Our New Fire Department

 

Dear F.W:

 

The best way for me to respond to your recent letter is by telling a little story, an allegory of sorts.

 

Imagine there's a city.  Not a very special city either.  Its citizens are as well-meaning and upstanding as they are in most other cities.  And among its citizens there is as much crime and dereliction too.  And in that city there is a fire department.

 

Of course everyone knows it is right and noble for firefighters to go into burning buildings to rescue people.  That is their calling, after all.  But let's imagine for a moment that in this city the fire department often lets buildings burn rather than go to fight the fires that have started.  Some fires they will rush to put out, while others they just let burn regardless of how many people are trapped in the building.  So it's an odd fire department we're talking about here.  But let's try to imagine it even so.

    

Now it turns out that one night there was a big fire on one city block.  And the firefighters were sent out in force at an hour when they usually don't even bother to answer the red phones.  Many citizens were surprised by this: why this sudden burst of responsibility?  Later it came out that that the reason for this sudden late-night enthusiasm was that the fire chief kept his antique collection stored on the fourth floor of the building in question.  (Collecting antiques goes back generations in the chief's family, in fact.  It's a sort of family tradition we're talking about here.)  And look: now an investigation of the fire and the fire department's response shows that in actuality, while some people were rescued from the fire, much more effort was spent putting out the fire on the fourth floor than was justified.  The fourth floor, after all, was not where most of the people were; neither was it where the fire was worst. 

 

So articles come out in the press suggesting that the fire chief was just trying to save his antique collection: that's why the alarms were rung.  And other articles show that the way the fire was fought proved what the chief's motives were.  But then just as these articles appear all kinds of sentimental citizens start coming out in defense of the fire chief saying things like "It is noble and heroic to fight fires!" and "Those young men risked their lives to save the people trapped in the building!" and "How can you criticize the chief?  His job is to protect us from fires!  I suppose you'd rather burn, huh?" and "Arsonist jerk!  If you don't like our fire chief, why don't you just move to another city!"

 

So here are all these hysterical homilies being made (and not a few hysterical insults as well).  But to the citizens who really study the case these sentimental statements all seem rather shallow and irrelevant.  Because given what happened what did it mean to stand up and get misty-eyed and start blabbing about what a noble thing it is to risk one's life to fight fires and save people from the flames?  Because that was not really the issue here, was it?  It certainly is a noble thing for firefighters to save people from fires.  But the issue here is one of a fire department that to begin with was called into action mainly because of an antique collection.  And the issue even more importantly is that this fire department's methods of fighting the fire in question were hampered by its original dishonest motives.  The fire chief wasn't really concerned about the spread of the fire, neither was he concerned about the people trapped in the building.  Studying his orders to the firefighters proved that he was concerned about the antiques.   And what honest firefighter wants to die to protect a private collection? 

 

The issue in this case was that the fire chief demonstrated serious ineptitude, and that this ineptitude stemmed directly from his initial motives in calling out the firefighters.  On the sixth and seventh floors people were burning to death.  Meanwhile the chief was worried about his Louis XVI furniture.

 

*     *     *

 

You write me of Neville Chamberlain and how "liberals" like myself have obviously never learned the lessons of history.  You say that under our current "brave leadership" we Americans are now bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq and that if I weren't such a hypocrite I'd be supporting this great historical project, as I would support our current "brave" president.  But in fact I am a hypocrite, you say, full of excuses and "propaganda."  The only things I read are "liberal pap" (by "pap" you evidently mean stuff not written by learned talk radio hosts or Fox News commentators; stuff written rather by scholars and diplomats and "intellectuals"--all that pro-UN, pro-European stuff us "lefties" read).  It's interesting that on the one hand you criticize me for not having "learned the lessons of history," while on the other hand you attempt to mock me by calling me an "intellectual" and "Professor."  This is strange because I'd have thought it was intellectuals and professors who'd have learned something of history.  But no: it seems it's the talk radio hosts who know best.

 

How is it I can criticize the Bush Administration for its war on Iraq?  That's what you really want to know.  Wasn't Saddam Hussein evidently evil?  Isn't bringing democracy to the Arab world a good thing?  Isn't it worthy to fight for democracy?

