What's Left

November 10, 2003

A higher law

By Stephen Gowans

Journalist and author Naomi Klein makes a good point. "Any movement," she says, that's "serious about Iraqi self-determination must call not only for an end to Iraq's military occupation, but to its economic colonization as well." [1]

Which means, in Klein's words, "cancelling all privatization contracts." [2]

In September, the US occupation authority "ordered the overhaul of fundamental elements of Iraq's socialist economy and instituted wide-ranging free-market reforms that will allow full foreign ownership in every sector except oil." [3]

"At least 192 state companies will be sold to foreigners. " [4]

The sell off of Iraq's economy to foreign owners has far reaching implications.

"If every last soldier pulled out of the Gulf tomorrow and a sovereign government came to power," Klein observes, "Iraq would still be occupied: by laws written in the interest of another country; [and] by foreign corporations controlling its essential services."

Sell off illegal

Iraq was never Washington's to sell.

The country's constitution prohibits the privatization of key state assets, and blocks foreigners from owning Iraqi firms (one of the reasons Washington was never too keen on Saddam.)

That's typical of laws in the Middle East.

But Washington's being in the driver's seat, doesn't give it the right to do whatever it likes in Iraq. International law demands that occupying powers respect "the laws in force in the country"..."unless absolutely prevented." [5]

Since nothing prevents Washington from respecting Iraq's constitution, US administrator L. Paul Bremer shouldn't have ripped up Baghdad's anti-privatization laws.

And there's another reason Washington should have left Iraq's laws alone: Democracy.

The Bush administration may dream of turning Iraq into a model of open markets and free trade, but what of Iraqis' dreams? After all, it's their country. Why not let Iraqis themselves decide what to do with their economy?


The answer is profits. American profits. Which was the entire point of the war.

Inventing an Iraqi threat provided occasion to justify hefty increases in military spending, to the benefit of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Electric and other giants of the US arms industry.

What's more, Washington is using the demolition of Iraq as a reason to snatch billions of dollars from the pockets of ordinary Americans, to be lavished on Halliburton, Bechtel and other US corporate giants in the form of reconstruction contracts.

Other prizes: Iraq's laws barring privatization and foreign ownership -- barriers to US corporate expansion -- are ripped up.

And Iraq's oil fields can eventually be turned over to US firms.

All of which means the war on Iraq goes straight to the bottom line of corporate America.

Thanks to Iraqis whose country has been destroyed and whose collectively owned assets are being stolen from under their noses.

Thanks to ordinary Americans who're footing the bill for the bombs, warplanes and cruise missiles that demolished Iraqi infrastructure.

And thanks to ordinary Americans who are paying for the reconstruction.

Why all the shock?

Of course, to see to it that US investors are well looked after, Washington has to trample international law. And it has to thumb its nose at democracy in Iraq (while at the same time, importuning Arab countries to adopt "democratic ways" and claiming that Saddam's lack of respect for international law was one of the reasons he had to be ousted.)

Klein seems to think that privatization can be reversed "by showing that Bremer's reforms were illegal to begin with." But that's like saying the occupation can be reversed by showing the war was illegal to begin with.

Washington's refusal to be bound by international law lost its shock value long ago.


The 78-day air war on Yugoslavia.

The imposition of no-fly zones over Iraq.

The bombing of Afghanistan.

The concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay.

The war on Iraq.

The deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

The use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium.

All of these things are illegal.

So, what's one more crime? As the topical songwriter Phil Ochs used to sing, "We've done it before, so why all the shock?" That's from his "Cops of the World," an indictment of US foreign policy that still rings true some 40 years later.

Indeed, it may be that so little has been written about Washington's violating international law in selling off Iraq because it smacks of being a dog bites man story.

The US has never really been bound by international law -- something that was obvious to Ochs four decades ago (long before there was a Bush administration or a Project for a New American Century.)

What Washington is bound by, however, is the law of competitive capital accumulation, which is why international law is something to kick aside, whenever the material interests of corporate America are at stake. Protecting profits is far more important that yoking oneself to international regulations.

Human rights liberals

Recognizing, as Ochs did, that as "the biggest and toughest kids on the block" Washington can do pretty well what it pleases, human rights liberals have adopted an accommodating strategy.

On the one hand, they say, "You can't compel Washington to obey international law, but you can embarrass it into complying" (a theory yet to be backed up by a single confirming instance.)

On the other hand, they argue that since Washington is pretty well exempt from international law anyway, we might as well set our sights on holding weak states to account (while ignoring Washington's serial violations.)

This is the half a loaf is better than a whole loaf argument. But the argument is deceptive.

The weak states almost always turn out to be US foreign policy targets who've enacted anti-privatization and foreign ownership laws that are barriers to US corporate expansion. Their violations of international or humanitarian law -- real, exaggerated, or entirely invented -- act as a pretext for US intervention under coercion of the law of competitive capital accumulation.

Soon enough, state assets are sold off and state owned companies are privatized.

Meanwhile, unemployment soars, income supports are slashed, subsidies are abolished, and the economy collapses. The very people human rights liberals claimed to be concerned about, end up worse off materially than they were before.

The aim, in practice, turns out to be a whole loaf in conquest, rather than a half a loaf in justice.

Anyone who thinks Russians and Eastern Europeans are materially better off for the overthrow of communism, or who think Serbs are better off for the ouster of Milosevic's socialists, hasn't been paying attention.

Washington obeys a higher law

The way to stop Washington from economically colonizing Iraq (or Iran or North Korea or Cuba or any of the other countries on its hit list) is not to try to embarrass it into following international law (which it doesn't do anyway), but to replace the laws of competitive capital accumulation it does obey.

To do otherwise would be tantamount to trying to embarrass a starving man to respect the rule of law and not steal the loaf of bread sitting unattended within his grasp.

That is, any movement serious about stopping Washington's drive to dominate the world through force (or otherwise) needs to have an understanding of what drives the US (and other imperialist countries) to behave as they do; one that doesn't attribute war, expansionism and economic colonization to leaders' personality defects, to conspiracy theories about Israel (or a Jewish cabal in Washington) controlling US foreign policy, or to the belief that economic laws can be overcome by mobilizing public opinion to demand that leaders become nicer guys.

The only way to stop the drive to dominate the world, or to reduce poverty, or to provide a materially secure existence for all, or to save the environment, is to take power with the aim of  replacing unplanned economies based on production for profit, with rational planned economies based on production for need.

That would accomplish a hell of a lot more than trying to muster outrage every time Washington tramples international law in pursuit of the senior law of competitive capital accumulation.

1. "Iraq is not America's to sell," The Guardian, November 7, 2003.

2. Ibid.

3. "Baghdad opens door to free market," The Globe and Mail, September 22, 2003.

4. Ibid.

5. 1907 Hague regulations, as cited by Klein.

6. From "Cops of the World."


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