Cash for Chaos

Mark Levines spring break in Falluja

In late March, a few days after I returned from Iraq, I received a call from a major TV news program to join a panel about Falluja. Only the day before, Falluja had seen the killing and mutilation of four American employees of the Blackwater Security firm. As I had driven down the same road only days earlier, I thought I could contribute to a discussion about the attack. But after a 40-minute pre-interview, the producer decided I didn't "fit into the mix" of the guests, which wound up being three middle-aged men—a retired general, a retired colonel and a professor—none of whom have driven the road to Falluja, at least not recently and not in a car.

None of the guests dared discuss the roots of Iraq's deepening troubles; such is the mainstream media's coverage. To do so would mean to expose the intimate connections between violence, chaos and the untold billions of dollars being made by the occupation's corporate sponsors.

Much has already been written about the multibillion-dollar no-bid contracts given to the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel, as well as to such smaller companies as RTI International (which received millions to supervise "good governance" and polling projects) and Creative Associates International Inc. (which runs the so-called reconstruction of Iraqi schools). But few are investigating how the system really works—how funneling all that money from U.S. taxpayers to U.S. corporations requires a high level of chaos to function.

And chaos abounds in Iraq; it's the lifeblood of the occupation. As an elderly Iraqi lawyer explained to me, chaos means having your son—a highly educated, trilingual engineer—killed by U.S. troops while driving home, and then, a few weeks later, being threatened with death by robbers who break into your home during breakfast. For the cigarette seller outside my hotel, chaos means throwing dirty looks at a bunch of Americans, waiting once again—too conspicuously—outside the hotel for a colleague, advertising our presence to anyone looking for a new hotel to target.

Chaos also means getting stuck in traffic in the middle of Falluja on a hot spring day, surrounded by thousands of angry and armed young men looking for a target on which to vent their anger. Luckily, I was traveling through Iraq like an Iraqi—in an old, shitty car with regular-looking people and without armed guards—so I got a few evil eyes and, later on, an explicit warning to leave town immediately, but no bullets through the window. But it's inconceivable that the people running security for the occupation didn't know that sending guys with military haircuts and machine guns in late-model SUVs down a street clogged with traffic meant almost certain death for the occupants. They can't be that ignorant and arrogant.

What's the function of all this chaos? The answer first occurred to me while sitting in a Baghdad hotel room, talking to my colleague the night after the Jabal Lubnan Hotel was blown up. As we sat there discussing the finer points of U.S. plans to privatize Iraq's health care system, another bomb knocked us off our beds. We ran to the roof, where two journalists were already yelling into their cell phones as several missiles screamed by in the distance. The night's attacks had started, and for the next four hours, we ran between the roof, the seventh-floor hallway (which we figured was the safest place in the hotel in case of a missile or car-bomb attack because it was so high up and made out of solid concrete) and the Cave Bar down the block, where we drank beer and watched al-Jazeera report on events only a short distance away. Needless to say, we never returned to our discussion of privatization, but the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) advisers ensconced in the Green Zone clearly continued theirs, as Paul Bremer announced new regulations later in the week, declaring the health-care system the first ministry to be turned over to Iraqis.

So here we have Iraq as it approaches "sovereignty"—Americans drafting privatization laws and regulations that touch on every aspect of Iraqi life under cover of escalating violence that leaves few people with the ability to organize the kind of massive civil protests that are the only alternative to violent resistance. And the only people who are willing to risk taking to the streets are those who feel they have nothing to lose.

Worst of all, the very Iraqis who have the training, skills and desire to rebuild the country themselves—the engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals—are either ignored by the CPA contractors in favor of more corrupt colleagues who are willing to act as subcontractors or are themselves targets of assassination just by virtue of the fact they might be cooperating with the Americans.

As I finished this article, I got a call from a producer of a conservative KFI call-in show to discuss Falluja and the now-open warfare. I've heard this before from colleagues—that some of the only news shows that will put on bona fide Middle East scholars are Fox News and its radio equivalents, even if it's just to beat up on us. But my discussion made me think it's perhaps better not to be on the air. The host couldn't even pronounce most of the relevant names—Falluja was "Fajul," Muqtada al-Sadr was "Mutada al-Sadeer," Kufa was "Kufka," etc.—and he felt the "so-called occupation" was failing because the U.S. is being "too nice."

Most important, when I described how U.S. troops have been smashing Israeli-style into houses, roughing up men in front of their families, and then taking them away for undetermined periods without the family knowing if they're alive or dead (upwards of 20,000 Iraqis are being held this way), he justified this policy by shouting, "Oh, c'mon, Professor Levine! What do you expect the Marines to do? All these people are potential terrorists. . . . They all are willing to die for what they supposedly get in the afterlife. Don't you know that's the way they are?"

Even after years of reading these kind of essentialized, bigoted fantasies about Muslim hordes and the clash of civilizations, it still surprises me to hear such nonsense. I explained that such meaningless generalizations only inflame the situation, but of course he knew that already; the whole purpose of his show is to inflame people.

This is clearly the fall-back strategy of the Bush administration if the chaos spins out of their control: inflame people; make sure Americans understand that what's happening in Iraq is not our fault; that the only option—as even John Kerry argues—is to "stay the course," whatever that course is. In the meantime, in Iraq, a plunder economy is emerging, as it does wherever the chaos of war and neo-liberal globalization meet, as it did in Algeria, Kazakhstan and so many African countries. Welcome to the new New American Century.

Mark LeVine teaches modern Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He is the co-editor, with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen, ofTwilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and the forthcomingWhy They Don't Hate Us (Oneworld Publications, 2004).
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