 

I've tried to get at my answers to these questions through the little allegory above.  It explains as best I can where I find myself when faced with the kind of supposedly patriotic criticism your sort usually offers.  You are not, after all, the only hysterical right-wing American who's written me.  And although for someone like you who hates and mistrusts intellectuals allegory is a pretty big word to use, I'm guessing you can interpret the story for what it is.  If you put your mind to it.

 

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator.  And yes we overthrew him so as to be able ultimately to manipulate Iraq's oil.  Our motives have shown through painfully in the way we are managing to "rebuild" the country.  And the world is rightfully critical both of our supposed war on terror and of our supposed "war of self-defense" against Iraq.

 

When Baghdad fell, an inordinate number of troops were sent immediately to secure the oil ministry, while everything else in the city, including sites where we supposedly believed Saddam was developing chemical weapons, were not even searched or guarded.  It speaks volumes on the relative importance of WMD as a reason for the war.  And now, during the period of supposed democratization and reconstruction, we learn that the Bush Administration has not sent in qualified experts to deal with the challenge, but has instead sent cousins and cronies (see the following article).  In fact, to borrow a phrase, cronyism has proven to be the "basic paradigm" of Bush policy.  First we Americans watched as the War on Terror was bent out of shape to help Bush's oil industry cronies; then we watched as the most important political posts in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq were given to Bush's political cronies, regardless of relevant qualifications or experience.  This has all proven to be a great boon to Halliburton and friends.  It has proven disastrous in terms of Iraqi reconstruction.  What it's doing to America's standing in the world should be obvious to anyone.

 

There are still people in America that seem to believe the war in Iraq was not really about oil.  This is almost unfathomable.  Let's put aside the evident oil connections the Bush family has.  Let's forget that Dick Cheney was CEO of an oil company before coming into the White House.  Let's forget too that Condoleeza Rice, before being appointed by George W. Bush, was on the board of directors of Chevron and served as an oil company consultant in Central Asia.  Let's forget all this merely coincidental petroleum smell and look instead at the political intellectual side.  Let's consider Paul Wolfowitz, our current Deputy Secretary of Defense and the man who more than anyone is responsible for guiding Bush's foreign policy. 

 

In 1992 (which seems to me to be well before the attacks of September 11, 2001) Paul Wolfowitz penned a draft document entitled "Defense Planning Guidance" in which he stated his belief that we Americans must establish a global military hegemony that would be so massive as to deter any other nation from ever even thinking about standing up to us or our policy goals.  Americans must "maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."  Crucial to maintaining such a pre-eminent position, it was advisable to "safeguard access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil."  To safeguard this vital raw material military intervention in Iraq might be necessary.  That was in 1992.  Six years later, in 1998, Paul Wolfowitz was chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a new Washington think tank whose other members included Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Jeb Bush.  At that time PNAC was trying to convince the Clinton Administration to upgrade the American presence in the Persian Gulf and to do this by removing Saddam Hussein from power.  PNAC's recommendation as to how to remove Saddam was to use military force if necessary and to do this even without UN approval because, you see, there was a definite need to assert our new "one superpower" status in that region so rich in that particular vital raw material, namely oil.  All this was clear at the time, but Paul Wolfowitz was not part of the Clinton inner circle, and so his suggestions were ignored. 

 

Now, however, the situation is quite different.  Paul Wolfowitz is George W. Bush's most trusted policy adviser.  Given his long-standing plan for U.S. hegemony and the crucial role to be played by Iraqi oil, it is likely that even without the attacks of 9/11 there would have been a concerted effort to justify an overthrow of Saddam.  After the attacks came, we saw a major push from the White House to link them somehow to Saddam and his Baathists.  Hmm.  Even when the links couldn't be found, it was only a matter of time before administration rhetoric had completely refocused the new "war on terror" off of bin Laden and onto Iraq.  Afghanistan was more or less given back to its warlords and poppy fields, and our eyes were turned to a new project: destroy Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction; bring freedom and democracy to the long-suffering Iraqi people.  But this time--unlike in the Bush team's manifestoes of the 1990s--nothing was said about oil.  I guess mentioning Persian Gulf oil would have only clouded the "real reasons" for the war.

 

That all of these "dots" are still so hard to "connect" for so many Americans is a wondrous thing.  After all, we are not dealing here with documents written by other people about Bush Administration officials.  We are dealing with documents actually written by the Bush Administration officials themselves.

