Sunday, August 26, 2007
Operation Iraqi Freedom, it turns out, was never a war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It was an invasion of the federal budget, and no occupying force in history has ever been this efficient. George W. Bush's war in the Mesopotamian desert was an experiment of sorts, a crude first take at his vision of a fully privatized American government. In Iraq the lines between essential government services and for-profit enterprises have been blurred to the point of absurdity -- to the point where wounded soldiers have to pay retail prices for fresh underwear, where modern-day chattel are imported from the Third World at slave wages to peel the potatoes we once assigned to grunts in KP, where private companies are guaranteed huge profits no matter how badly they fuck things up.
And just maybe, reviewing this appalling history of invoicing orgies and million-dollar boondoggles, it's not so far-fetched to think that this is the way someone up there would like things run all over -- not just in Iraq but in Iowa, too, with the state police working for Corrections Corporation of America, and DHL with the contract to deliver every Christmas card. And why not? What the Bush administration has created in Iraq is a sort of paradise of perverted capitalism, where revenues are forcibly extracted from the customer by the state, and obscene profits are handed out not by the market but by an unaccountable government bureaucracy.
At the very outset of the occupation, when L. Paul Bremer was installed as head of the CPA, one of his first brilliant ideas for managing the country was to have $12 billion in cash flown into Baghdad on huge wooden pallets and stored in palaces and government buildings. To pay contractors, he'd have agents go to the various stashes -- a pile of $200 million in one of Saddam's former palaces was watched by a single soldier, who left the key to the vault in a backpack on his desk when he went out to lunch -- withdraw the money, then crisscross the country to pay the bills. When desperate auditors later tried to trace the paths of the money, one agent could account for only $6,306,836 of some $23 million he'd withdrawn. Bremer's office "acknowledged not having any supporting documentation" for $25 million given to a different agent. A ministry that claimed to have paid 8,206 guards was able to document payouts to only 602. An agent who was told by auditors that he still owed $1,878,870 magically produced exactly that amount, which, as the auditors dryly noted, "suggests that the agent had a reserve of cash."
In short, some $8.8 billion of the $12 billion proved impossible to find. "Who in their right mind would send 360 tons of cash into a war zone?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. "But that's exactly what our government did."
In perhaps the ultimate example of military capitalism, KBR reportedly ran convoys of empty trucks back and forth across the insurgent-laden desert, pointlessly risking the lives of soldiers and drivers so the company could charge the taxpayer for its phantom deliveries. Truckers for KBR, knowing full well that the trips were bullshit, derisively referred to their cargo as "sailboat fuel."
Sometimes the government simply handed out money to companies it made up out of thin air. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers found itself unable to award contracts by the September deadline imposed by Congress, meaning it would have to "de-obligate" the money and return it to the government. Rather than suffer that awful fate, the corps obligated $362 million -- spread out over ninety-six different contracts -- to "Dummy Vendor." In their report on the mess, auditors noted that money to nobody "does not constitute proper obligations."
But even obligating money to no one was better than what sometimes happened in Iraq: handing out U.S. funds to the enemy. Since the beginning of the war, rumors have abounded about contractors paying protection money to insurgents to avoid attacks. No less an authority than Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, claimed that such payoffs are a "significant source" of income for Al Qaeda. Moreover, when things go missing in Iraq -- like bricks of $100 bills, or weapons, or trucks -- it is a fair assumption that some of the wayward booty ends up in the wrong hands. In July, a federal audit found that 190,000 weapons are missing in Iraq -- nearly one out of every three arms supplied by the United States. "These weapons almost certainly ended up on the black market, where they are repurchased by insurgents," says Chatterjee.