[Marxism] Role of neoliberalism in spurring resistance to Iraq occupation

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Mar 29 18:56:09 MST 2006

I think that the occupation was in greater trouble from the start than
Schwartz believes.  Even some of the fighting before the
withdrawal/flight of the Iraqi army was a signal to come, especially the
strong resistance in some Shia areas.  The fact is that this invasion
was not called for by any force IN Iraq, and that the problem of
creating a real base for it, which has never really happened, was wildly
underestimated.  But I agree with Schwartz that the imposition of
neoliberal economic policies multiplied the catastrophe for the Iraqi
people, and spurred the resistance to the occupation that now has it in
a POLITICAL even more than military quagmire.
Fred Feldman

Does the Media Have It Right on the War?
By Michael Schwartz 

The media loves anniversaries, the grimmer the better. On the third
anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, our newspapers and TV news were
filled to the brim with retrospectives on the origins of the Iraq war,
reassessments of how it was conducted by the Bush administration, and
reconsiderations of the current quagmire-cum-civil-war in that country. 

An amazing aspect of this sort of heavy coverage of events past is the
degree of consensus that quickly develops among all mainstream outlets
on certain fundamental (and fundamentally controversial) issues. For
example, the question of "what went wrong" in Iraq is now almost
universally answered as follows: 

The invasion was initially successful, but the plan for the peace was
faulty. Bush administration officials misestimated the amount of
resistance they would find in the wake of Baghdad's fall. Donald
Rumsfeld and his civilian officials in the Pentagon ignored military
warnings and did not deploy sufficient soldiers to handle this initial
resistance. As a result, the occupation was unable to quell the
rebellion when it was small. This first blunder allowed what was at best
a modest insurgency to grow to formidable proportions, at which point
occupation officials committed a second disastrous blunder, dismantling
the Iraqi army which otherwise could have been deployed to smash the

Bottom line: General Eric Shinseki was right. If the U.S. had deployed
the several hundred thousand troops that he insisted were needed to lock
down the country (instead of hustling him into retirement), then the war
would have been short and sweet, and the U.S. would now be well on its
way both to victory and withdrawal. 

This, I think, is a fair summary of the thinking on Iraq currently
dominant in the mainstream media and, because it ignores the fundamental
cause of the war-after-the-war -- the American attempt to neo-liberalize
Iraq -- it is also profoundly wrong. 

A Hurricane of Privatization 

The claim that the war has an economic foundation may sound strange in
the context of American media coverage, because it is so unfamiliar. So
let me begin by agreeing with two key points in the currently
fashionable media analysis: The initial attack on Saddam Hussein's
regime was a success and there was a moment -- just after the fall of
Baghdad -- when the Bush administration might have avoided triggering a
formidable armed resistance. The war and proto-civil war of the present
moment were not the inevitable result of the invasion, but of Bush
administration actions taken afterwards. 

We do not remember much of this now, but just after Saddam was toppled
the American victors announced that a sweeping reform of Iraqi society
would take place. The only part of this still much mentioned today --
the now widely regretted dismantling of the Iraqi military -- was but
one aspect of a far larger effort to dismantle the entire Baathist state
apparatus, most notably the government-owned factories and other
enterprises that constituted just about 40% of the Iraqi economy. This
process of dismantling included attempts, still ongoing, to remove
various food, product, and fuel subsidies that guaranteed low-income
Iraqis basic staples, even when they had no gainful employment. 

Without going into the tortured details (forcefully described at the
time by Naomi Klein in an indispensable Harpers article), this
neo-liberal "shock treatment" was adapted from programs undertaken by
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank all around the
globe in the 1990s, including those that immiserated Russia after the
USSR collapsed and that helped to bankrupt Argentina. Because the
privatizers of the Bush administration were, however, in control of a
largely prostrate and conquered country, the Iraqi reforms were enacted
more swiftly and in a far more draconian manner than anywhere else on
the planet. Within six months, for example, the American occupation
government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), had promulgated
all manner of laws designed to privatize everything in Iraq except
established oil reserves. (New oil discoveries, however, were to be
privatized.) All restrictions were also taken off foreign corporations
intent on buying full control of Iraqi enterprises; nor were demands to
be made of those companies to reinvest any of their profits in Iraq. 

At the same time, state-owned enterprises were to be demobilized and
sidelined. They were to be prevented from participating either in
repairing facilities damaged during the invasion (or degraded by the
decade of sanctions that preceded it) or in any of the initially
ambitious reconstruction projects the U.S. commissioned. This policy was
so strict that even state-owned enterprises with specific expertise in
Iraqi electrical, sanitation, and water purification systems -- not to
speak of Iraq's massive cement industry -- were forbidden from obtaining
subcontracts from the multinational corporations placed in charge of
rejuvenating the country's infrastructure. 

