On December 14, 2004, George W. Bush bestowed the highest civilian honor the nation can offer, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, upon L. Paul Bremer III, his former proconsul in Baghdad. He offered this encomium: “For fourteen months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty.” And the President added, “Every benchmark…was achieved on time or ahead of schedule, including the transfer of sovereignty that ended his tenure.” (“He did not add,” the Washington Post pointed out at the time, “that the transfer was hurriedly arranged two days early because of fears insurgents would attack the ceremonies.”)
Bremer is an especially interesting version of a Bush-era freedom-spreader, in part because, thanks to Blackwater USA, the private security firm with whom the US State Department has inked at least $678 million in contracts for protection in Iraq and whose mercenaries continue to run wild in that country, his handiwork is back in the news right now.
In December 2004, less than six months had passed since Bremer, in his role as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in occupied Baghdad, had turned over “sovereignty” to a designated group of Iraqis and, essentially, fled that already chaotic country. Just before he left, however, he established a unique kind of freedom in Iraq, not seen since the heyday of European and Japanese colonialism. By putting his signature on a single document, he managed to officially establish an “International Zone” that would be the fortified equivalent of the old European treaty ports on the China coast and, at the same time, essentially granted to all occupying forces and allied companies what, in those bad old colonial days, used to be called “extraterritoriality”–the freedom not to be in any way under Iraqi law or jurisdiction, ever.
Gen. David Petraeus, the President’s surge commander in Iraq, has often spoken about a “Washington clock” and a “Baghdad clock” being out of sync and of the need to reset the Washington one. Bremer, who arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, quickly went to work setting back that Baghdad clock. When it came to the freedoms of Western occupiers (or liberators, if you will), including armed mercenaries, what he achieved on this score was truly a medal-snatching feat. He essentially turned that Baghdad clock back to the nineteenth century and made that “time” stick to this very day. On the eve of his departure, he issued a remarkable document of freedom–a declaration of foreign independence–that went by the name of Order 17 and that, in the US mainstream media, is still often referred to as “the law” in Iraq.
Order 17 is a document little-read today, yet it essentially granted to every foreigner in the country connected to the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institution. Foreigners–unless, of course, they were jihadis or Iranians–were to be “immune from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of their Sending States,” even though American and coalition forces were to be allowed the freedom to arrest and detain in prisons and detention camps of their own any Iraqis they designated worthy of that honor. (The present prison population of American Iraq is reputed to be at least 24,500 and rising.)