The streets of Baghdad are a swamp of crime and uncollected garbage. Battered local businesses are going bankrupt, unable to compete with cheap imports. Unemployment is soaring and thousands of laid-off state workers are protesting in the streets.
In other words, Iraq looks like every other country that has undergone rapid-fire “structural adjustments” prescribed by Washington, from Russia’s infamous “shock therapy” in the early 1990s to Argentina’s disastrous “surgery without anesthetic.” Except that Iraq’s “reconstruction” makes those wrenching reforms look like spa treatments.
Paul Bremer, the US-appointed governor of Iraq, has already proved something of a flop in the democracy department in his few weeks there, nixing plans for Iraqis to select their own interim government in favor of his own handpicked team of advisers. But Bremer has proved to have something of a gift when it comes to rolling out the red carpet for US multinationals.
For a few weeks Bremer has been hacking away at Iraq’s public sector like former Sunbeam exec “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap in a flak jacket. On May 16 Bremer banned up to 30,000 senior Baath Party officials from government jobs. A week later, he dissolved the army and the information ministry, putting more than 400,000 Iraqis out of work without pensions or re-employment programs.
Of course, if Saddam Hussein’s henchmen and propagandists held on to power in Iraq it would be a human rights disaster. “De-Baathification,” as the purging of party officials has come to be called, may be the only way to prevent a comeback by Saddam’s crew–and the only silver lining of George Bush’s illegal war.
But Bremer has gone far beyond purging powerful Baath loyalists and moved into a full-scale assault on the state itself. Doctors who joined the party as children and have no love for Saddam face dismissal, while low-level civil servants with no ties to the party have been fired en masse. Nuha Najeeb, who ran a Baghdad printing house, told Reuters, “I…had nothing to do with Saddam’s media, so why am I sacked?”
As the Bush Administration becomes increasingly open about its plans to privatize Iraq’s state industries and parts of the government, Bremer’s de-Baathification takes on new meaning. Is he working only to get rid of Baath Party members, or is he also working to shrink the public sector as a whole so that hospitals, schools and even the army are primed for privatization by US firms? Just as reconstruction is the guise for privatization, de-Baathification looks a lot like disguised downsizing.
Similar questions arise from Bremer’s chainsaw job on Iraqi companies, already pummeled by almost thirteen years of sanctions and two months of looting. Bremer didn’t even wait to get the lights back on in Baghdad, for the dinar to stabilize or for the spare parts to arrive for Iraq’s hobbled factories before he declared on May 26 that Iraq was “open for business.” Duty-free imported TVs and packaged food flooded across the border, pushing many stressed Iraqi businesses, unable to compete, into bankruptcy. This is how Iraq joined the global “free market”: in the dark.