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Testimony of The Tortured

Jeremy Scahill

When President Bush dispatched the neoconservative "terror expert" Paul Bremer to Baghdad in the summer of 2003, it took the former staffer to Henry Kissinger just two weeks to boldly declare that Iraq was "open for business." Naomi Klein, who traveled to Iraq during Bremer's one year stint in the country, writes in The Shock Doctrine: "Overnight, Iraq went from being one of the most isolated countries in the world, sealed off from the most basic trade by strict UN sanctions, to becoming the widest-open market anywhere."

Bremer swiftly set about wiping Iraq clean and applying Milton Friedman's radical economic formula in the Arab world, a region Klein calls "the last holdout for this neoliberal crusade." This, Klein writes, would come in the form of "mass privatization, complete free trade, a 15% flat tax and a dramatically downsized government." As Klein says, it was an anti-Marshall Plan. And while it appeared early on in Bremer's tenure that the neoconservatives were winning, it didn't take long for the temporary euphoria of life without Saddam to be overcome by a collective Iraqi rage at the US agenda.

Even US allies like the interim trade minister, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, declared Iraqis were "sick and tired of being the subjects of experiments. There have been enough shocks to the system, so we don't need this shock therapy in the economy." This radical economic agenda, combined with the disastrous de-Baathification policy, which not only resulted in tens of thousands of state workers losing their jobs overnight, but also some 250,000 Iraqi soldiers, meant that the "Bremer agenda" would just as radically give rise to a widespread Iraqi resistance to the occupation, the likes of which the "cake walk" theory promoters could never have envisioned.

As the situation on the ground rapidly deteriorated, the job of keeping alive Bremer, the most hated man in Iraq, was not given to the US military, but rather was "awarded" - through a no-bid $27m contract - to the politically-connected mercenary firm, Blackwater USA, whose owner, Erik Prince, is a major donor to the political campaigns of President Bush and his allies, as well as to the core groups that make up the radical religious right in America. As Bremer opened Iraq up for business, his own life would be placed in the all-powerful hands of the free market. "If Blackwater loses a principal [like Bremer], they're out of business, aren't they?" asked Colonel Thomas Hammes, the US military official in charge of building a "new" Iraqi military after Bremer disbanded the old one. "Can you imagine being Blackwater, trying to sell your next contract, saying, 'Well, we did pretty well in Iraq for about four months, and then he got killed.'" Hammes, who said he himself was run off the road by Blackwater mercenaries, said Blackwater "made enemies everywhere," but added, "they were doing their job, exactly what they were paid to do in the way they were paid to do it."

It was this period, as Bremer ran around Iraq with his Blackwater mercenaries destroying the economy, that began the epic conflict that would unfold with a stunning degree of bloodshed and loss of life - overwhelmingly Iraqi. But you wouldn't get that from watching CNN or Fox News. Iraq has become one long series of car bombs and "sectarian violence." There is no context and almost no mention of the on-the-ground policies of Bremer in that first year when the pundits discuss Iraq. Iraqis are simply people who want to blow each other up and murder their liberators. More importantly, the destruction of Iraq's economy and civil society - which began a full decade before the 2003 invasion with the 1991 Gulf War and a decade of devastating economic sanctions - and the ensuing carnage are almost never viewed through the lens of more than 40 years of US global policy that preceded the Iraq occupation and indeed laid the groundwork for the present reality.

This is where the brilliance of Klein's analysis shines through. She thoroughly exposes the historical roots of the first year of the occupation and provides the most comprehensive analysis to date on how we got to where we are today. The Shock Doctrine is equal parts meticulously documented scholarship and old-fashioned reporting. Klein is indeed an embedded journalist, but never with the occupying armies - she has embedded with the poor and suffering, the victims of economic and literal shock. John Loyd charges Klein with promoting the "conspiratorial version of history." No. What Klein has done is to take the testimony of the tortured and destroyed, mix it with a scathing confrontation of their oppressors (often using their own words) and produce a 576-page expose that breaks a decades-long silence on the consistency of this mass economic and military violence.

In Iraq, Klein charges: "When Iraqis resisted, they were rounded up and taken to jails where bodies and minds were met with more shocks, these ones distinctly less metaphorical." Her explanation of the creation of the CIA's 1963 Kubark torture manual, the product of years of covert research and human experimentation, applied throughout Vietnam in the 1960s and Latin America in the 1970s and beyond, is chilling, particularly when you see it all over the bodies of naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003.

Only because of her extensive time spent among the people of Latin America, Asia, New Orleans and the Middle East is Klein able to draw the kinds of connections left off the pages of the New York Times and which seem so "conspiratorial" to those who cherry-pick sections of her book. Klein's book is not the product of a conspiracy theory. Following the money, asking who benefits and then answering the question isn't conspiracy peddling, it is called good reporting.

Is it mere coincidence that the same corporate vultures and think tank warriors (as Klein calls them, "the people who are paid to think by the makers of tanks") descended literally and ideologically on Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans and the Tsunami-ravaged countries to emerge as the beneficiaries of these disasters? "I discovered that the idea of exploiting crisis and disaster has been the modus operandi of Milton Friedman's movement from the very beginning - this fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance," Klein writes. "It was certainly the case that the facilitating disasters were getting bigger and more shocking, but what was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new, post-September 11 invention. Rather, these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the shock doctrine."

I recently talked with Klein about Iraq and asked her what victory the Bush administration was gaining there. "I think that they rigged the war so that it couldn't lose," Klein told me. "There were two forms of privatization that were happening simultaneously. One was the Bremer agenda, of going in and privatizing Iraq's economy and then hoping for that model to spread throughout the region, and I think we can safely say that that was a failure." As many corporations fled Iraq in the midst of escalating violence in 2004, Klein thought she "was seeing the first failure of this economic crusade because corporations that had taken small steps towards investing in Iraq and being part of this privatization frenzy were all pulling out because they were afraid for their lives."

Klein says she "really reconsidered that assessment the more I looked at the other privatization agenda, which is the way in which the war itself was a laboratory for the US state to privatize itself. Either way this is sort of like an unprecedented phenomenon - the idea of going to war not just to loot your enemy, but to loot yourself."

She points out that "the worse things have gotten in Iraq, the more privatized the war becomes. When it wasn't the cakewalk that they were claiming it would be, the gaps had to be filled somewhere, and how they were filled was by these private contractors. So was this experiment a failure? I think it has taken this project of neoliberalism, of corporatism to an entirely new, more sophisticated and terrifying phase where, really, Iraq isn't occupied by the United States government, it is a hollow occupation where you have military officials and government officials fronting it, but behind them everything is run by contractors."

Indeed, in Iraq right now, there is no coalition of willing nations, but rather a coalition of billing corporations. Today, it is the contractors and mercenaries who outnumber US forces in Iraq. As of July 2007, there were more than 630 contracting companies working in Iraq for the US. Composed of some 180,000 individual personnel drawn from more than 100 countries, the army of contractors surpasses the official US military presence of 160,000 troops. Last year, a US government report estimated there were 48,000 people working for more than 170 private military companies in Iraq. "We are certainly seeing the emergence of a true corporate state," Klein says. "Iraq has just catapulted the project forward, and then we see it reverberate around the world."

Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.

© Copyright 2007 Jeremy Scahill

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill is an investigative reporter, war correspondent, co-founder of The Intercept, and author of the international bestselling books "Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield"(2014) and "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" (2008). He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has served as the national security correspondent for The Nation and Democracy Now!, and in 2014 co-founded The Intercept with fellow journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and investor Pierre Omidyar.

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