Naomi Klein reports in The Nation:
Good news out of Baghdad: the Program Management Office, which oversees the $18.4 billion in US reconstruction funds, has finally set a goal it can meet. Sure, electricity is below prewar levels, streets are rivers of sewage and more Iraqis have been fired than hired. But now the PMO has contracted with British mercenary firm Aegis to protect its employees from "assassination, kidnapping, injury and"--get this--"embarrassment." I don't know if Aegis will succeed in protecting PMO employees from violent attack, but embarrassment? I'd say mission already accomplished. The people in charge of rebuilding Iraq can't be embarrassed, because clearly they have no shame.
In the run-up to the June 30 underhand (sorry, I can't bring myself to call it a "handover"), US occupation powers have been unabashed in their efforts to steal money that is supposed to aid a war-ravaged people. The State Department has taken $184 million earmarked for drinking water projects and moved it to the budget for the lavish new US Embassy in Saddam's former palace. Short $1 billion for the embassy, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he might have to "rob from Peter in my fiefdom to pay Paul." In fact, he is robbing Iraq's people, who, according to a recent study by Public Citizen, are facing "massive outbreaks of cholera, diarrhea, nausea and kidney stones" from drinking contaminated water.
If occupation chief Paul Bremer and his staff were capable of embarrassment, they might be a little sheepish about having spent only $3.2 billion of the $18.4 billion Congress allotted--the reason the reconstruction is so disastrously behind schedule. At first, Bremer said the money would be spent by the time Iraq was sovereign, but apparently someone had a better idea: Parcel it out over five years so Ambassador John Negroponte can use it as leverage. With $15 billion outstanding, how likely will Iraq's politicians be to refuse US demands for military bases and economic "reforms"?
Unwilling to let go of their own money, the shameless ones have had no qualms about dipping into funds belonging to Iraqis. After losing the fight to keep control of Iraq's oil money after the underhand, occupation authorities grabbed $2.5 billion of those revenues and are now spending the money on projects that are supposedly already covered by US tax dollars.
But then, if financial scandals made you blush, the entire reconstruction of Iraq would be pretty mortifying. From the start, its architects rejected the idea that it should be a New Deal-style public works project for Iraqis to reclaim their country. Instead, it was treated as an ideological experiment in privatization. The dream was for multinational firms, mostly from the United States, to swoop in and dazzle the Iraqis with their speed and efficiency.
Iraqis saw something else: desperately needed jobs going to Americans, Europeans and South Asians; roads crowded with trucks shipping in supplies produced in foreign plants, while Iraqi factories were not even supplied with emergency generators. As a result, the reconstruction was seen not as a recovery from war but as an extension of the occupation, a foreign invasion of a different sort. And so, as the resistance grew, the reconstruction itself became a prime target.
The contractors have responded by behaving even more like an invading army, building elaborate fortresses in the Green Zone and surrounding themselves with mercenaries. And being hated is expensive. According to the latest estimates, security costs are eating up 25 percent of reconstruction contracts--money not being spent on hospitals, water-treatment plants or telephone exchanges.
Meanwhile, insurance brokers selling sudden-death policies to contractors in Iraq have doubled their premiums, with insurance costs reaching 30 percent of payroll. That means many companies are spending half their budgets arming and insuring themselves against the people they are supposedly in Iraq to help. And according to an estimate by Charles Adwan of Transparency International, quoted on NPR's Marketplace, "At least 20 percent of US spending in Iraq is lost to corruption." How much is actually left over for reconstruction? Don't do the math.
Rather than models of speed and efficiency, the contractors look more like overbilling, underperforming, lumbering beasts, barely able to move for fear of the hatred they have helped generate. The problem goes well beyond the latest reports of Halliburton drivers abandoning $85,000 trucks on the road because they don't carry spare tires. Private contractors are also accused of playing leadership roles in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A landmark class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights alleges that the Titan Corporation and CACI International conspired with US officials to "humiliate, torture and abuse persons" to increase demand for their "interrogation services."
And then there's Aegis, the company being paid $293 million to save the PMO from embarrassment. It turns out that Aegis's CEO, Tim Spicer, has a bit of an embarrassing past himself. In the 1990s, he was secretly employed by the government of Papua New Guinea to put down rebels and hatched a plan to break an arms embargo in Sierra Leone.
If Iraq's occupiers were capable of feeling shame, they might have responded by imposing tough new regulations. Instead, Senate Republicans just defeated an attempt to bar private contractors from interrogating prisoners and also voted down a proposal to impose stiffer penalties on contractors who overbill. Meanwhile, the White House is also trying to get immunity from prosecution for US contractors in Iraq and has requested the exemption from the new Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.
