Iraq's Odious Debts

Empowering Iraq: The devil is in the details

William Hartung, D.C.
May 5, 2003

Jack Kemp, director of the conservative think tank Empower America, has emerged as a key player in the debate over how best to rebuild Iraq.

Given that Donald Rumsfeld, “our man in Baghdad,” used to serve on Empower America’s Board, one has to assume that Kemp has the Bush administration’s ear. Kemp, who was Bob Dole’s running mate in his unsuccessful bid for president in 1996, recently outlined a plan that promises to become a finalist in the competing ideas about Iraq’s future.

Kemp’s proposal to “wipe the slate clean” of debts incurred by Saddam Hussein and put Iraq’s resources in the hands of Iraqis is a fine example of why he is one of the most thoughtful conservatives in America today. His optimism about what free people can accomplish absent government interference is infectious. But his proposed approach raises a number of practical questions.

Kemp’s optimism about what free people can accomplish absent government interference is infectious.

First, why wipe the slate clean only in Iraq? If the condition for honoring Saddam’s debts is that “the action taken by the Hussein regime that gave rise to the sanctions, contract or loan was taken with the consent of and for the benefit of the Iraqi people,” as Kemp suggests, why stop there?

Should the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who suffered under decades of the brutal kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, be responsible for the debts he ran up to maintain multiple residences and fat Swiss bank accounts? In the event of a democratic revolution in Saudi Arabia, should that nation’s people pay for the massive corruption and lavish lifestyles of the Saudi Royal family? If slate-wiping is good for Iraq, why shouldn’t the same principle apply to scores of other nations that have suffered under decades of corruption and oppression?

This leads to the second problem. If, as Kemp claims, no authority is needed to “confer legitimacy” on a new Iraqi government or on the sale of Iraqi resources, what’s to keep the faction with the most guns from seizing Iraq’s assets? And who represents the Iraqi people? Is it Ahmed Chalabi, the playboy/embezzler favored by the Pentagon, who had not set foot in Iraq for 45 years until Donald Rumsfeld had him air-dropped into the country a few weeks ago? Is it the Shiite clerics, who certainly seem to have a much stronger social base than any Iraqi exile leader? And if the decision about what constitutes a legitimate government for Iraq is not a decision for the international community, who should decide? Donald Rumsfeld?

If Kemp’s vision of “Iraq for the Iraqis” is to be realized, he needs to speak out much more forcefully against the current Bush administration plans, which will almost certainly not achieve that result. The big winners in the Rumsfeld/Garner rebuilding plan are private U.S. companies like Halliburton, Bechtel, Dyncorps, Research Triangle Institute and SAIC, which have been hired to do everything from putting out oil fires, to rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, to grooming a select group of 150 Iraqi exiles for the U.S.-run “transitional authority” that will be the shell of a new Iraqi government. For the most part, they have received secret, no-bid, cost-plus contracts. Is that what democracy looks like?

Bush’s “crony capitalism” is reminiscent of … the military-dominated Suharto regime.

Former Shell Oil executive Philip Carroll is set to chair an advisory committee that will determine the future of the Iraqi oil industry, in consultation with the Pentagon. Not exactly Iraq for the Iraqis, one might say. Most of the companies involved in rebuilding Iraq have close ties to the Bush administration, and are likely to funnel some of the money they make on rebuilding Iraq into the Bush 2004 campaign coffers. This raises serious questions about the future of democracy — not only in Iraq, but in America as well. Bush’s “crony capitalism” is reminiscent of the practices that thrived in Indonesia under the military-dominated Suharto regime. Is that the kind of democracy the United States wants to export to Iraq?

As a final irony, one of the people hired to help revive the Iraqi legal system is a lawyer from a high-priced Washington law firm. And not just any firm — the one that worked for the Bush-Cheney 2000 legal team contesting the vote counts in key counties in Florida. That and the secretive bidding process being used to rebuild Iraq while profiting Bush’s corporate cronies indicates that this administration has little respect for democracy anywhere, be it in Baghdad or Tallahassee.

If Jack Kemp truly wants “Iraq for the Iraqis,” he should explicitly denounce George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s top-down, privatized sellout of democracy in Iraq. He may be uniquely positioned to do so, given his continuing popularity among Republican party activists, and his ties to both the most powerful man in the current Bush administration — Don Rumsfeld — and Republican moderates like Bob Dole.

If Kemp could chart a genuine plan that would give Iraqis control of their resources and remove the stranglehold that pro-corporate cowboys like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have over the Republican party, he would be doing a service to the evolution of democracy not only in Iraq, but in America as well.

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