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Buy American—in Baghdad

The coming “reconstruction” of postwar Iraq is really just a mass transfer of the country’s assets to U.S. corporations

On April 6, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: There will be no role for the United Nations in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The U.S.-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 got 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 a responsibility.”

The process of getting the infrastructure to work is usually called “reconstruction.” But American plans for Iraq’s future economy go well beyond that. Rather, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business.

Some highlights: The $4.8 million management contract for the port in Umm Qasr has already gone to a U.S. company, Stevedoring Services of America, and the airports are on the auction block. The U.S. Agency for International Development has invited U.S. multinationals to bid on everything from rebuilding roads and bridges to printing textbooks. Most of these contracts are for about a year, but some have options that extend up to four. How long before they meld into long-term contracts for privatized water services, transit systems, roads, schools and phones? When does reconstruction turn into privatization in disguise?

U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would require the Defense Department to build a CDMA cell-phone system in postwar Iraq in order to benefit “U.S. patent holders.” As Farhad Manjoo noted in Salon, CDMA is the system used in the United States, not Europe, and was developed by Qualcomm, one of Issa’s most generous donors.

And then there’s oil. The Bush administration knows it can’t talk openly about selling off Iraq’s oil resources to Exxon Mobil and Shell. It leaves that to Fadhil Chalabi, a former Iraq petroleum ministry official. “We need to have a huge amount of money coming into the country,” Chalabi says. “The only way is to partially privatize the industry.” He is part of a group of Iraqi exiles who have been advising the State Department on how to implement that privatization in such a way that it isn’t seen to be coming from the United States. Helpfully, the group held a conference April 4 and 5 in London, where it called on Iraq to open itself up to oil multinationals after the war.

The administration has shown its gratitude by promising there will be 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 earth.

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 $100 billion; it’s also that “free trade” by less violent means hasn’t been going that well lately. More and more developing countries are rejecting privatization, while the Free Trade Area of the Americas, Bush’s top trade priority, is wildly unpopular across Latin America. World Trade Organization talks on intellectual property, agriculture and services have all bogged down amid accusations that America and Europe have yet to make good on past promises. What is a recessionary, growth-addicted superpower to do? How about upgrading Free Trade Lite, which wrestles market access through backroom bullying, to Free Trade Supercharged, which seizes new markets on the battlefields of preemptive wars? After all, negotiations with sovereign nations 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 further than one unlucky country. Investors are openly predicting that once privatization of Iraq takes root, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will be forced to compete by privatizing their oil. “In Iran, it would just catch like wildfire,” S. Rob Sobhani, an energy consultant, told The Wall Street Journal. Soon, America 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 United States to keep all the juicy contracts for itself. It has to learn to share: ExxonMobil should invite France’s TotalFinaElf to the most lucrative oilfields; Bechtel should give Britain’s Thames Water a shot at the sewer contracts.

But while Patten may find U.S. unilateralism galling and Tony Blair may be calling for U.N. oversight, on this matter it’s beside the point. Who cares which multinationals get the best deals in Iraq’s post-Saddam, pre-democracy liquidation sale? What does it matter if the privatizing is done unilaterally by Washington or multilaterally by the United States, Europe, Russia and China?

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 without any real democratic process, what is being planned is not reparations, construction or rehabilitation. It is robbery: mass theft disguised as charity, privatization without representation.

A people starved and sickened by sanctions, then pulverized by war, are going to emerge from this trauma to find that their country has been sold out from under them. They will also discover that their newfound “freedom”—for which so many of their loved ones perished—comes preshackled with 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 democracy.

—Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo: Takng Aim at the Brand Bullies. She is a regular contributor to The Nation, where this article first appeared.

You Call This Support?

U.S. soldiers face high risks, low pay and shrinking benefits

Not everyone loves the war, but everyone loves the troops. So why, in the words of my pal Bill Maher, do we pay them like chumps?

During Vietnam, the military felt no pressure to pay a living wage. A steady supply of draftees ensured that the Pentagon would never run out of cannon fodder. Since top military officials don’t want to bring back the draft, you might expect the government would be willing to pay more for our all-volunteer army.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has completely dissed draftees. So you might expect the United States would show the young men and women who volunteer to lay down their lives to protect us, some appreciation in the form of a big fat paycheck.

You’d be wrong.

Take a guy like Pat Tillman, a 25-year-old who until last year worked as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals football team. Tillman passed up a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer from the NFL to serve in the U.S. Army. Private Tillman’s starting pay was $13,000—a paltry buck and a dime over the $5.15-per-hour minimum wage.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who understands the risks of military service more than most, lauded Tillman. “I don’t think there will be any doubts about [Private Tillman’s] capabilities as a soldier, but also as a recruiting tool,” McCain said. “He’ll motivate other young Americans to serve as well.” Thanks to idealistic chaps like Tillman, in other words, America can continue to pick up its warriors on the cheap.

