first circle of offenders — the arrogant, incompetent, and just plain stupid.

Whoever comprises this group, they are certainly responsible for the lack of coherent post-occupation planning and the innumerable political and cultural miscues of the American administration in Iraq, which are now much commented upon in the press. It is this group, both politically and militarily, that can be considered “that incompetent,” as a leading scholar of Iraq described them to me.

However, there are two other groups within the American governmental system who are definitely not that incompetent: the radical right-wing ideologues in the White House and the Pentagon and their corporate sponsors. And they make up the final two circles of chaos-creators in Iraq. The two groups, not at all distinct, are embodied in the personage of former Defense Secretary and former Halliburton CEO Vice President Dick Cheney. On the more directly political level, neocon officials and their media allies such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Richard Armitrage, Michael Ledeen, George Will, Daniel Pipes and other stalwarts neither expected the occupation of Iraq to be a “cakewalk,” nor cared if it spread chaos to other countries, as long as it furthered their aim to reconfigure the political map of the region.

In fact, for years key American governmental figures and the leaders of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have understood that U.S.-led globalization was going to necessitate — and generate — violence throughout the Third World and in the Middle East specifically. Already in the early 1990s, hawkish scholars were writing of “the new cold war” that was taking shape there as Islamic nationalism confronted the region’s secular states. In 2000, a U.S. Strategic Space Command document, “Vision 2020,” admitted that globalization was producing a zero-sum game of winners and losers and that on such a planet Americans needed to be prepared to do whatever it might take to “win.” Several years before that, the World Bank had reported that the Middle East would likely require a “shakedown period” to adapt to the new global economic order coming out of Washington.

For the ideologues in the Bush Administration a shakedown wasn’t enough, and so Iraq, a country already thoroughly weakened, militarily and economically, by years of war and sanctions, was targeted for a shock-down — and in March of 2003, we got “shock and awe.” If we take seriously the statements and writings of Ledeen, Perle, Frum, Feith and Wolfowitz, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was supposed to create a domino effect that would weaken local states (or in their polite phrasing, “democratize” them), open their economies to “international” — as in Iraq, to the neocons, this largely meant American — capital (“establish market economies”), and at the same time lead to a much needed “reformation” or “modernization” of Islam (which meant putting in power “Muslims” who would feel at home in the Republican Party in Washington or the Likud Party in Israel). Of course, to accomplish such a “revolution,” force would be a necessity, lots of it, continuously applied. This — itself obviously a chaos-creator — was not seen by them as a bad thing. As Michael Ledeen has typically argued the U.S., as “the most revolutionary force on earth,” naturally engages in the kind of “creative destruction” that has been the hallmark of imperialism, capitalism, and modernity for almost half a millennium — and neither Ledeen, nor any of his fellow neocons, thought this would occur without causing much chagrin in the Muslim world as well as the Third World at large. And it mattered to them not a whit.

Such a policy-line had two things going for it: the fear of such a machinery of chaos and massive violence heading one’s way can often compel local leaders to fall into line and pressure rebels to stop fighting (as has happened in Falluja and Najaf); but if it doesn’t, the resulting chaos and violence can in turn be used to further the program. At home, as we’ve seen, such chaos and the acts that go with it only inflame Americans, convincing many that what’s happening there is anything but our fault, and that the only option — as even Senator John Kerry now argues — is to “stay the course,” whatever that is. As a potential side benefit, generating such chaos and misery also means that any fall off in the same, any move toward political or economic normalcy, however modest, can be touted as proof of the “success” for the U.S. sponsored “reconstruction” of the country.

Sponsored Chaos

Whatever the degree of chaos neocons in the Pentagon, the vice president’s office, and elsewhere in this administration were ready to accept in their future Iraq and in the region generally, only on entering the third circle of chaos can one envision the full benefits of a world in which lawlessness and violence are the essence of the open market. In such a world of what might be called “sponsored chaos,” giant corporate entities and their hangers-on, including the booming “security” firms they employ, stand to make tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars off Iraq and a globalized war on terrorism, no matter the levels of ongoing carnage.

