U.S. to conquered Iraqis: Pay up

You know, every night I go to sleep thinking that the events of the day had pissed me off to such an extent that there was no way I could get more disgruntled at the venality of the Bush administration. And every morning I get up, read the newspapers and wires and I’m inevitably proven wrong.
The White House has said Iraq’s oil wealth will be used to pay for its own reconstruction following a U.S. invasion.
“Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. And so there are a variety (of) means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction.”
Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. Yes, and why should the Iraqis be forced, in effect, to pay for the bombs that will soon rain down upon their heads? And this nugget from Fleischer: “It is, of course, the intention of the United States government to make certain the people of Iraq are not the victims in a war that would have been started by their leaders.”
I stand, mouth agape, at the audacity of the emphasized quote. Last time I checked, Bush was arguing for “pre-emptive defense,” which sure sounds like a rationale for starting a war.
But I digress. “Fleischer also pointed out that once Iraq is disarmed and Saddam is out of office, there will be no reason to continue to impose economic sanctions on Baghdad and trade will be reopened with Iraq.”
What he actually said was, “Once sanctions are lifted from Iraq, that provides a lot more means for the rebuilding and the reconstruction of Iraq.”
This is a exactly what the Iraqi opposition does not want. As Feisal al-Istrabadi, a founding member of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy said last Monday at Columbia, the U.N. should not lift the sanctions but instead suspend them. The ultimate lifting of the sanctions is the incentive for Iraq to truly democratize.
Note that Fleischer didn’t say “suspend;” he said “lifted.” And the give and take of the press conference yesterday, at which all of this came about, leaves one with the impression that the White House is all about lifting the sanctions as opposed to suspending them. This is a crucial point, obviously, because the sanctions allow for the United Nations to manage the finances of Iraq as a trust. While Saddam has managed to squirrel away billions, by and large the national budget is not fully controlled by his government.
Istrabadi wants to avoid making the provisional government, presumably headed by financier Ahmed Chalabi, “provisional” in the Iraqi sense of the word — i.e., in power for years and years. (Since 1968, the constitutions governing Iraq have been provisional constitutions and not permanent. Thus, there is no permanent rule of law.) By lifting the sanctions immediately, you grant a temporary government access to billions in oil revenues, presumably to do with what they will.
“You cannot hand over the purse strings of Iraq,” Istrabadi warned. “Saddam did not immediately rule by fear. He co-opted the elite during the 1960s and ?70s by drowning them in cash.”
So let’s look at the smoke signals from Washington and other places:

  1. Chalabi is in Iraq and prepared to declare a provisional government in Erbil;
  2. The Kurds (and others) are under the impression that there will be no democracy immediately forthcoming; (Peter W. Galbrait has his thoughts on this subject here. He basically blames the Turks);
  3. Fleischer’s advocacy for lifting the sanctions, in order to get the Iraqi oil wells online quickly so that Iraq can pay for its own reconstruction, will deliver the funds precisely to the people with a shady history financial history and a high stake in remaning in power since they’ve been in the political wilderness for 20+ years (in the case of Chalabi.)

Fleischer deftly sidestepped just this question of oil money and Iraqi governments in this exchange:

Q If the Iraqi people are going to largely be responsible for paying for their own reconstruction, will they be given a lot of freedom, in terms of how that reconstruction is going to be carried out? Or are we going to kind of guide them and tell them what needs to be done?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what’s going to emerge will be a government of the Iraqi people that comes from both inside Iraq and outside Iraq. There are no shortage of people who are dedicated to a different route for Iraq. And I think also one of the great issues that will be seen — if this does come to war — is how, when people have the ability to be free, they exercise that right to be free. The Iraqi people have lived under tyranny and under dictatorship. And as the nations of East Europe have shown us just recently, when the yolk of dictatorship is removed, people’s God-given rights to freedom emerge. And the President believes that that will be the case in Iraq.

Fleischer’s dodge and the previous points add up a weak puppet government easily controlled, dependent upon the United States and democractic in name only. Hardly the beacon of freedom to the rest of the Middle East that the White House claims Iraq can become. But then, a beacon of freedom and self-determination doesn’t fit neatly with the administration’s plans for the region.