George W. Bush did everything he could to avoid military service during Vietnam. He used family connections to sleaze his way into the Texas Air National Guard, from which he went AWOL from 1972 to 1974. Perhaps this personal history explains why Bush seizes every chance he gets to praise the hard-fighting men and women of our armed forces. “All of America is grateful for your sacrifice,” Bush told a gathering of Marines on April 3. A few days earlier, he choked up while meeting with widows of the Iraq war. But troops shouldn’t look to Bush for support more substantial than words and gestures.

Bush recently asked Congress to appropriate $75 billion to pay for the invasion of Iraq. If that money were evenly divided among the 1.4 million members of the armed forces on active duty, each would receive $54,000. But even as Bush revs up a propaganda campaign for new wars against Syria and Iran, his 2003 budget proposes a piddling 2 percent raise for low-ranking soldiers, hardly enough to keep up with inflation. More than 2,100 servicemen currently collect food stamps, and no one expects that to change.

It’s true that soldiers receive PX privileges, health care and, in some cases, small college tuition grants. But even these modest fringe benefits are shrinking. “[Base housing is] in poor condition,” Army General Robert L. Van Antwerp testified before Congress. “Much of the housing is old and built to standards that met lifestyles of 30 to 50 years ago. On-base housing is still preferred by many soldiers, with waiting times averaging 10 to 15 months.”

Soldiers sign away their lives on a pretty severe deal. The pay sucks, the risk is infinite and the benefits of military service are shrinking fast. At any time in the future, some politician nobody has yet heard of can become president and order them into combat against any adversary for any reason. Then, when our troops come home—if they come home—they face a lifetime of medical care in the overburdened, underfunded VA hospital system.

To add insult to injury, even job security is now part of military history. Congress has closed 97 bases since 1988, leading to de facto layoffs, with some soldiers denied an option to reenlist. As a society, we apparently care less about our soldiers than we do about burger flippers. Starting wages at Burger King “run $6 to $8 an hour, although employees who stick around can eventually earn more than $12 an hour,” according to the The Wall Street Journal. That’s twice as much as Private Tillman gets. And burger flippers generally don’t have to duck bullets.

—Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the author of Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan.

Boy mayor makes good: Dennis Kucinich aims for the White House.

The Peace Candidate

Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich aims to bring progressive ideas into the Democratic Party—and into the White House

Dennis Kucinich is clearly holding down the left end of the bench of Democratic presidential contenders for 2004. The co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in Congress, an advocate of nonviolence who has proposed that the U.S. government create a Department of Peace, a vegan because he believes in “the sacredness of all species,” and a pro-labor environmentalist who marched in the streets of Seattle and Washington, D.C., Kucinich is, without a doubt, the progressive candidate.

The argument for his candidacy, unlikely though it may be, is that it represents a point of view the Democrats should be forced to deal with. The former “boy mayor” of Cleveland, now 56, is the most vocal opponent of war with Iraq in the House of Representatives. A year ago, he began making impassioned speeches on the subject, and lately he’s showing up on the talk show circuit as a lonely voice for peace. Meet the Press, Crossfire, Hardball and The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, among others, have had him on to debate the Bush administration’s Iraq policy—though the Washington establishment is not taking his presidential bid seriously. (The New York Times ranks him somewhere below Al Sharpton as a “viable candidate,” and his February announcement in Iowa that he was running was greeted with a resounding shrug by most of the mainstream media.)

Kucinich thinks the pundits are in for a surprise. “They try to make it appear that the positions I’m taking are way out, but they’re not,” he told me on the phone recently. “As the war effort continues, I think you’ll see that more and more people will join in and want to be involved with the campaign.”

Steve Cobble agrees. A longtime progressive political strategist who worked for Jesse Jackson, Cobble compares Kucinich to Jackson in 1988. He thinks he could do much better than expected, thanks to the support of people the politicos in Washington don’t notice.

“The people who are dismissing Kucinich out of hand are the same people who are shocked by this big antiwar movement that has had such growth in so short a time,” says Cobble, who is an adviser to the candidate. Like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Kucinich is long on big ideas and short on glitz. He is neither tall nor telegenic, neither wealthy nor well-connected. And, of course, there’s his minimal national name recognition.

But no one voted Ralph Nader “Mr. Charisma” five years ago, Cobble points out, and Nader became a pop star on college campuses during the 2000 campaign. “Young people responded to Nader in 2000,” says Cobble. “It was the ideas and the sense of integrity, not blowing in the wind. Dennis is going to give the same vibes.”

That’s where the comparison to Nader ends, however. “I have no interest in a third-party candidacy. None,” says Kucinich. “I want to do it the other way—bring third-party candidates into the [Democratic] Party and get support in the primaries.” Taking much of Nader’s message into the Democratic Party may be a worthy goal. But how far will it get Kucinich?

