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The Age of Irresponsibility

How Bush has created a moral vacuum in Iraq in which Americans can kill for free.

by Michael Hirsh

Imagine a universe where a man can gun down women and children anytime he pleases, knowing he will never be brought to justice. A place where morality is null and void, and arbitrary killing is the rule. A place that has been imagined hitherto only in nightmarish dystopian fiction, like "1984," or in fevered passages from Dostoevsky-or which existed during the Holocaust and Stalinist purges and the Dark Ages. Well, that universe exists today. It is called Iraq. And the man who made it possible is George W. Bush.

The moral vacuum of Iraq-where Blackwater USA guards can kill 10 or 20 Iraqis on a whim and never be prosecuted for it-did not happen by accident. It is yet another example of something the Bush administration could have prevented with the right measures but simply did not bother about as it rushed into invading and occupying another country. With America's all-volunteer army under strain, the Pentagon and White House knew that regular military cannot be used for guarding civilians. As far back as 2003, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld convened a task force under Undersecretary of Defense David Chu to consider new laws that might be needed to govern the privatization of war. Nothing was done about its recommendations. Then, two days before he left Iraq for good, L. Paul Bremer III, the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator, signed a blanket order immunizing all Americans, because, as one of his former top aides told me, "we wanted to make sure our military, civilians and contractors were protected from Iraqi law." (No one worried about protecting the Iraqis from us; after all, we still thought of ourselves as the "liberators," even though by then the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib and other places were known.)

Nor can these private armies even be prosecuted in America under U.S. law. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which permits charges to be brought in U.S. courts for crimes abroad, apparently applies only to Defense Department contractors (and even then the administration has rarely used it). Blackwater and other security firms work for the State Department. Even today, despite the crucial role of Blackwater and other private security firms-who employ up to 30,000 operatives in keeping the civilian side of the U.S. occupation going-Iraqis can do nothing if they are abused or killed by them. While many Blackwater operatives are brave and honorable-the company has lost some 30 of its employees in Iraq-many of these paramilitaries have long been known to be cowboys who act as if they are free to commit homicide as they please. And according to numerous Iraqi witnesses, they sometimes do.

Take the case of the Blackwater guard who got drunk at a Green Zone party last Christmas Eve and reportedly boasted to his friends that he was going to kill someone. According to both Iraqi and U.S. officials, he stumbled out and headed provocatively over to the "Little Venice" section, a lovely area of canals where Iraqi officials live. He had an argument with an Iraqi guard, then shot him once in the chest and three times in the back. The next day Blackwater put him on a private plane out of the country-probably only because the incident involved a rare killing inside the Green Zone and the victim was a security guard for a high-ranking politician. That was it. The company has refused to disclose his name. (Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell did not return phone calls seeking comment.) Then there was last week's incident, when Blackwater guards killed between 10 and 20 Iraqis at a traffic stop, including a woman and a child. The company later said in a statement that "the 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies ... Blackwater professionals heroically defended American lives in a war zone on Sunday." However, even President Bush acknowledged at a news conference Thursday that "evidently" innocent lives were lost in the incident.

As anyone who has been in Iraq (like me) knows, on the ground the unspoken rule of Bush's counterinsurgency efforts over the past four years has been that almost all Iraqis, at least the males, are guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings at the hands of security firms and sometimes U.S. military units are arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis have no recourse whatever to justice except in a few cases like Haditha. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have a furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.

And now we have the awful absurdity of U.S. diplomats going out to make allies among Iraqis and build civil society-winning "the battlefield of the mind," Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone told The Washington Post-surrounded by security guards who operate in an amoral universe and are hated by Iraqis. The Blackwater phenomenon undermines the Petraeus surge, which applies counterinsurgency principles that require winning over the local population, and isolating the bad guys from them. Instead, Blackwater is seen by Iraqis as the face of a malignant occupation. Remember the scene at the beginning of the movie "Braveheart," when the evil English lord claims droit du seigneur-the right to deflower Mel Gibson's bride-over the powerless Scots? Well, that medieval reality is something like what Iraqis are living with today. This is the "model" George W. Bush will bequeath to the world.

Morality begins when people take responsibility for their actions. But no one in the Bush administration has taken responsibility for one disaster after another in Iraq. Nor does anyone seem to care. As Maureen Dowd has pointed out, so passé is the concept of taking responsibility that people who do bad things are even skipping the usual stage of shame, or "slinking away." Instead they are "slinking back" into public life.

The Bush administration's lack of concern about holding its employees responsible for their actions extends to obstructing civil suits against rogue contractors under the False Claims Act. "None of the lawsuits has been successful," says lawyer Alan Grayson. "In a couple of the cases the government has said the case has to be shut down because it involves state secrets." (The Justice Department has said it is carefully looking at the suits.) Who has been in charge of this? None other than Peter Keisler, the former head of Justice's civil division who is now acting attorney general, says Grayson, who is involved in several cases against Blackwater and other contractors. "They run people off the road. They treat the local population like it's some big shooting gallery. It's not just Blackwater; it's everybody." No, that's letting the responsible party off too easily: it's the Bush administration.

Michael Hirsh covers international affairs for Newsweek out of Washington.

© 2007 Newsweek

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