Sunday, October 03, 2004

Must Reads from Harper's

A viewpoint on Iraq you won't find anywhere else.

It was only after I had been in Baghdad for a month that I found what I was looking for. I had traveled to Iraq a year after the war began, at the height of what should have been a construction boom, but after weeks of searching I had not seen a single piece of heavy machinery apart from tanks and humvees. Then I saw it: a construction crane. It was big and yellow and impressive, and when I caught a glimpse of it around a corner in a busy shopping district I thought that I was finally about to witness some of the reconstruction I had heard so much about. But as I got closer I noticed that the crane was not actually rebuilding anything—not one of the bombed-out government buildings that still lay in rubble all over the city, nor one of the many power lines that remained in twisted heaps even as the heat of summer was starting to bear down. No, the crane was hoisting a giant billboard to the top of a three-story building. SUNBULAH: HONEY 100% NATURAL, made in Saudi Arabia.

Seeing the sign, I couldn’t help but think about something Senator John McCain had said back in October. Iraq, he said, is “a huge pot of honey that’s attracting a lot of flies.” The flies McCain was referring to were the Halliburtons and Bechtels, as well as the venture capitalists who flocked to Iraq in the path cleared by Bradley Fighting Vehicles and laser-guided bombs. The honey that drew them was not just no-bid contracts and Iraq’s famed oil wealth but the myriad investment opportunities offered by a country that had just been cracked wide open after decades of being sealed off, first by the nationalist economic policies of Saddam Hussein, then by asphyxiating United Nations sanctions.

Looking at the honey billboard, I was also reminded of the most common explanation for what has gone wrong in Iraq, a complaint echoed by everyone from John Kerry to Pat Buchanan: Iraq is mired in blood and deprivation because George W. Bush didn’t have “a postwar plan.” The only problem with this theory is that it isn’t true. The Bush Administration did have a plan for what it would do after the war; put simply, it was to lay out as much honey as possible, then sit back and wait for the flies.

The honey theory of Iraqi reconstruction stems from the most cherished belief of the war’s ideological architects: that greed is good. Not good just for them and their friends but good for humanity, and certainly good for Iraqis. Greed creates profit, which creates growth, which creates jobs and products and services and everything else anyone could possibly need or want. The role of good government, then, is to create the optimal conditions for corporations to pursue their bottomless greed, so that they in turn can meet the needs of the society. The problem is that governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush’s Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.

Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions. The people of Iraq would, of course, have to endure some short-term pain: assets, previously owned by the state, would have to be given up to create new opportunities for growth and investment. Jobs would have to be lost and, as foreign products flooded across the border, local businesses and family farms would, unfortunately, be unable to compete. But to the authors of this plan, these would be small prices to pay for the economic boom that would surely explode once the proper conditions were in place, a boom so powerful the country would practically rebuild itself.

The fact that the boom never came and Iraq continues to tremble under explosions of a very different sort should never be blamed on the absence of a plan. Rather, the blame rests with the plan itself, and the extraordinarily violent ideology upon which it is based.

The juxtaposition of that article, with the truly scary article on our thread-barren public health system's inability to deal with epidemics shows the priority of the folks running things today...

During a two-week period in 1993 one of Milwaukee’s two water- treatment plants malfunctioned. This waterworks supplied treated drinking water directly from Lake Michigan to at least half the population of Milwaukee and nine of its suburbs. The investigation that eventually followed revealed unprecedented increases in the density levels of the supposedly treated water during that two-week period. The gauges designed for continuous measurement of water purity had clearly not been functioning properly for periods as long as eight to twelve hours at a time. The precise reason for the failure remains obscure, but what is clear is that no alarms went off, no backup systems were brought online, and no one noticed the increases in turbidity that led to the largest waterborne epidemic ever to occur in the United States.

Within days of the plant’s malfunction and continuing for an additional month, more than 403,000 people in the Milwaukee area developed fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. One hundred people died. The cause of the illness was Cryptosporidium, a single-celled microorganism that survives in bodies of standing water and has been known as a cause of diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever since the 1970s. There is no medical treatment for the infection, and in otherwise healthy individuals the disease is usually self-limiting, though in a minority of cases the disease can lead to weeks of disability. In patients on immunosuppressive medications, those undergoing chemotherapy, or those with AIDS, the infection can be ruthless, unrelenting, and fatal.

The seriousness of Cryptosporidium in an immune-suppressed patient became clear at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic when physicians first found this strange and unexpected parasite in the blood and bone marrows of infected patients. Knowing that the organism was basically a disease of herd animals, the doctors contacted the preeminent expert on Cryptosporidium in the department of agriculture at the University of Iowa. When the professor was asked how infected sheep were treated, he hesitated. “There is no treatment,” he answered. “We shoot them.”

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