Mayberry Machiavellis: The Book

by dday

T. Christian Miller wrote a definitive work a couple years ago called Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. Late last week, Miller, who used to work for the LA Times and now writes for the online investigative unit Pro Publica got his eye on an unpublished document detailing the history of the failed reconstruction project in Iraq, and the only thing surprising about it is that the Pentagon allowed the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, to write it up at all. The blinding incompetence and ignorance, the sustained money funnel into the hands of contractors, and the ideological warfare that led to over $100 billion in waste and fraud, all to simply replicate what we spent even more billions destroying without improving the basic lives of Iraqis, is just astounding. You can pull out anecdote after anecdote that will absolutely floor you.

It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department "kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! 'We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.'" [...]

When the Office of Management and Budget balked at the American occupation authority's abrupt request for about $20 billion in new reconstruction money in August 2003, a veteran Republican lobbyist working for the authority made a bluntly partisan appeal to Joshua B. Bolten, then the O.M.B. director and now the White House chief of staff. "To delay getting our funds would be a political disaster for the President," wrote the lobbyist, Tom C. Korologos. "His election will hang for a large part on show of progress in Iraq and without the funding this year, progress will grind to a halt." With administration backing, Congress allocated the money later that year.

In an illustration of the hasty and haphazard planning, a civilian official at the United States Agency for International Development was at one point given four hours to determine how many miles of Iraqi roads would need to be reopened and repaired. The official searched through the agency's reference library, and his estimate went directly into a master plan. Whatever the quality of the agency's plan, it eventually began running what amounted to a parallel reconstruction effort in the provinces that had little relation with the rest of the American effort.

Money for many of the local construction projects still under way is divided up by a spoils system controlled by neighborhood politicians and tribal chiefs. "Our district council chairman has become the Tony Soprano of Rasheed, in terms of controlling resources," said an American Embassy official working in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood. " 'You will use my contractor or the work will not get done.'"

The New York Times, who published this article in conjunction with Pro Publica, has actually put the entire report on its website, with keyword searchable functions. It's a major achievement that will ensure this history will not be buried, as important as the Pentagon Papers in many respects. The stories contained within tell a sad chapter in American history, where people with no interest and in fact total contempt for government were given the task of remaking a country, to predictable results. It's not just that they didn't know what they were doing - they didn't want to know. Domestic politics trumped competence, appearance trumped reality, and ideology trumped knowledge.

Some of this history has been told elsewhere, but this is a coherent, comprehensive narrative that will keep you awake at night. Hilzoy uncovered maybe the most notorious example:

"Ambassador George Ward, head of ORHA's humanitarian pillar, asked, "How am I going to protect humanitarian convoys, humanitarian staging areas, humanitarian distribution points?" A flag officer who had flown in from CENTCOM said, "Hire war lords." "Wait a minute," Ward thought, "folks don't understand this. There are warlords in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. There were no warlords to rent." "At that point," Ward says, "I thought this was going to fail because no one is paying serious attention to civilian security.""

It was more important to put "the adults" in charge, who simply knew that we would be greeted as liberators and that the oil money would pay for the reconstruction and that Sunnis and Shiites have no history of ethnic strife, than to find anyone with the slightest understanding of the country we were blowing to bits. It's absolutely astounding. And let me take a moment, in the midst of all this cheerleading that we "won the war" in Iraq, to second Matt Yglesias:

The harsh reality is that this was not a noble undertaking done for good reasons. It was a criminal enterprise launched by madmen cheered on by a chorus of fools and cowards. And it’s seen as such by virtually everyone all around the world — including but by no means limited to the Arab world. But it’s impolitic to point this out in the United States, and it’s clear that even a president-elect who had the wisdom not to be suckered in by the War Fever of 2002 has no intention of really acting to marginalize the bad actors. Which, I think, makes sense for his political objectives. But if Americans want to play a constructive role in world affairs, it’s vitally important for us to get in touch with the reality of what the past eight years of US foreign policy have been and how they’re seen and understood by people who aren’t stirred by the shibboleths of American patriotism.

This report might go a long way to such an understanding. But it just makes me sick.