by Alexander Cockburn
April 17, 2003
They put US troops round the Oil Ministry and the headquarters of the Secret Police, but stood aside as the mobs looted Baghdad's Archaeological Museum and torched the National Library. It sounds like something right out of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, only here the troops protecting the American Petroleum Institute are lobbyists and politicians, lobbing tax breaks over the wall.
As regards culture, Newt & Co, you'll recall, reached for their guns whenever the word came up. What libraries that have survived in any useful condition here have FBI snoops asking to see what the brown furriners have been reading. No need to worry about the locals. By the time the attack here on public education is over, the sort of people who once used public libraries to make their way up in the world won't be able to read.
US troops also sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. Meanwhile these same troops lost no time in protecting such important assets as the North Oil Company, the state-owned firm running Iraq's northern oil fields. Colonel William Mayville, told the embedded press that he wanted to send the message, "Hey, don't screw with the oil."
There's nothing out of place about the complacency with which Rumsfeld and the others have regarded the looting of Baghdad, extolling it as somehow the forgivable portent of freedom. "It's untidy," the endlessly loquacious Rumsfeld confided. "And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes."
Freedom to loot, the conversion of public assets into private property, is a core "free-enterprise" tenet, raised to the level of religious belief in recent years, in contrast to the more preferable posture of the Robber Barons of yesteryear who viewed themselves more realistically as fellows smart enough to figure out the combo to the safe.
We've just come through a decade of spectacular looting of the sort that made Bush and Cheney millionaires. In the late Nineties the executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some cooperative bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices, thereby inflating the value of their options. $1.22 trillion was the total of borrowing by non-financial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum, corporations used just 15.3 per cent for capital expenditures. They used 57 per cent of it, $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich themselves, which was surely the wildest smash and grab in the history of corporate thievery.
Any of this relevant to what's going on in Iraq? Most certainly, and we don't mean merely that Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress will be unable, if he installed in Iraq as the US's local puppet, to visit nearby Jordan where the fragrance of financial impropriety lingers, concerning a $200m (£127m) banking scandal in Jordan recently detailed in The London Guardian by David Leigh and Brian Whitaker. In 1992, Chalabi was tried in his absence and sentenced by a Jordanian court to 22 years' jail on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and currency speculation.
Capitalism, as Joseph Schumpeter hopefully pointed out, is premised on destruction. Lay waste the old, roll out the new. The missionaries of the free market and of Christianity hastening into Baghdad are intent on reinventing the place along capitalist lines under the overall spiritual guidance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. That means tolerating, nay, encouraging mobs to wipe out the past, whether in the form of ancient Islamic manuscripts or public institutions.
Sweden's largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, published an interview April 11 with a Swedish researcher of Middle Eastern ancestry who had gone to Iraq to serve as a human shield. Khaled Bayoumi told the newspaper, "I happened to be right there just as the American troops encouraged people to begin the plundering." He described how US soldiers shot security guards at a local government building on Haifa Avenue on the west bank of the Tigris, and then "blasted apart the doors to the building." Next, according to Bayoumi, "from the tanks came eager calls in Arabic encouraging people to come close to them."
At first, he said, residents were hesitant to come out of their homes because anyone who had tried to cross the street in the morning had been shot. "Arab interpreters in the tanks told the people to go and take what they wanted in the building," Bayoumi continued. "The word spread quickly and the building was ransacked. I was standing only 300 yards from there when the guards were murdered. Afterwards the tank crushed the entrance to the Justice Department, which was in a neighboring building, and the plundering continued there. "I stood in a large crowd and watched this together with them. They did not partake in the plundering but dared not to interfere. Many had tears of shame in their eyes. The next morning the plundering spread to the Modern Museum, which lies a quarter mile farther north. There were also two crowds there, one that plundered and one that watched with disgust."
Anyone who saw how "free enterprise" was nurtured in the former Soviet Union will be able to presage Iraq's future. The brunt of the UN sanctions imposed after 1991 was always born by the poor, even as Saddam's plumbers installed gold taps in his bathrooms. These poor, after their brief taste of the freedom to loot (honored by Ari Fleischer, who probably had different views of the looting in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict a few years ago), will relapse into abject poverty. Gangster entrepreneurs will take over, under western approval and with fervent editorials in the Wall Street Journal about the New Iraq, whose prospects are about as rosy as when Ulagu the Mongol laid the place waste in 1248.
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.