It is perhaps hard for Americans to understand their occupation of Iraq in the context of globalization; but Iraq today is clearly the epicenter of such a trend, a place in which chaos is king and the revenues flow back to the corporate “homeland” like water from a tap. Here, as a start, military force was used to seize control of the world’s most important commodity, oil. While corporate prospectors allied with the U.S. scavenged the country in mammoth SUVs filled with downsized former soldiers turned high-priced security guards for any opportunity to profit from Iraq’s misery, inside Baghdad’s massively fortified Green Zone, where the CPA rules over a non-country, their counterparts drafted regulations for “privatizing” everything from health care to prisons and for delivering them into the same corporate hands.

You only have to spend a few hours in the no-less fortified Baghdad Airport checking out the new colonial bureaucrats and Bible Belt contractors passing through to get a sense of how such a world operates. Aside from gazing at a departure/arrivals boards with “delayed” notifications from who knows how many years ago, the most interesting way to pass the time is to chat with them. At least when I was there, most of the two dozen or so white men (and a few women) I spoke with or on whose conversations I eavesdropped were from the South or Midwest. All were clearly in Iraq for one thing — money — and happy to say so. Some were on quick trips to Basra or Kirkuk scouting out contracts; others had crisscrossed the country for the previous months or year intent on such tasks as training bomb-sniffing dogs for the Army. There were contract employees of USAID, workers for the privately run RTI International — making $100,000 per year with hazard pay for jobs that would pay less than half that at home — and assorted contractors looking to milk some of the billions of dollars in congressionally-mandated reconstruction aid. As a group, they were a reminder that the chaos of war and occupation provides wonderful opportunities for corporations and individuals to make levels of profits, unchecked by the laws and regulations that hamper profitability in peacetime and are usually unrealizable under normal circumstances. But — and this is the other side of chaos, even for those who profit from it — all of those departing were relieved or happy to be leaving, even though a number of them planned to return.

There is, needless to say, nothing new about war profiteering. But there is something new about the way it’s being done in Iraq. In the post-Cold War era, global corporations and the government elites with whom they work have great incentives to sponsor global chaos and the violence it generates. This gives “opening markets” a new meaning in our age. We know from the experience, for instance, of post-Soviet Kazakhstan or even of Russia itself, how political and social chaos lead to the formation of competing networks of criminal gangs and exceedingly corruptible political parties, filled with potential dynastic families and their friends, all competing for resources and power in the decidedly one-sided contest that is the globalized market economy.

Algeria and its grisly civil war serves as a particularly stark example of how situations of violence and the profitability of widespread chaos can feed off each other to the advantage of all sides in a conflict. Indeed, Algeria’s civil war had its roots in good measure in a series of desperately destructive, chaos-producing structural adjustment “reforms” imposed on the country in the late 1980s by the World Bank and the IMF. During the civil war both the state and private groups, including the armed terrorist organizations, made lots of money through the privatization process we call globalization. More important, a semi-secret “political-mafia power” (as Le Monde recently described it) evolved that now rivals the previous political and formerly dominant military establishments.

Once you have mafias coming into being, chaos only advances further, being, at least for a time, the cheapest, easiest, and for those not dying or being impoverished by it, most profitable way to go. If the present chaos and violence continues in Iraq, there is little doubt that a similar scenario will evolve there too. In fact, my friend Ali described the local situation in Shi’a towns like Najaf and Nasriyya in terms troublingly similar to the grim descriptions coming out of Algeria in the 1990s: “Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army are little more than mercenaries who were lost with no jobs in streets of Iraq. I’ve watched them steal the government properties in order to make money to support their revolt. The Iraqi police are totally afraid of them; they stood looking on the without thinking to take any action. Some others took the advantage of this chaos to loot what ever they could, even the people’s properties.”

