Fighting Words

Iraq’s Budget Surplus Scandal

Why do we have such a hard time hearing good news from Baghdad?

One day I will publish my entire collection of upside-down Iraq headlines, where the true purport of the story is the inverse of the intended one. (Top billing thus far would go to the greatest downer of them all: the tale of Iraq’s unemployed gravediggers, their always-insecure standard of living newly imperiled by the falling murder rate. You don’t believe me? Wait for the forthcoming anthology.) While you wait, you might consider last week’s astonishing report about the Iraqi budget surplus and the way in which the report was reported.

Largely attributable to the bonanza in oil prices, to new discoveries of oil since the eviction of Saddam Hussein, and to the increasing success of Iraqi exports via the pipelines to Turkey, this surplus could amount to as much as $79 billionby the end of this year. A good chunk of that money is sitting safely in a bank in New York. I would call this good news by any standard, though of course I understand the annoyance of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and others involved in the auditing of Iraq, who complain that all the unspent wealth is a bit much, given the heavy outlay from the U.S. treasury for the rebuilding of Mesopotamia.

Yes indeed, Iraq should pay for its own reconstruction. But, just before we all join hands on this obvious proposition, may we take a moment to apologize to Paul Wolfowitz? Of all the many slanders hurled at this advocate for Iraq’s liberation, probably none was more gleefully bandied about than his congressional testimony that Iraq’s recovery from decades of war and fascism could be self-financing. Now the opponents of the intervention are yelling that Iraq ought to be opening its bulging wallet right away.

There will be time enough for that to happen, since Iraq’s vast resources are back in the hands of its own people and are no longer “privatized” as the personal property of a psychopathic crime family. Sen. Levin, who with Sen. John Warner, R-Va., requested the original report from the Government Accountability Office on Iraq’s finances, was the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee investigating the “oil for food” outrage. He knows perfectly well what used to happen to Iraq’s oil wealth, which was prostituted through a U.N. program and diverted to such noble causes as the subsidy of suicide bombers in Gaza and the financing of pro-Saddam and “anti-war” politicians in London, Paris, and Moscow. While this criminal enrichment of Iraqi and overseas elites was taking place, the population of the country was living on garbage and drinking tainted water as a result of the U.N.-mandated international sanctions.

I think we should be glad that the luridly sadistic and aggressive Saddam Hussein regime is no longer in power to be the beneficiary of the rise in oil prices and thus able to share its wealth with the terrorists, crooks, and demagogues on its secret payroll. I think we should also be glad that its private ownership of Iraq’s armed forces, and its control over a party monopoly called the Baath, has been irrecoverably smashed. Iraq’s resources are no longer at the disposal of an aggressive, parasitic oligarchy. Its retrained and re-equipped army is being deployed, not in wars of invasion against its neighbors and genocide against its inhabitants, but in cleanup campaigns against al-Qaida and the Mahdi Army. An improvement. A distinct improvement.

It is in no spirit of revenge that I remind you that, as little as a year ago, the whole of smart liberal opinion believed that the dissolution of Baathism and militarism had been a mistake, that Iraq itself was a bottomless pit of wasted dollars and pointless casualties, and that the only option was to withdraw as fast as possible and let the inevitable civil war burn itself out. To the left of that liberal consensus, people of the caliber and quality of Michael Moore were describing the nihilist “insurgents” as the moral equivalent of the Minutemen, and to the right of the same consensus, people like Pat Buchanan were hinting that we had been cheated into the whole enterprise by a certain minority whose collective name began with the letter J.

Had any of this sinister nonsense been heeded, it wouldn’t even be Saddam’s goons who were getting their hands on that fantastic wealth in such a strategic country. It would have been the gruesome militias who answer either to fanatical Wahhabism on one wing or to fanatical Shiism on another, and who are the instruments of tyrannical forces in neighboring countries. Hardly a prospect to be viewed with indifference. I still reel when I remember how many supposedly responsible people advocated surrendering Iraq without a fight.

Before 2003, there was, in a way, a socioeconomic basis for fascism in Iraq, in that the lack of oil on Sunni turf supplied an imperative to the Tikrit-based gangsters for the domination of Kurdish and Shiite areas that didpossess the needful oilfields. Now, new discoveries of oil and new laws on regional and provincial decentralization provide at least the socioeconomic basis for federalism. Again, a distinct improvement. This element of the substructure, as we Marxists say, does not in itself guarantee the superstructure, any more than the vast new wealth in Iraqi coffers is automatically a promise of prosperity for all. (After all, in spite of a huge improvement in prison conditions in Iraq in general,one has to admit the crimes and coverups of Abu Ghraib.) But does anyone seriously regret that these questions are being addressed in their only feasible context, namely the post-Saddam era that was the necessary if not the sufficient condition?

So, yes, major combat operations appear to be over, and to that extent one can belatedly say, “Mission accomplished.” If there is any Iraqi nostalgia for the old party and the old army, it is remarkably well-concealed. Iraq no longer plays deceptive games with weapons of mass destruction or plays host to international terrorist groups. It is no longer subject to sanctions that punish its people and enrich its rulers. Its religious and ethnic minorities—together a majority—are no longer treated like disposable trash. Its most bitter internal argument is about the timing of the next provincial and national elections. Surely it is those who opposed every step of this emancipation, rather than those who advocated it, who should be asked to explain and justify themselves.