 

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On Cronyism and Bush's Iraq:

 

Quoted from Peter W. Galbraith: "The Bungled Transition," The New York Review of Books, September 23, 2004 issue

 

On March 8 of this year, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the US-appointed administrator for Iraq, staged an elaborate signing ceremony for Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). In a gesture intended to recall the closing of the 1787 Philadelphia constitutional convention, Bremer laid out twenty-five pens so that each member of the Iraqi Governing Council could sign a document intended to serve as Iraq's interim constitution. The Bush administration said the TAL would be a "road map" to the preparation of a permanent constitution. It hailed the TAL as unprecedented in the Middle East for its extensive human rights protections, its concern for the status of women, and its independent judiciary.

 

At the same time it was choosing Allawi as prime minister, the Bush administration effectively jettisoned the TAL. The administration had put itself in an impossible position with respect to its own creation. In 2003, at the request of the United States and Great Britain, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged that the US-led coalition was the occupying power in Iraq. As a general principle of international law, occupying powers are not allowed to make permanent, or irreversible, changes in an occupied country. Occupying powers cannot cede territory, sell assets, or make permanent law. Thus all law made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) expired when the occupation ended on June 28.

 

In order for the Transitional Administrative Law to be valid after the end of the occupation, it needed Security Council endorsement. In the 1990s, the Security Council granted other international administrations (Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor) lawmaking powers but the Bush administration, having alienated its allies, did not obtain this authority in the original 2003 UN Security Council resolution. In June 2004, when the Security Council considered the resolution restoring Iraqi sovereignty, the Bush administration decided not to seek an endorsement of the TAL (and other CPA-passed laws), ignoring pleas from pro-democracy Iraqis. It made that decision in deference to the Ayatollah Sistani, who does not want an elected, Shiite-dominated assembly to be in any way constrained by the American-created interim constitution. In particular, Sistani objected to provisions in the TAL that would make it difficult to create an Islamic state and would require a permanent constitution acceptable not just to the majority Shiites but also to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

 

To mollify Iraq's Kurds, who had placed great stock in the TAL, Allawi agreed to "apply" it for the duration of his government. He has turned down Kurdish requests that it be enacted into law. And even if he did enact the TAL, he cannot commit the elected assembly that will follow his interim government to accepting it. For the Kurds, the most important provisions of the TAL were precisely those that ensure the continuation of a secular and democratic Kurdistan even after the national elections.

 

How did the Bush administration invest so much in the TAL and then find itself forced to abandon it? It appears that Bremer never realized that his decrees would not legally outlast the occupation. It was a rookie's mistake caused, as with so many other CPA failures, by the lack of expertise on the part of his staff. The TAL was largely the responsibility of two of Bremer's assistants (dubbed "the west wingers"), one an extremely capable but relatively junior Foreign Service officer and the other a young political appointee from the Pentagon's stable of neoconservative nation-builders. Imbued with grand ideas such as remaking the Iraqi judiciary with a US-style Supreme Court, they apparently neglected to consult an international lawyer.

 

The Bush administration's recruitment of staff for the CPA is one of the great scandals of the American occupation, although it has so far received little attention from the press. Republican political connections counted for far more than professional competence, relevant international experience, or knowledge of Iraq. In May, The Washington Post ran an account of three young people recruited for service in the CPA by e-mail, without interviews, security clearances, or relevant experience. They ended up responsible for spending Iraq's budget; because they knew little about the country or about financial procedures, they did so slowly. The failure to spend money was of course the source of enormous frustration to jobless Iraqis and undoubtedly produced recruits for the insurgency. According to the Post, the threesome, who included the daughter of a prominent conservative activist, had never applied to go to Iraq and could not figure out how they were selected. Finally they realized that the one thing they had in common was that they had applied for jobs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which had kept their resumes on file.

 

In some cases, the quest for political loyalists meant dismissing qualified professionals who had already been recruited. In the June 20 Chicago Tribune, the reporter Andy Zajac described how, in April of 2003, the Bush administration replaced the chief CPA health official, Dr. Frederick Burkle, a medical doctor with close working relationships with humanitarian organizations and long experience in conflict zones, with James Haveman, a political crony of Michigan's Republican former governor. Unlike Dr. Burkle, who for months had been planning the restoration of Iraq's health care system and who was ready to put a program in action as soon as Baghdad fell, Haveman did not arrive in Iraq until June 7, 2003. Although he had never worked in a post-conflict environment, Haveman strongly denied that he lacked international experience, apparently considering his travel to twenty-six foreign countries (as he told the Chicago Tribune) a relevant qualification.