How to Tell the Difference Between Chaos and Incompetence

What’s important to bear in mind here is that the U.S. can increase such chaos not just through genuine incompetence but through purposeful incompetence — and it’s normally impossible for an outsider to tell which is which. I could, for instance, feel the impact of purposeful incompetence in the conversation I had with an Iraqi architect who worked in Falluja. Having experienced the frustration of dealing with the bureaucrats inside the Green Zone and the corrupt Iraqis who increasingly surround them, he explained to me that “no honest Iraqi contractor will touch the CPA.” In the early months of the occupation, he had tried to offer his help to the CPA, but despite a public pretense of accountability — of giving all comers a chance to profit from the rebuilding of the country — his bids, though lower than those of foreign bidders, were either ignored or someone would show up weeks later offering to help him “cement a deal” only after thousands of dollars passed under the table.

The officials of the CPA, however, were never intent on “rebuilding” Iraq in the normal sense — not with Iraqis anyway. What they were intent on was cracking what was left of the Iraqi economy open and handing its spoils to crony capitalists and giant corporate entities allied to them. And this is why we can’t simply assume, as one recent newspaper article put it, that the hemorrhaging of billions of dollars in Iraq is “yet more proof of the administration’s inadequate preparation for the war, and its failure to fathom what awaited it in Iraq.” Such a view misunderstands why, for example, Pentagon Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other senior administration officials dismissed pre-war warnings that the civil rebuilding of Iraq would cost between $60 billion and $150 billion. They certainly didn’t do so because they thought it could be done cheaper.

In fact the $100 billion-plus the U.S. is slated to spend by the end of next year on infrastructure and civilian expenses — we can only guess how much of that will go directly and indirectly to Halliburton and Bechtel and not to Iraqis — along with the fraud, bribery, theft and waste that are literally written into budgets under the heading of “special clauses,” when combined with the $250 billion in military-related costs (all those depleted uranium bullets and high-tech napalm aren’t cheap) plunked down for the invasion and military occupation, together constitute a major reason why we went to war in the first place. Looked at from a certain perspective, all of this falls under the category of planned or sponsored chaos.

Just consider the profits of the major arms, energy, and heavy engineering companies today versus three years ago. Some have more than doubled their profits, as has their share of the total profits of the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones companies; and no one with a car today can remain oblivious to the relationship between Middle Eastern chaos and higher oil prices, which naturally mean higher profits for the major oil companies. Of course, officials like Wolfowitz weren’t going to tell the American people what Iraq was really going to cost them, at least not beforehand. But it’s hard to imagine Cheney and his friends in the military-petroindustrial complex didn’t know better, especially when it’s a given that reconstruction contracts handed out to companies like Halliburton have profits built into them regardless of cost over-runs.

I should admit that one of my travel companions who knows Washington doesn’t agree with level of importance I’ve given to sponsored chaos. For her, more than profits and chaos, Cheney and Co. are about “about projecting US dominance. It’s all geostrategy.” But since when have imperial dominance and imperial profits been separable? And it’s just too hard to stick with a simple explanation of “incompetence” when it comes to Iraq. As she admits, “Maybe incompetent is the wrong word. Ideological is more like it.”

Even then, you haven’t quite captured the strange combination of planned and actual incompetence that is now Iraq. As I flew out of Baghdad, I struck up a conversation with a woman who works for USAID “reforming” Iraqi hospitals. I was a bit emotional leaving the country in such a state of visible disintegration, so I leaned into her immediately with questions about why hospitals which I had visited still have almost no supplies of drugs or equipment, and aren’t even allowed to send mortality reports or other negative statistics — of which there are now reams — to the “health” ministry. Taken aback, she replied that the doctors I had interviewed simply “don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re trying to decentralize the system and make it more efficient.” I felt a twinge of guilt for being so argumentative; perhaps we just weren’t talking about the same hospitals. So I asked her if she’d ever visited an Iraqi hospital. Visibly surprised that I would even ask such a question, she answered with a simple, “No.”