The elimination of all protections for local commerce quickly threw the
market wide open to large multinational marketing companies. This
resulted in an immediate surge of sales to the Iraqi middle class of
previously unobtainable goods like air conditioners, cell phones, and
all manner of electronic devices. Though few remember this today, many
American journalists reported the influx of such goods as an early sign
of coming prosperity -- and of how successful an economy could begin to
be once freed from the oppressive binds of state control and state

As it happened, though, this surge did not last into the winter of
2003-4. The problem, it turned out, was that the CPA-induced economic
"opening" to multinational competition administered a series of death
blows to locally based enterprises. First of all, shops selling any item
that could be imported by foreign companies found themselves in the
unenviable position of competing with lower-priced goods that the
multinationals could either provide at such prices or afford to sell at
a loss to capture the market (i.e., run the local competition out of
business). So a depression swept through small business in Iraq, leaving
neighborhoods without their normal complement of shops and without the
income that they plowed back into communities. 

Second, the demobilization of the army and the sidelining of state
enterprises resulted in an almost immediate unemployment crisis. Even
though many state enterprises continued to pay employees (for doing
nothing) and the Coalition Provisional Authority belatedly decided to
pay Saddam's former soldiers (also for doing nothing), this money did
not regularly reach the targeted groups. The fragmentary administration
set up by the occupation was monumentally inefficient at delivering any
services, including paychecks, and significant sums were evidently
simply gobbled up by increasingly corrupt remnants of the Baathist
administrative apparatus. As a result, millions of unemployed workers
and soldiers, lacking the money to feed their families, also lacked the
money to support local merchants. 

These depressed neighborhoods became incubators for ferocious criminal
gangs, who sought to redress their own economic hardship by looting
public buildings and private dwellings of anything that might yield a
return on the black (or export) market. Looting, which began with the
fall of the government, became a permanent feature of Iraqi urban life
once the occupation dismantled the Iraqi police force. As time passed
without the establishment of effective law enforcement, criminality
became organized and systematic, targeting professionals and shopkeepers
who had substantial assets or retained incomes; while kidnapping for
ransom became a regular fact of life for prosperous Iraqis. 

As this crisis deepened, multinational corporations found they had sold
just about all the appliances the market could bear and were no longer
making sufficient profits to continue their marketing efforts in much of
Iraq. So they simply withdrew from now-unprofitable local markets,
leaving communities already sprinkled with the empty shops of bankrupt
local merchants bereft of needed products and services. Those who still
had incomes found it increasingly difficult to obtain needed resources.
A reverse multiplier effect began to take hold as Iraqis who remained
prosperous were forced to shop, work, or live outside their former
communities, only depleting and depressing them further. Unemployment
rates quickly exceeded 25% in many communities, and today -- as this
process reaches its third anniversary -- nationwide unemployment
estimates range from a depression-level 30% to a staggering 60%,
depending on the source you consult. 

A Response of Savage Repression 

This economic debacle affected different parts of the country with
differing degrees of severity. Containing a large proportion of the
government apparatus and the commerce of the country, Baghdad, the
capital, was hit with catastrophic force. Previously favored Sunni
cities outside Baghdad, where the largest proportion of state
enterprises were located, were similarly devastated. In addition, it was
from these communities that the bulk of demobilized government employees
had been drawn. 

The Shia cities in the South were strongly affected, but not as
profoundly as the "Sunni Triangle." After 12 years of post-Gulf-War-I
autonomy under the Anglo-American "no-fly zone," the Kurds were largely
shielded from the economic destruction. In effect, their isolation from
the Iraqi economy now insulated them as well from the neo-liberal
depression wrought by the U.S occupation. 

Naturally, then, the discontent was most ferocious in Sunni areas,
substantial in Shia areas, and relatively mild in the Kurdish ones. By
the fall of 2003, as anger mounted, so did the protests, with the
largest and most insistent coming from Sunni cities and the Sunni areas
of Baghdad. These protests were made more pronounced by the residual
loyalty many Sunnis held for the Saddam regime and their greater sense
of violation from the invasion. 

At first, many of the protests were peaceful, focusing either on local
economic issues, or on general conditions that were worsening, not
improving, after months of occupation. Typically, people demanded
services and jobs from the CPA. It is now lost to history, but the
run-up to the ferocious first battle of Falluja in April, 2004 --
triggered by the mutilation of four private security contractors --
actually began a full year earlier when American troops fired on a
peaceful protest organized around a host of local issues, killing 13
Iraqi civilians. It was exactly this sort of ferocious reaction to
peaceful protest that made the U.S. military such a factor in the
stoking of what would become an ongoing rebellion. 

