Bomb before you buy
What is being planned in Iraq is not reconstruction but robbery
By Naomi Klein
The Guardian -Monday April 14, 2003:
On April 6, deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: there
will be no role for the UN in setting up an interim government in Iraq.
The US-run regime will last at least six months, "probably longer than
that". And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a
government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will
have been made by their occupiers. "There has to be an effective
administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food
and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work.
And that's coalition responsibility."
The process of how they will get all this infrastructure to work is
usually called "reconstruction". But American plans for Iraq's future
economy go well beyond that. Rather than rebuilding, the country is being
treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington
neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised,
foreign-owned and open for business.
The $4.8m management contract for the port in Umm Qasr has already gone to
a US company, Stevedoring Services, and there are similar deals for
airport administration on the auction block. The United States Agency for
International Development has invited US multinationals to bid on
everything from rebuilding roads and bridges to distributing textbooks.
The length of time these contracts will last is left unspecified. How long
before they meld into long-term contracts for water services, transit
systems, roads, schools and phones? When does reconstruction turn into
privatisation in disguise?
Republican congressman Darrel Issa has introduced a bill that would
require the defence department to build a CDMA cellphone system in postwar
Iraq in order to benefit "US patent holders". As Farhad Manjoo noted in
the internet magazine Salon, CDMA is the system used in the US, not in
Europe, and was developed by Qualcomm, one of Issa's most generous donors.
Then there's oil. The Bush administration knows it can't talk openly about
selling Iraq's oil resources to ExxonMobil and Shell. It leaves that to
people like Fadhil Chalabi, a former Iraqi petroleum minister and
executive director of the Center for Global Energy Studies. "We need to
have a huge amount of money coming into the country. The only way is to
partially privatise the industry," Chalabi says.
He is part of a group of Iraqi exiles that has been advising the state
department on how to implement privatisation in such a way that it isn't
seen to be coming from the US. Helpfully, the group held a conference in
London on April 6 and called on Iraq to open itself up to oil
multinationals shortly after the war. The Bush administration has shown
its gratitude by promising that there will plenty of posts for Iraqi
exiles in the interim government.
Some argue that it's too simplistic to say this war is about oil. They're
right. It's about oil, water, roads, trains, phones, ports and drugs. And
if this process isn't halted, "free Iraq" will be the most sold country on
It's no surprise that so many multinationals are lunging for Iraq's
untapped market. It's not just that the reconstruction will be worth as
much as $100bn; it's also that "free trade" by less violent means hasn't
been going that well lately. More and more developing countries are
rejecting privatisation, while the Free Trade Area of the Americas, Bush's
top trade priority, is wildly unpopular across Latin America. World Trade
Organisation talks on intellectual property, agriculture and services have
all got bogged down amid accusations that the US and Europe have yet to
make good on past promises.
So what is a recessionary, growth-addicted superpower to do? How about
upgrading from Free Trade Lite, which wrestles market access through
backroom bullying at the WTO, to Free Trade Supercharged, which seizes new
markets on the battlefields of pre-emptive wars? After all, negotiations
with sovereign countries can be hard. Far easier to just tear up the
country, occupy it, then rebuild it the way you want. Bush hasn't
abandoned free trade, as some have claimed, he just has a new doctrine:
"Bomb before you buy".
It goes much further than one unlucky country. Investors are openly
predicting that once privatisation takes root in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia
and Kuwait will all be forced to compete by privatising their oil. "In
Iran, it would just catch like wildfire," S Rob Sobhani, an energy
consultant, told the Wall Street Journal. Pretty soon, the US may have
bombed its way into a whole new free trade zone.
So far, the press debate over the reconstruction of Iraq has focused on
fair play: it is "exceptionally maladroit", in the words of the European
Union's commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, for the US to
keep all the juicy contracts for itself. It has to learn to share: Exxon
should invite France's TotalFinaElf to the most lucrative oil fields;
Bechtel should give Britain's Thames Water a shot at the sewer contracts.
But while Patten may find US unilateralism galling, and Tony Blair may be
calling for UN oversight, on this matter it's beside the point. Who cares
which multinationals get the best deals in Iraq's pre-democracy,
post-Saddam liquidation sale? What does it matter if the privatising is
done unilaterally by the US, or multilaterally by the US, Europe, Russia
Entirely absent from this debate are the Iraqi people, who might - who
knows? - want to hold on to a few of their assets. Iraq will be owed
massive reparations after the bombing stops, but in the absence of any
kind of democratic process, what is being planned is not reparations,
reconstruction or rehabilitation. It is robbery: mass theft disguised as
charity; privatisation without representation.
A people, starved and sickened by sanctions, then pulverised by war, is
going to emerge from this trauma to find that their country had been sold
out from under them. They will also discover that their new-found
"freedom" - for which so many of their loved ones perished - comes
pre-shackled by irreversible economic decisions that were made in
boardrooms while the bombs were still falling. They will then be told to
vote for their new leaders, and welcomed to the wonderful world of
Naomi Klein's latest book is Fences and Windows (Flamingo). A version of
this article first appeared in the Nation