 

The privatizing of Iraq's economy was handled at first by Thomas Foley, a top Bush fund-raiser, and then by Michael Fleisher, brother of President Bush's first press secretary. After explaining that he had got the job in Iraq through his brother Ari, he told the Chicago Tribune--without any apparent sense of irony--that the Americans were going to teach the Iraqis a new way of doing business. "The only paradigm they know is cronyism."

 

Haveman, according to the Tribune, ignored Iraq's private health care system (which meets half the country's needs) and wasted huge amounts of money by refusing to collect data on the existing clinics. It is probably just as well that Iraq's privatization program has not worked out, since the CPA could not, as the agent of an occupying power, lawfully sell any Iraqi assets, although it is unlikely that Fleisher or Foley knew this.

 

US spending in Iraq has been slow and misdirected. Politically connected corporations, such as Vice President Cheney's Halliburton, received "no bid" contracts and have been accused of bilking the government with tens of millions in overcharges. But don't expect politically embarrassing investigations. The CPA's inspector general is Stuart Bowen Jr., a longtime Bush aide, who came to the position from the Washington lobbying firm of Patten Boggs. Among the contracts he is supposed to monitor is one for URS, a client whose $30 million contract he helped obtain. The US failure to meet the basic needs of ordinary people in postwar Iraq is the major reason so many Iraqis feel so bitterly angry with the occupation. The failure was not a matter of money. From the start the CPA had access to more than $1 billion in cash left behind by Saddam's regime and $4 billion in UN oil-for-food funds earmarked for Kurdistan, but redirected (to the great anger of the Kurds) to a CPA-controlled budget. In October 2003, the US Congress appropriated $19 billion for Iraq reconstruction. The CPA also controlled revenues from Iraqi oil exports, which were, in spite of periodic sabotage, very substantial.

 

Eight months after receiving the congressional appropriation, however, the CPA had spent less than $500 million of it on reconstruction. The only part of Iraq not subject to the CPA's financial control was Kurdistan, where the regional government received a cash allocation equal to just 6 percent of Iraq's total budget (on a per capita basis it should have received 15 percent), but spent it so effectively that the local economy has enjoyed a boom that, in some areas, outstripped the local labor market. By contrast, unemployoment in Arab Iraq has hovered around 50 percent. The hiring of unqualified staff by the CPA, documented by the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, helps to explain why the CPA (known to my Iraqi friends as "Cannot Provide Anything") accomplished so little.

 

Bush's attempt to remake Iraq is the centerpiece of his foreign policy and, almost certainly, will be the defining event of his administration. The invasion and occupation were highly ideological decisions reflecting the philosophy of the President and his closest aides. What is astonishing is that the conduct of this venture was not left to the military and civilian professionals most qualified to make it work but rather to those most committed to a fuzzy vision of a transformed Iraq. In too many cases, these were people with no knowledge of Iraq, with no experience in dealing with post-conflict environments, with limited experience in making the US bureaucracy produce results, and with little or no expertise in the substantive matters (i.e., finance, trade) for which they were responsible. It is not surprising that so many gave up after relatively short periods in Iraq.

 

I participated in what became a major effort of the Clinton administration--bringing peace to Bosnia. While our efforts lacked the ideological fervor of Bush's nation-building in Iraq, the outcome was important both for the Balkans and for President Clinton's prospects for reelection in 1996. In finding people to fill key jobs in the international administration in Sarajevo as well as the US embassy there, the Bosnia peace negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, scoured the Foreign Service, the military, and the civilian bureaucracy for experts who knew the Balkans, who could speak the local language, and who could do the jobs for which they were recruited. The outcome in Bosnia--where no American has died in hostile action in the nine years since the Dayton Peace Accords went into effect--could not be more different from that in Iraq. Professionalism is at least part of the reason.

 

The most important judgment of the American occupation must be that of the peoples of Iraq. A US government poll conducted just before the handover showed that only 11 percent of Arab Iraqis had confidence in the CPA--down from 47 percent in November. It is not surprising that an occupation that began with flowers and cheers (I witnessed this in April 2003) ended two days ahead of schedule with the US administrator slipping out of Baghdad following a secret ceremony in the highly fortified Green Zone.

 

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