In fact, in 2003, the occupation response to protests was forceful,
almost gleeful, repression. Top officials of the CPA and the U.S.
military command considered these demonstrations, peaceful or not, the
most tangible signs of ongoing Baathist attempts to facilitate a future
return to power. They therefore applied the occupation's iron heel on
the theory that forceful suppression would soon defeat or demoralize any
"dead-enders" intent on restoring the old regime. Protests were met with
arrests, beatings, and -- in any circumstances deemed dangerous to U.S.
troops -- overwhelming, often lethal military force. Home invasions of
people suspected of anti-occupation attitudes or activities became
commonplace, resulting in thousands of arrests and numerous firefights.
Detention and torture in Abu Ghraib and other American-controlled
prisons were just one facet of this larger strategy, fueled by official
pressure -- once a low-level rebellion boiled up -- to get quick
information for further harsh, repressive strikes. In general, the Iraqi
population came to understand that dissent of whatever sort would be met
by savage repression. 

This policy might have worked if, as Bush administration officials
regularly claimed, the resistance had indeed been nothing but remnants
of the Saddam regime, thirsting for a return to power. It might even
have worked -- or at least worked somewhat better -- if the growing
resistance had rested only on the anger people felt about the occupation
of their homeland by an alien army. In these circumstances, protestors
might have decided to bide their time in the face of overwhelming
demonstrations of force. 

It was, however, an unworkable policy in the face of a deepening
disaster caused by the CPA's own economic nostrums which, by generating
new problems, kept recruiting new protestors (and deepening the anger of
existing rebels). In this context, the CPA's heavy-handed responses were
like oil to the flames. The rear guard of a deposed regime was a tiny
part of their problem when protest and rebellion were fundamentally
being fueled by a rapidly growing economic depression endangering the
livelihoods of a majority of the Iraqi population. 

In such circumstances, each act of repression added the provocation of
brutality, false arrest, torture, and murder to the economic crimes that
triggered the protests to begin with. And each act of repression
convinced more Iraqis that peaceful protest would not work; that, if
they were going to save their lives and those of their families, a more
aggressive, belligerent approach would be necessary. 

Ignoring Eternal Verities 

In this context, the American policy of repression backfired royally,
stoking an ever angrier, more violent, more widespread, better supported
resistance. Eventually, in both Sunni and Shia areas, major uprisings
occurred and, in the Sunni cities, these developed into more-or-less
continuous warfare that, by November, 2005, resulted in about 700
small-scale military engagements per week. 

Could the U.S. have suppressed even this economically driven rebellion,
had it flooded the country with American troops (as General Shinseki
recommended) and kept Saddam's army more or less intact, using it -- as
Saddam had -- to suppress growing discontent? Perhaps, but as long as
American administrators were intent on privatizing the country, this too
might have backfired. As a start, the American Army was not trained or
prepared to act as the sort of local police force that might have
contained protests generated by economic discontent. Even Shinseki's
estimates rested on the existence of a viable Iraqi military to maintain
law and order. Yet, retaining an army after overthrowing a government
and rearranging its economic foundations is quite a different feat from
retaining one after a coup-d'état that changes little except the
leadership. CPA officials rightly feared major resistance from all the
forces that served, and were served by, the old system, including the
military, which in the Iraqi case benefited from government-controlled
enterprises as much as any other part of the establishment. 

Certainly, an alien army entered Iraq, destroyed that country's
sovereignty, and stoked nationalist resentments. But major media outlets
in this country have lost track of the fact that what also entered Iraq
was an American administration wedded at home and abroad to a fierce,
unbending, and alien set of economic ideas. By focusing attention only
on the lack of U.S. (and Iraqi) military power brought to bear in the
early days after the fall of Baghdad, they ignore some of the deeper
reasons why many Iraqis were willing to confront a formidable military
machine with only small arms and their own wits. They ignore -- and
cause the American public to ignore -- the fact that there was little
resistance just after the fall of Baghdad and that it expanded as the
economy declined and repression set in. They ignore the eternal verity
that the willingness to fight and die is regularly animated by the
conviction that otherwise things will only get worse. 

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the
Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has
written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American
business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on
numerous internet sites, including Tomdispatch, Asia Times ,Mother
Jones, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z
Magazine. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and
Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).
His email address is Ms42 at optonline.net.

Copyright 2006 Michael Schwartz 


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