Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Contracting in Iraq

An article by Renae Merle in the Washington Post reports there are now more than a hundred thousand foreign contractors in Iraq, working on deals paid for by the U.S. government. Nobody is really in charge of these people, and, for sure, the American government has little control over how they treat the Iraqis they encounter. Yet, as William Nash of the council on Foreign Relations remarks, the citizens of that country are not going to distinguish between an American soldier and an American contractor. If they are abused the Iraqis are going to say simply that an American did it. Vast wealth is being accumulated by the contractors, and with wealth comes political influence. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that the people feeding at the Iraqi contract trough are maintaining the occupation. But it's clear they are having some influence.

For the most part, American citizens remain either ignorant of or indifferent to the flood of dollars flowing into the coffers of the operators who secure these deals. There is little journalistic effort expended to inform the people of how much money is being spent or what they're getting for it. Truth seems to be that neither they nor the inhabitants of Iraq are getting much. But the contractors are getting a great deal. That's how government works in this era of flaccid American democracy.


So now the Iraq Study Group has spoken. A set of aging, fairly timid politicians has announced what every sensible person in the nation has known for more than two years: the policies of the Bush administration in Iraq have produced a disaster. The media now say, uniformly, that the president has been rebuked.

It has taken us this long to decide that hundreds of billions of dollars have been squandered and tens of thousands of lives have been taken needlessly. Some will say this is democracy in action, but if it is, it's a puny, dimwitted version of it.

Why did the American people get it in their heads that they had the right to invade a nation that never did anything to us, or that the people of that nation would not attempt to eject us from their country? Are we really so mesmerized by a few cooked-up terms, such as the universal war on terror, that we think we can reverse human nature? Do we actually believe that the diverse and complex motives of billions of people and thousands of organizations can be fitted into a simplistic term so that we can make war on it without having to trouble our heads with thought?

The next two years will go a long way towards telling us whether we live in a nation that can learn anything. Our record over the past several decades doesn't presage a hopeful answer. But maybe we have now wallowed so long in utter foolishness that we can't look away any longer. If the Iraq Study Group has helped to initiate that dawning, we will owe it our thanks, despite its lackluster recommendations.

Skeptical and Stubborn

The headlines this morning say that Mr. Bush is dubious about the main recommendations from the Iraq Study Group. That's because they don't fall in line with what he wants to hear. The president's spoiled brat approach to virtually everything certainly does seem to be stable.

Steady commitment in this case, however, appears to be commitment to emptiness. The Bush administration has never devised a serious, detailed plan for working through the problems in Iraq. Bush and his adherents have been determined to rely on rhetoric. Now that the rhetoric is revealed as hollow, the steady hand is little more than a course leading over the edge of a cliff. The president has been driving toward it since the fall of 2002, and he's not about to stop now.

Only a small percentage of the American people want to ride into the chasm with him. But, so far, few American leaders have been brave enough to work out a way to stop the Bush express and let us get off.


The biggest mystery of both television and the press is why government officials and reporters continue to speak of the "Iraqi government" as though it were a sovereign entity with the power to direct the affairs of the Iraqi nation. Both newsprint and the airwaves are filled with talk about how we must put pressure on the Iraqi government to do this or that. Occasionally someone will admit that he Iraqi government is incapable of doing anything, but then, almost immediately, the talk will drift back to what the Iraqi government must do, or what the United States must make it do.

The Iraqi government is a bunch of guys huddled in the Green Zone under American military protection, being paid by American tax dollars, with almost no ability to affect anything that goes on outside the Green Zone. It does not exist as a genuine government. It's impossible to put pressure on something that doesn't exist. And, yet, all our wise men continue pontificating about what we should require the Iraqi government to do. Is this insanity, or subterfuge, or running for cover, or what?

Shift Towards Modesty

Martin Jacques, writing in The Guardian, and reprinted in the New York Times,  says "the American era is now over," and "from a regional standpoint, it is clear that the Iraq moment is far more serious for the U.S. than the Vietnam moment...." This sounds almost like a prediction of doom for America, but, in truth, it's simply a prediction of the end of the America dominance of the world. Leaving aside the question of whether America has ever dominated the world, we can ask whether that's a bad thing. I don't think it is. The rewards of American imperial power certainly don't descend to people like me. Nor do they promote anything I care about. I get no egotistical thrill from thinking I'm a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth. What I want for my country is a just, decent and beneficent society where people can live their lives without having them ripped apart by grandiose geopolitical ambitions. I want to live in a country where we spend more tax dollars on medical research than we do on developing weapons for killing masses of people all around the world. I would rather have good schools for our children than have military bases spread out over the globe. If that makes me a weakling, then I'd like to meet the person, face to face, who will tell me so. If Mr. Jacques is right, and it may be that he is, then his prognostications present us more with opportunity than they do with a cause to mourn.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 11, 2006