If a lot of progressives have a hangover from the last presidential election and are feeling down, Kucinich and his campaign staff are energized by the massive antiwar and antiglobalization demonstrations around the world and by the feeling that a newly active grassroots movement is rising up and making itself heard. Kucinich, who opposes NAFTA, is the only candidate proudly giving voice to the fair-trade movement. And his opposition to weapons in space and civil violations under the P.a.t.r.i.o.t. Act are welcome among a Democratic base eager for a strong opposition to Bush.

“Whereas everyone else says, ‘Gee, I’d have used a different airplane, or maybe we should use this missile instead of that one,’ he’ll be a clarion call for peace,” says progressive Wisconsin Democrat and labor lawyer Ed Garvey. Now a supporter of Kucinich, Garvey was moved by the experience of hearing him speak out early against the Iraq war. “The passion and intellectual depth of his speech was really impressive.”

Certainly, Kucinich, who quotes long passages of poetry and has a deeply thoughtful, almost starry-eyed quality, is not your usual politician. So is Kucinich the peace-movement candidate, as Eugene McCarthy was in 1968? “This movement precedes a war. The 1968 movement happened years after war began,” Kucinich says. His campaign takes on not only war but also a complex array of domestic and international concerns.

Kucinich denounces the Bush administration’s whole political philosophy of “projecting aggression into the world.” The issues of his campaign are empire versus democracy; globalization versus equality; war versus peace; a private health-insurance system that leaves 75 million people intermittently uncovered versus national health care; the P.a.t.r.i.o.t. Act versus the Bill of Rights. Get him going, and he’ll blow your ears back with a litany of calamitous news.

“People are fearful,” Kucinich says. “My candidacy steps forward and says, ‘Hey, stop! Hold it!’ We’re losing what’s dear to our country. We have a foreign policy that’s setting the stage for new wars. We’re talking about first use of nuclear weapons. We still have chemical and biological weapons, which disqualifies us from the chemical and biological weapons treaty. The polar ice caps are still melting. Islands in the Pacific are seeing the water rising. Meteorological changes suggest that global climate change is here to stay. The Kyoto climate-change treaty is urgent. The U.S. has to recognize the interconnectedness, interdependence, of the world. We’re not doing it. I’m looking at the entire structure of our society and saying, how can government be relevant?”

Whoa! That’s Kucinich. Passion and intellectual depth? Yes. Glib pol? Not exactly.

Kucinich has one big problem with a grassroots, progressive base: His position on abortion. Until last year, he maintained a nearly perfect voting record according to National Right to Life, and scored an absolute zero in the vote tally kept by the National Abortion Rights Action League. Since then, he says, his position has evolved, and he has broken ranks with his former colleagues on anti-abortion legislation.

“I withheld my support on a number of bills in the last year,” he says, adding that the aggressive Republican effort to overturn Roe v. Wade persuaded him to help protect women’s fundamental constitutional right to abortion. “I don’t believe in abortion, but I do believe in choice,” he says.

How does that work? “I don’t believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned,” he says. “I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the way the choices are framed in the House of Representatives.” He says the Republican assault on Roe v. Wade has become an assault on the Constitution. He now sees the issue as “a question of equality—whether a woman was going to be equal in society and have constitutional protections. Women will not be equal to men if that constitutionally protected right is denied. Criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional.”

Kucinich says he wants to overcome the us-and-them nature of the abortion debate by supporting a kind of nurturing environment for women and children, including full employment, a living wage, universal health care, and affordable, high-quality child care. He wants abortion to be legal but rare. “It’s not wrong to support life, and it’s not wrong to support a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “We have to permit both points of view to have expression. But there is a point at which the Constitution cannot be undermined. I’ve never advocated a constitutional amendment to repeal Roe v. Wade.”

Kucinich thinks he can radically change politics in America. He cites his successes as the nation’s youngest mayor, standing up to the privatization of Cleveland’s public utilities, as well as coming to the aid of its steel industry and its hospitals when they were about to be shut down. “We changed the outcome,” he says. “Government presents opportunities for profound creativity.”

Cobble cites Barry Goldwater and George McGovern—dark horse candidates who didn’t win the presidency but transformed politics. “It’s worth taking this burgeoning peace movement into the party, whether or not a candidate who voted for the war resolution wins,” says Cobble. “We have a group of people in the White House that overtly put empire, first strike, and the occupation of other countries on the table,” he adds. “We need a widespread discussion of this, and not many people are volunteering for the job.”

Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is running another antiwar candidacy, is not taking on the big picture the way Kucinich is. “We need someone like Dennis, who has the guts to carry this case,” Cobble says. Says Kucinich: “If I’m able to win some early primaries, I’ll be able to move these domestic concerns right to the top of the campaign concerns for the party. . . . FDR said in ’33 we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We can create a new world. It’s possible.”

—Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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