It was clear that she basically spent her days ensconced in an office in the Green Zone, totally cut off from the chaos she had a small hand in creating, pushing paper, transferring millions of dollars here and there, and undoubtedly writing reports about how “efficient” U.S. reforms are and how Iraqis are being readied to reassume control of one of the most underfunded ministries in the Government. Since most Americans of the civilian part of the occupation rarely mix with or spend significant amounts of time with Iraqis outside their security bubble, they, like her, have little idea of the realities on the ground. This is, in fact, almost a necessary qualification for the planning they’re engaged in. Otherwise, they would have to quit their jobs or do them very differently. This is how chaos and privatization thrive on ignorance — but an ignorance structurally and purposefully set up and embedded in the landscape. Maybe my companion on that plane thought she was doing a good job. Who knows? Who cares? Either way, ignorance, chaos, privatization, planning, and various kinds of sponsored chaos seem to be in perfect synergy in Iraq.

And this is why I suspect that the very categories within which most of us outside the world of this administration and its corporate allies think may not even provide us with the language necessary to describe accurately what’s actually taking place. In some sense, the chaos-managers in the Pentagon and their corporate cousins know well enough what they’re doing in Iraq and what impact their version of sponsored chaos is having. A society so brutalized by twenty years of Saddam Hussein and constant war, oppression, and corruption, one where even seventy year-old Ayatollahs want their picture taken with Kalashnikovs, all play into the hands of the occupation profiteers. Because of this situation, as my friend Ali explained, “The idea of building a coherent positive resistance cannot fit for the Iraqi mentality. They can easily be driven to any fight and will hand the mess over to the Americans by giving them an excuse to stay here. The Iraqi intellectuals are doing nothing: they are more worried about their chairs [that is, their possessions and social position] than the country or the people.”

We can perhaps be a bit more charitable, as the very Iraqis who have the training, skills and desire to rebuild their country — the engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals — are, like the architect I talked with, either ignored by the CPA’s contractors in favor of more corrupt colleagues, or themselves targets of assassination just by virtue of the fact they might be imagined as cooperating with the Americans. Either way, with local intellectuals in hiding or dead, and international activists now leaving, it’s no surprise that Iraqis feel very much alone and have little in the way of a positive, forward-thinking leadership. What, after all, does it say about the prospects for Iraq when Ayatollah Sistani, the “most important figure in the country,” hasn’t left his house in a decade?

Break it, Buy it, Fix it?

By now many people have heard that before the U.S. invasion, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Secretary of State Powell informed President Bush about his “Pottery Barn” theory of international politics –”you break it, you own it.” Of course, breaking something is the easy part; and if the goal of at least part of the US establishment (at least in the short-term) is indeed chaos, then “owning” Iraq does not necessarily mean that our political and corporate elites feel compelled to fix it, however much they insist it’s their heartfelt dream. They might, in the end, prefer that it be left broken — possibly into three pieces — an impotent and wrecked country.

From this perspective, the Iraqi situation is hardly unique. In the bardok of Kazakhstan and the rest of the former USSR, for instance, the Western-promoted “shock therapy” of the early 1990s impoverished whole populations but successfully brought their resources (oil, gold, forest products, labor, intellectual capital) onto the global market in a major way. And just as in Russia, sexual exploitation as both imagery and reality is not far from the surface of the growing chaos in Iraq. During the last year increasing numbers of Iranians have been bringing in women and setting up bordellos in parts of the country so that Shi’i Iraqi men could obtain “temporary marriages” in order to have sex with what are clearly prostitutes (a practice, while sanctioned in Shi’i Islam and widespread in Iran, that was frowned upon in Iraq before the occupation).

Whoever is responsible, in the casino of post-occupation Iraq, bardok, it seems, is thriving in every way possible. It will take a lot of money, blood, and good will to change this dynamic any time soon. In the meantime, chaos by its nature is never anybody’s assured property. As the Bush administration is learning even now, the operative phrase is: Be careful what you wish for.

Copyright C2004 Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the co-editor, with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen, of
Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and author of the forthcoming Why They Don’t Hate Us: Islam and the World in the Age of Globalization (Oneworld Publications, 2004).

[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 and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]  



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