It seems likely that Allawi will agree, since he is, after all, a kind of US contractor himself: A former CIA spy, he is already threatening to declare martial law, while his Defense Minister says of resistance fighters, "We will cut off their hands, and we will behead them." In a final feat of outsourcing, Iraqi governance has been subcontracted to even more brutal surrogates. Is this embarrassing, after an invasion to overthrow a dictatorship? Not at all--this is what the occupiers call "sovereignty." The Aegis guys can relax: Embarrassment is not going to be an issue.
EMENDATION: Naomi Klein reported in her July 12 "Lookout" column that Aegis CEO Tim Spicer helped put down rebels and stage a military coup in Papua New Guinea. Actually, although his secret employment by the PNG government to put down rebels became a divisive issue within the PNG military and led to a military coup, Spicer played no role in staging the coup. (7/14/04)
Thursday, June 24, 2004
Naomi Klein reports in The Nation:
Transcript of interview:
Q Mr. President, you're going to arrive in Ireland in about 24 hours' time, and no doubt you will be welcomed by our political leaders. Unfortunately, the majority of our public do not welcome your visit because they're angry over Iraq, they're angry over Abu Ghraib. Are you bothered by what Irish people think?
THE PRESIDENT: Listen, I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country. And if they think that a few soldiers represents the entirety of America, they don't really understand America then.
There have been great ties between Ireland and America, and we've got a lot of Irish Americans here that are very proud of their heritage and their country. But, you know, they must not understand if they're angry over Abu Ghraib -- if they say, this is what America represents, they don't understand our country, because we don't represent that. We are a compassionate country. We're a strong country, and we'll defend ourselves -- but we help people. And we've helped the Irish and we'll continue to do so. We've got a good relationship with Ireland.
Q And they're angry over Iraq, as well, and particularly the continuing death toll there.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I can understand that. People don't like war. But what they should be angry about is the fact that there was a brutal dictator there that had destroyed lives and put them in mass graves and had torture rooms. Listen, I wish they could have seen the seven men that came to see me in the Oval Office -- they had their right hands cut off by Saddam Hussein because the currency had devalued when he was the leader. And guess what happened? An American saw the fact that they had had their hands cut off and crosses -- or Xs carved in their forehead. And he flew them to America. And they came to my office with a new hand, grateful for the generosity of America, and with Saddam Hussein's brutality in their mind.
Look, Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, against the neighborhood. He was a brutal dictator who posed a threat -- such a threat that the United Nations voted unanimously to say, Mr. Saddam Hussein --
Q Indeed, Mr. President, but you didn't find the weapons of mass destruction.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish. Let me finish. May I finish?
He said -- the United Nations said, disarm or face serious consequences. That's what the United Nations said. And guess what? He didn't disarm. He didn't disclose his arms. And, therefore, he faced serious consequences. But we have found a capacity for him to make a weapon. See, he had the capacity to make weapons. He was dangerous. And no one can argue that the world is better off with Saddam -- if Saddam Hussein were in power.
Q But, Mr. President, the world is a more dangerous place today. I don't know whether you can see that or not.
THE PRESIDENT: Why do you say that?
Q There are terrorist bombings every single day. It's now a daily event. It wasn't like that two years ago.
THE PRESIDENT: What was it like September the 11th, 2001? It was a -- there was a relative calm, we --
Q But it's your response to Iraq that's considered --
THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish. Let me finish, please. Please. You ask the questions and I'll answer them, if you don't mind.
On September the 11th, 2001, we were attacked in an unprovoked fashion. Everybody thought the world was calm. And then there have been bombings since then -- not because of my response to Iraq. There were bombings in Madrid. There were bombings in Istanbul. There were bombings in Bali. There were killings in Pakistan.
Q Indeed, Mr. President, and I think Irish people understand that. But I think there is a feeling that the world has become a more dangerous place because you have taken the focus off al Qaeda and diverted into Iraq. Do you not see that the world is a more dangerous place? I saw four of your soldiers lying dead on the television the other day, a picture of four soldiers just lying there without their flight jackets.
THE PRESIDENT: Listen, nobody cares more about the death than I do --
Q Is there a point or place --
THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish, please. Please. Let me finish, and then you can follow up, if you don't mind.
Nobody cares more about the deaths than I do. I care about it a lot. But I do believe the world is a safer place and becoming a safer place. I know that a free Iraq is going to be a necessary part of changing the world. Listen, people join terrorist organizations because there's no hope and there's no chance to raise their families in a peaceful world where there is not freedom. And so the idea is to promote freedom, and at the same time protect our security. And I do believe the world is becoming a better place, absolutely.
Q Mr. President, you are a man who has a great faith in God. I've heard you say many times that you strive to serve somebody greater than yourself.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q Do you believe that the hand of God is guiding you in this war on terror?
THE PRESIDENT: Listen, I think that God -- that my relationship with God is a very personal relationship. And I turn to the good Lord for strength. And I turn to the good Lord for guidance. I turn to the good Lord for forgiveness.
