Why U.S. Military Occupation Corrupts

Only two days after holding a hearing on Blackwater's atrocities, Rep. Henry Waxman is on the warpath against the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the State Department for attempting to cover up the unwillingness of the al-Maliki government to do anything about massive and systematic corruption in Iraq.

Waxman's attacks on Blackwater and the official U.S. cover-up on Iraqi official corruption are laudable, but they fail to go to the root of the problem, which is the nature of military occupation itself.

At the hearing of Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held today, which I heard this morning on radio, Waxman railed against Rice for the State Department's failure to take corruption in the Iraqi government seriously and for classifying a previously unclassified draft the U.S. Embassy staff study leaked to the news media last week. The draft concluded that the al-Maliki government "is not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anti-corruption laws," and that the prime minister's office has rendered his own government's independent anti-corruption agency impotent.

Waxman questioned whether al-Maliki could be an effective prime minister, given his undermining of his own government's Commission on Public Integrity. He took Rice to task for the anemic to non-existent State Department effort on the corruption issue, noting that most members of the Department committee responsible for the issue fail to even show at its meetings.

It is obvious that the Bush administration has adopted a policy of trying to minimize the issue of Iraqi government corruption, just as it has tried to minimize the issue of Blackwater's unregulated terrorism against Iraqi civilians. But if Waxman and the Democrats are suggesting that the fix is to get the administration to tighten up its oversight in Iraq, they are essentially proposing a fresh coat of lipstick on the very big and very dirty pig of U.S. occupation.

Saddam Hussein's regime was extremely corrupt, with the oil riches of the country providing vast opportunities for graft that enriched his family and cronies. But the U.S. occupation creates a system in Iraq in which the level of graft and corruption achieved has unquestionably dwarfed that of the pre-occupation regime.

Last November, Stuart Bowen, the U.S. "Special Inspector-General for Iraq" told the BBC that Iraqi government corruption could amount to $4 billion a year, which represents over 10 percent of the national income. Few observers in Iraq doubt that this is many times worse than what existed under Saddam. As early as May 1965, an anti-Saddam Shiite businessman told a foreign reporter, "I'd say that about 10 per cent of business was corrupt under Saddam. Now it's about 95 per cent. We used to have one Saddam, now we have 25 of them."

The U.S. occupation accomplished this by eliminating any effective central government authority, thus creating a political-administrative chaos, and by dumping hundreds of billions of dollars on the country in foreign assistance. Given that combination, the explosion of corruption was as certain as the rising of the sun. The same thing happened in South Vietnam during the chaos of U.S. of occupation from 1965 to 1973.

The benefactors of the chaos are the Shiite and Sunni politicians who have official responsibility for natural resources or foreign assistance and the militias who control virtually the entire Shiite south and most of the greater Baghdad area.

The apologists for long-term occupation would argue that the Bush administration could and should have made the control of fraud and corruption a top priority. The problem, however, is that the occupation of a country by a foreign army is in its essence a system of lawlessness that corrupts not only the indigenous elite associated with it but the U.S. officials responsible for managing the country.

It is well known that the corporate friends of the Bush administration made out like bandits in the anarchy of Iraq. But the corrupting influence of the opportunities presented by a country without effective political authority pervaded the Green Zone from the start. Consider the case of Air Force Col. Kimberly D. Olson, one of the first female pilots in the Air Force, who was accused in government documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times of "profiting from the post-invasion chaos" by using her position to win more than $3 million in contracts for a South African security firm for which she established a U.S. branch.

Both Gen. Jay Garner and Paul Bremer, the first two U.S. proconsuls in occupied Iraq, came to Olson's defense. Gen. Jay Garner said she was his "right arm", while Bremer insisted that Olsen was being punished for trying to do her best in a chaotic situation, and that her prosecution was "an overzealous prosecution that might impinge on reconstruction efforts". Bremer's comment accurately reflects the attitude of tolerance for the rape and pillage of the country that accompanied the absolute power that he and his staff had over a country without its own political authority.

The same chaos and lack of accountability that created the seemingly limitless graft and corruption that has engulfed Iraq also led to the wanton murder of civilians by Blackwater. The only way to end both plagues on the people of Iraq - and to provide an incentive for al-Maliki to take political reconciliation seriously -- is to pull the plug on the occupation itself.