The War Economy of Iraq

Published on Global Policy Forum, by Christopher Parker and Pete W. Moore, July 3, 2007.

Excerpt: … The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Queried about the chaos that reigned immediately after the fall of Baghdad, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejoined, “Freedom is untidy. People have to make mistakes.” Four years on, there is little evidence that Bush administration officials have learned from theirs.

Faith in the capitalist firm as an agent of transition brought with it only unprecedented levels of graft, plunder and incompetence. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2007 US officials helped to fashion a new draft law that, if passed, would go a long way toward privatizing Iraq’s oil sector. The specter of sectarian logic—encouraged by US officials as they sought to manage the residual passions of a political world beyond the market through intermediaries of their own choosing—now haunts Iraqi political life with violent consequence. And yet, walls are being built around Baghdad neighborhoods cleansed of Sunnis or Shi‘a, partially imprisoning the remaining residents within sectarian cages.

Recent “troop surges” correspond with an intensified campaign of bombings in civilian areas. As of mid-2007, more than two million Iraqis have left their country, one million have been internally displaced and one million have been killed or wounded. Many Iraqis who might have had the resources to resist the control of violent groups have departed. Like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, the architects of Iraq’s forced revolution find themselves flailing to contain the ghosts that they themselves called into existence.

To paraphrase de Certeau, tactics are for the poor, while strategy is for those who make and control boundaries.[37] Part of the predicament faced by policymakers lies in the very categories of analysis that made the project of forced revolution thinkable in the first place. By dividing the political world into dichotomous spheres of state and society, regime and market, endogenous and exogenous, and so on, transitions theory (and the invasion of Iraq was essentially transitions theory by other means) provided categories that only remotely corresponded with the lived experience of the Iraqis themselves. By designating the Iraqi state, the Iraqi economy and Iraqi society as discrete objects of transition, mainstream analysis obscured the extent to which state, economy and society were in fact linked to broader complexes of production and exchange that extended far beyond Iraq’s borders. For strategists in Washington and London, war was an instrument of reform: Actors, objects and meanings would be detached and isolated from their milieux, making it possible to establish new relations of power and value between them. Strategists imagined Iraq as an entity that defined the frontiers of global transition and newness, and they saw their project as one of opening those frontiers to the agents of a political world remade according to the “laws of the market.” Yet unlike the frontiers in the neatly staged Hollywood westerns that seemingly formed the neoconservative worldview, the frontier that they projected to contain their strategic vision did not hold, not least because they arrived to find that they were already there. Not only was Saddam’s Iraq made possible by a long history of engagement by great powers and global institutions, but the Iraq beyond Saddam was also shaped by complex entanglements with regional and global networks of authority and exchange. And corporate America itself proved ambivalent about the revolutionary role assigned to it by Pentagon planners, and did not hesitate to use US military force, political connections and graft in the pursuit of profit.

Nevertheless, supporters of the forced revolution project continue to present Anglo-American violence as a facilitator of historically inevitable transformations. The violence of the insurgent, by contrast, is presented as emanating from the recesses of a pre-market culture. Yet the war economy in Iraq does not pit the dark, essentialist world of the tribal smuggling networks against the agents of an enlightened and transparent global capitalism, nor can it be reduced to a conflict between global and local. Rather—heightened by a peculiarly American sense of manifest destiny—it provides an extreme example of the violence that underpins the wider project of neoliberalism, a project that actively seeks to transform the world in ways that make its assumptions appear as true. Resistance to such a project is thus likely to express itself through alternative ideological visions, thereby projecting the frontiers of conflict in terms of a clash of worldviews. In the face of the “creative destruction” wrought by invading forces, regular people articulate alternative paths of “creative destruction” that may express themselves with reference to alternative political and economic projects, or simply arise in the struggle to get by. Absent clear boundaries, strategy is reduced to tactics. The agents of a war economy thus do not necessarily fight to win as such: They are engaged within and act so as to reproduce an emergent, constantly shifting tactical environment. Meanwhile, there will be no single declaration of victory, no event signaling the end of one order and the beginning of a new one. Sadly, the one thing we can be sure of is that Bremer’s cohorts in the political risk business will be there to profit from his mistakes. (full long text).

(About the Authors: Christopher Parker is assistant professor of political and social science at Ghent University in Belgium. Pete W. Moore is associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University).

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