Tag Archives: Bush administration

Putting Iraq on the auction block

October 5, 2003

“Most of the Iraqi private sector was put up for sale yesterday.” For that startling bit of news you would have had to read the Times of London. Almost nobody took notice in this country when Iraq’s occupation government — run by U.S.-picked worthies — enacted laws allowing foreigners to buy 100 percent of Iraqi’s non-energy business and finance.

The Wall Street Journal, one of few U.S. media to pay attention, was less plain-spoken than the Brits, and respectfully reported initiatives to create “a low-tax economy offering wide access for foreign banks and businesses.”

The measures were disclosed Sept. 21 before International Monetary Fund meetings in Dubai by, fittingly enough, the U.S. delegation. Foreigners will be allowed to own 100 percent interest in any Iraqi company outside the energy industry. Up to six foreign banks will be permitted to purchase 100 percent of Iraqi banks over the next five years; thereafter there will be no limits on foreign ownership of Iraqi finance.

The rules allow for direct investment, not just joint ventures with Iraqis. No need for government approvals. Nor will there be restrictions on repatriating profits, dividends or royalties back to the home countries of investing companies. Money will leave Iraq freely.

Despite the country’s devastated health and educational systems, taxes will be low. The current tax holiday will continue until year end. After that, income taxes will be no more than 15 percent, even for Iraq’s richest. Import duties will be 5 percent. That will ensure U.S. and European manufacturers unfettered access to Iraqi consumers.

That’s for the private sector. The fate of the huge, corrupt Ba’athist-era state-owned enterprises is still being planned. Ambitious privatization plans are said to be in preparation, under which those companies — on which many Iraqis depend for employment in a country with a jobless rate of 50 percent – would be sold off, almost certainly to foreigners.

The energy sector is specifically excluded for now, but oil remains the Holy Grail of the wealth of Iraq, second only to Saudi Arabia as a source of known reserves.

“Of course the oil sector will not be, at this stage, there for foreign investment,” U.S. national security adviser Condoleeza Rice told a Sept. 22 press briefing. “But I’m sure that just like everybody else, people want to see the oil sector work, and they’ll want to invest.”

The moves to open up Iraq coincide with the U.S. diplomatic push to recruit international help with pacification and reconstruction, and the timing suggests that with political support can come economic rewards.

To be sure, Iraq is in desperate financial straits. Atop reconstruction costs estimated at $100 billion, its officials estimate foreign debts of $130 billion, including an overhang of $30 billion in reparations owed Kuwait from the 1991 invasion.

Still, a U.S. official in Baghdad told Agence France Presse that although security is still a concern, “you can make money in a country like Iraq. …You don’t need to have everything perfect to make money.”

So now that the Iraqi calf has been slaughtered and gutted it’s time to carve up the carcass.

What of the political consequences? Already, the Iraqis appear more willing to host a guerilla war than to tolerate a military occupation, even one that might plausibly seem benign. What happens when they face economic colonization too, and realize that liberation means their employers reside in London, New York and Houston?

One Baghdad monetary expert told AFP: “The measures which have been announced will lead to foreign domination over economic decision-making and largely sign away [Iraq’s] independence.”

Soon, others will pick up that theme.

And the jihadists outside Iraq who cynically embraced Saddam as a nationalist hero — what greater gift could they ask for but real evidence that the war has delivered the Iraqi economy to the mercies of U.S. and European capital?

These are hugely important policies, decided by unelected officials operating under the direction of a foreign occupier — itself insulated from public scrutiny by news media that either can’t, or don’t choose, to examine the potential consequences. No attention, no debate, no discussion.

And once again we, the public, will find ourselves ambushed by the furious response to actions that we had never had a chance to consider, let alone approve.

What the government could learn from the media

June 16, 2003

For all their differences, at the moment the Bush White House and The New York Times have a lot in common. Each faces a serious challenge to its credibility.

They’re not alone. The country seems in the grip of a rolling, unusually wide, crisis of credibility, a powerful wave of skepticism and disbelief that threatens to drag down the reputations of institutions and individuals in its undertow.

From what was inside Sammy Sosa’s bat to what was behind Martha Stewart’s stock sale to who shielded predatory priests, respected public figures face rude questions about whether they should be heeded and trusted.

But although there are others, the most prominent targets of this impertinence are the country’s top political leader and its top news organization. The specifics are different, but the overriding question each faces is the same: Why should anybody believe what they say?

And the contrast in answers from the two couldn’t be more dramatic.

For once, following The Times’ example the news media seem to be doing something right, something worth emulating. Unlike the administration, unlike Wall Street, unlike the Church, and notwithstanding the perennially low esteem in which the public holds them, news organizations alone, faced with evidence of major failure, have shown the will and the spine to subject themselves to the kind of far-reaching scrutiny that brings self-awareness and reform.

In the weeks since The New York Times’ disclosed that a fast-rising reporting star had fabricated elements of stories and helped himself to information he had never gathered, the country’s news media have been twisting themselves in a public knot of self-inspection and self-rebuke. The two most powerful Times editors and one of its most admired veteran writers are gone.

Moreover, throughout the news business journalists are reinspecting the full tool chest of reporting devices – anonymous sources, uncredited contributors, truncated quotes. They’re reviewing basic techniques of narrative writing to see whether reporters routinely cut factual corners to produce sharper prose. They’re rebuilding channels for public feedback. Newsroom autocrats are finally getting some of the blame they deserve, as top-down management is reassessed. Ethics is all the rage.

To be sure, the media have plenty to atone for. When will they end their chronic reliance on officialdom? When will they ever admit to getting a story wrong – not just misstating the odd fact, but misconstruing the whole story: As in Whitewater, which never was anything and which a supposedly liberal press used to torment the Clinton administration for most of its term. As in the onetime panic over heterosexual AIDS. As in the hysterical reporting of ritual child abuse in day care centers, for which people are still serving time.

Above all, when will journalists fully acknowledge that they never publish The Story, but at most, a best guess — a sincere attempt, under severe time pressure, to learn and tell their audience things it should know?

So the media have a long way to go.

Still and all, what other powerful institution has shown a comparable willingness to root out error, correct flawed procedures, rededicate to core values — do what it takes to regain public confidence and trust?

Here the contrast with the current administration couldn’t be plainer. The obstinate refusal of the Bush White House to re-examine its own actions is one of the wonders of the contemporary world. Nobody can find the horrendous weapons President Bush was so certain were on the brink of being used that destroying them justified the highly dubious resort to pre-emptive war. Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair’s government is tottering because of Parliament’s dismay over that same assurance, just as groundless in London as in Washington.

Plus, it has now been disclosed that under interrogation captured Al Qaeda leaders told U.S. officials last fall that their organization had never worked with the Iraqi regime because Osama bin-Laden mistrusted Saddam Hussein. Hence, at the same time our president consistently declared that Saddam had to go because of his support for international terror, our government was withholding strong evidence that Iraq had given no support to the terror group that remains our greatest menace.

Regardless of how you view the war in Iraq, those are astounding disclosures. They strike at the heart of the U.S. government’s credibility.

So do we now see, in response, a determination at the highest levels of the administration to learn the truth about the leadup to the war — to find out if indeed this country was misled and if so how?

No. What we see is a determination to change the subject, and a corresponding willingness by the U.S. public to let the subject be changed.

That’s dangerous. The harm that damaged credibility causes isn’t always apparent in the near term. It’s insidious and reaches far into the future, because people remember deceit and respond with contempt.

Credibility is a precious resource, for newspapers and for governments. They squander it at their peril.