Iraq: A Nation of “Goo-Goo”s?
Sorry for the lack of posts, folks. I’ve been spending the last few days getting set up, finding drivers, translators, fixers, etc. And my ability to move around is frustratingly restricted. While my area is not wracked by violence and shooting, Baghdad is a big city, and it’s quite possible for a car bomb to go off at, say, the Interior Minister’s home, and people in my neighborhood al Karraddah would not hear a thing. Which is exactly what has happened.
The city might not be as dangerous as it appears on television back in America, but then again, it might be. I can’t tell yet, and I’ve not been able to interact with many Iraqis yet. The few that I have have been sullen and not very friendly. Not like last year. The exceptions are the ones working with American journalists. So what follows should be read in that context.
From my conversation today with a friend of a friend, an ex-Brig. General in the Iraqi Army, (I’ll see if I can use his name in later dispatches) the Iraqis are, as expected, fed up with the American presence.
“Before the war,” he said, “the Iraqi people would have said, ‘Welcome!’ to the Americans. But not now. There has been a change. The CPA has been so bad at running things.”
One of the main concerns is not Abu Ghraib, or violence in the south, he said, but corruption in the oil-for-food program. And corruption in general. The Iraqis are fully aware of the value of their petrochemical wealth, and they want to see some benefit from it.
“The Iraqi people want universities, roads, hospitals,” said the general. “And they say if USA wants some of the oil, OK. But most of the money must go to Iraqis. And Iraqis must run the ministry” of oil.
He explained that the Iraqis had no problem with American companies coming in and extracting the oil. They realize that they don’t have the equipment or expertise to maximize the potential of the oil fields. But the American oil companies should make use of local labor and experience when it comes to contracts and jobs, he said.
Regarding the oil-for-food corruption scandal, he said Iraqis want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, which is why they want the U.N. To look into this, as Kofi Annan has promised to do.
My take is that the Iraqis are as concerned about corruption as they are about security. It’s like the country is made up of what some people have called, derisively, “goo-goo”s, or Good Government, types.
And who can blame them? Good government provides security and isn’t corrupt. So far, the U.S. hasn’t been too successful in providing that security, despite the whatever thousands of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and Iraqi Police that are graduated from academies. And thanks to no-bid contracts for Bush campaign donors and secret sweetheart deals for Chalabi and his camp followers, the Coalition isn’t seen as ridding Iraq of corruption either. Throw in the abuses of Abu Ghraib, and is it any wonder that the U.S. is seen ambiguously or even as no different from Saddam?
That view isn’t entirely fair, of course. The Americans aren’t killing crowds of Shi’a and dumping them in mass graves, nor are they gassing the Kurds. But that’s actually small comfort for many Iraqis. The threat of death or imprisonment at the hands of Saddam’s mukhabarrat wasn’t that great if Iraqis kept their head down and didn’t challenge the authority of the state. Saddam’s worst mass killings happened in the 1980s and up through 1991-92. Since then until last year, he was more or less brought to heel by international arms inspectors and world opinion. The much-discussed “plastic shredders” that he allegedly turned to after the 1991 war have never, ever been found and there’s no evidence for them except from right-wing blog sites and columnists. (That’s not to say he wasn’t a monster and doesn’t deserve whatever fate the Iraqis decide for him, but so far the evidence points to his years as an American client as his most depraved ones.)
But if most Iraqis avoided the torture chambers and mass killings, they almost universally suffered endless personal humiliations and were cruelly taken advantage of by a corrupt state apparatus. Buying a car or a house was an activity designed to rob Iraqis of their dignity and their dinars. So far, as least as the Iraqis see it, this much hasn’t changed. They are still stripped of their dignity by what they see as American cultural arrogance and Washington’s cronyism. And they see their country stripped of its wealth without any benefit to them.
The searches, the guns, the humvees in the streets, they’re all reminders of what the Iraqis consider the petty humiliations of Saddam’s time. And not helping the Iraqis forget those is the real failure of the occupation.