But the God I know is not one that -- the God I know is one that promotes peace and freedom. But I get great sustenance from my personal relationship. That doesn't make me think I'm a better person than you are, by the way. Because one of the great admonitions in the Good Book is, don't try to take a speck out of your eye if I've got a log in my own.
Q You're going to meet Bertie Ahern when you arrive in Shannon Airport tomorrow. I guess he went out on a limb for you, presumably because of the great friendship between our two countries. Can you look him in the eye when you get there and say, it will be worth it, it will work out?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. I wouldn't be doing this, I wouldn't have made the decisions I did if I didn't think the world would be better. Of course. I'm not going to put people in harm's way, our young, if I didn't think the world would be better. And --
Q Why is it that others --
THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish.
And so, yes, I can turn to my friend, Bertie Ahern, and say, thank you, thanks for helping, and I appreciate it very much. And there will be other challenges, by the way.
Q Why is it that others don't understand what you're about?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. History will judge what I'm about. But I'm the kind of person, I don't really try to chase popular polls, or popularity polls. My job is to do my job and make the decisions that I think are important for our country and for the world. And I argue strongly that the world is better off because of the decisions I have made -- along with others. America is not in this alone. One of our greatest allies of -- in the world is your neighbor, Great Britain. Tony Blair has been a strong advocate for not only battling terrorists, but promoting freedom, for which I am grateful.
Let me say one other thing about America that your viewers must know -- is that not only are we working hard to promote security and peace, we're also working to eradicate famine and disease. There is no more generous country on the face of the earth than the United States of America, when it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS. As a matter of fact, it was my initiative --
Q Indeed, that's understood --
THE PRESIDENT: -- my initiative, that asked Congress to spend $15 billion over five years to battle this pandemic. And we're following through on it. And no other country in the world feeds more of the hungry than the United States. We're a compassionate nation.
Q Mr. President, I know your time is tight, can I move you on to Europe? Are you satisfied that you are getting enough help in Iraq from European countries? You have come together, you are more friendly now -- but they're not really stepping up to the plate with help, are they?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, first of all, most of Europe supported the decision in Iraq. And, really, what you're talking about is France, isn't it? And they didn't agree with my decision. They did vote for the U.N. Security Council resolution that said, disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. We just had a difference of opinion about when you say something, do you mean it.
But, nevertheless, there's no doubt in my mind President Chirac would like to see a free and democratic and whole Iraq emerge. And same in Afghanistan. They've been very helpful in Afghanistan. They're willing to forgive debt in Iraq. But most European countries are very supportive and are participating in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Q And how do you see the handover going? The next few weeks are going to be crucial. Can democracy really flourish with the violence that's going on? A hundred Iraqis dead today, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: I don't like death, either. I mean, you keep emphasizing the death and I don't blame you -- but all that goes to show is the nature of the enemy. These people are willing to kill innocent people. They're willing to slaughter innocent people to stop the advance of freedom. And so the free world has to make a choice: Do we cower in the face of terror, or do we lead in the face of terror?
And I'm going to lead in the face of terror. We will not let these terrorists dash the hopes and ambitions of the people of Iraq. There's some kind of attitude that says, oh, gosh, the terrorists attacked, let's let the Iraqis suffer more. We're not going to let them suffer more. We're going to work with them. And I'm most proud of this fellow, Prime Minister Allawi. He's strong and he's tough. He says to me, Mr. President, don't leave our country, help us secure our country so we can be free.
Q Indeed, Mr. President, just to get back to that. Can I just turn to the Middle East --
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
Q -- and you will be discussing at the EU summit and the idea of bringing democracy to the broader Middle East.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q Is that something that really should start, though, with the solving of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, first of all, you've got a democracy in Turkey. And you've got a democracy emerging in Afghanistan. You've got a democracy in Pakistan. In other words --
Q But shouldn't that be on the top of the list --
THE PRESIDENT: Please. Please. Please, for a minute, okay. It'll be better if you let me finish my answers, and then you can follow up, if you don't mind.
What I'm telling you is democracy can emerge at the same time that a democracy can emerge in the Palestinian state. I'm the first American President to have called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the first one to do so. Because I believe it is in the Palestinian people's interest; I believe it's in Israel's interest. And, yes, we're working. But we can do more than, you know, one thing at a time. And we are working on the road map with the Quartet, to advance the process down the road.
Like Iraq, the Palestinian and the Israeli issue is going to require good security measures. And --
Q And a bit more even-handedness from America?
THE PRESIDENT: -- and we're working on security measures. And America -- I'm the first President to ever have called for a Palestinian state. That's, to me, sounds like a reasonable, balanced approach. But I will not allow terrorists to determine the fate -- as best I can, determine the fate of people who want to be free.
Q Mr. President, thank you very much for talking to us.
THE PRESIDENT: You're welcome.