Published on Saturday, November 1, 2003 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Breaking Iraq, Then Charging to Fix It Up?
by Arjun Chowdhury
Someone breaks into your shop that's been in your family for generations, cuts off your electricity and water, destroys your cash register and part of your building, scares the life out of your employees and commandeers your stock at gunpoint. Then he tells you that you need help sorting out your business, and he'll be glad to provide said help.
So he calls his mates to restore your shop to working order, and whips out his (sizable) wallet to pay for all the damage he's caused. You'd like him to leave altogether but, hey, he is putting things back together and, above all, he's still got you at gunpoint.
When he says that his mates can take over your stock and resell it without really giving you your share, you're not surprised. When you tell him that your employees might want their jobs back and he tells you they were all evil anyway, you shrug. After all, he and his mates are at least fixing what they did. And then you get a bill in the mail, asking you to fork over half the costs of them fixing your shop.
Seem perverse that someone can destroy your property and then make you pay half the costs of repair? It's technically called the Iraq Reconstruction Bill and is precisely what the Senate is requiring of Iraq.
This month the Senate, 51-47, passed a resolution requiring that half of the $20 billion for reconstructing Iraq be paid back through loans by the Iraqi people, unless other nations forgive the $150 billion to $200 billion Iraq already owes, which is seen as highly unlikely.
The administration wanted the entire sum in the form of a grant but the Senate, unhappy with the administration's continued profligacy with taxpayers' money, forestalled passage of the bill. Good that these senators are resisting the government, as compared with the serene passing of the bill in the House, but not so good when you consider the case for administering reconstruction funds through a loan to a disenfranchised debtor.
Normally, when a loan is granted, the recipient has some say over the use of the funds. Even when the International Monetary Fund imposes on a country one of its brutal Structural Adjustment Programs, a representative of that country signs the agreement and is responsible for its implementation.
Not so in this case, for the reconstruction is administered wholly by the U.S. government through its transitional authority in Iraq. How would the Iraqi people respond, however, to $50,000 prison beds, $10,000 per month business training courses and $33,000 pickup trucks, for which they will eventually pick up the tab (Center for American Progress, based on data from U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee)? No one, at last count, has asked them.
Such willful perversity grows when one wonders how exactly Iraq is to pay back $10 billion.
Oil revenues, perhaps? Unlikely, given the frequent sabotage of oil installations that have nearly halved the Iraqi crude output to less than a million barrels a day, in a country whose output before the occupation was 2.4 million barrels a day. Government revenues through taxation of business, maybe? Not possible, because the transitional authority under Paul Bremer has announced a tax holiday until next February, after which tax rates will be capped at 15 percent, to encourage investment, naturally.
Taxation of individuals, then? Difficult to raise $10 billion through taxing a population facing 70 percent unemployment -- unemployment caused by sacking nearly all government employees as Baathist remnants. Selling contracts to companies that will compete to rebuild Iraq? The Iraqi people don't see that money but the U.S. government does. Nor is the allocation of contracts competitive or transparent, such as Halliburton's no-bid deal, or the claimed exclusion of Iraqi businessmen from the awarding of contracts.
The Senate has shown, by its resistance, that it is unwilling to give the administration a blank check for the rehabilitation of Iraq. Given that this money is taxpayers' money, the money of their constituents, the senators' opprobrium is entirely justified. However, their action is not. They must instead demand accountability from the administration, not restitution from the Iraqi people.
The invasion of Iraq was America's action, not a reaction to Iraqi aggression. Claims of WMD possession and links to Al-Qaida are increasingly being refuted by the administration itself, which leaves only the regime-change legitimation of the war. There is no justification, moral or logical, for holding the people of Iraq responsible either for the odiousness of a regime they did not want, or the decision of another nation to replace it. Yet that is what the Senate is implying when it moves the responsibility of rebuilding Iraq onto the shoulders of the Iraqi people, who neither elected Saddam Hussein nor bombed Baghdad's electricity grid.
The Senate must instead pursue a broader agenda of demanding accountability and transparency in assessing the costs of this conflict.
As much a travesty as an Iraqi loan would be, it is no less a travesty to shift dubious costs like $6,000 satellite phones onto the American taxpayers and deficit, which will ultimately be reflected in reduced social services for all Americans. And the moribund Democratic Party must question even more the $67 billion military spending that the occupation entails, rather than endorse it outright as some presidential candidates have done.
To transfer the costs of reconstructing Iraq so blatantly onto the Iraqi populace is a scandal of epic perversity. But it must not blind us to the decidedly odd ways in which the money is being administered in Iraq. It must not blind us to the fact that the senators are right in resisting the perpetual charging of American taxpayers for an occupation that makes neither them nor the world any safer or better to live in. And most of all, it must not blind us to the immense human cost in Iraq, and the need for resisting their suffering by action here in America.
Arjun Chowdhury, Minneapolis, is a Ph.D. candidate.
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