Freedom as Theft
Honoring American Liberators
By Tom Engelhardt
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian award, ranking second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to its official website, the medal “is reserved for individuals the President deems to have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In 2004, George W. Bush had already awarded the medal to Estee Lauder, Arnold Palmer, Norman Podhoretz, and Doris Day, among others, when, on December 14 in a ceremony at the White House, he hit the trifecta.
Only the previous month, in a close race to the finish line — not so much against opposing Presidential candidate John Kerry as against a ragtag fundamentalist insurgency in Iraq — he had just slipped under the reelection wire and, in a press conference, promptly crowed about how “free” he was. (“You asked, do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”) The next month, he would launch his second term with an inaugural address that put “freedom” as a global mission at the very center of his presidency. He would grandiloquently promise nothing less than a crusade to end tyranny globally and bring liberty to the world. (He would, in fact, use the word “freedom” 27 times, and “liberty” 15 times, in that address.) He also had a few debts to pay and, having already brought “freedom” to Iraq at the point of a cruise missile, he now paid those debts in the coin of “freedom” as well. He slipped medals around the necks of three men — each recently retired from the field of action — who had been crucial to his first term “freedom” policies.
I’m talking here about the former commander of his Afghan War and Iraq invasion, General Tommy (“we don’t do body counts“) Franks; the former director of the CIA and proprietor of a global secret prison and torture network, as well as the man who oversaw the intelligence process that led to the Iraq invasion, George (“slam dunk“) Tenet; and his former viceroy and capo in Baghdad, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul (“I didn’t dismantle the Iraqi Army“) Bremer III.
Of Franks, Bush said that the general had “led the forces that fought and won two wars in the defense of the world’s security and helped liberate more than 50 million people from two of the worst tyrannies in the world.”
Of Tenet, the President claimed that he had been “one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical networks” and, after Sept. 11, was “ready with a plan to strike back at al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban.”
Of Bremer, he offered this encomium: “For 14 months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty.” And the President added: “Every benchmark…. was achieved on time or ahead of schedule, including the transfer of sovereignty that ended his tenure.” (“He did not add,” the Washington Post pointed out at the time, “that the transfer was hurriedly arranged two days early because of fears insurgents would attack the ceremonies.”)
Looking back, it’s clearer just what kinds of “benchmarks” were achieved, what kinds of freedoms each of these men helped bring to the rest of the world.
Tommy Franks helped to deliver to southern Afghanistan’s desperate, beleaguered peasants, the freedom to be caught, years later, in a deathlike vise between a resurgent Taliban and regular American air strikes. He also brought them the freedom to grow just about the total opium crop needed to provide for the globe’s heroin addicts — 8,200 tons of opium in 2007, representing 93% of the global opiates market. This was a 34% jump from the previous year and represented opium production on what is undoubtedly a historic scale. Afghanistan’s peasants, surviving as best they can in a land of narco-warlords, narco-guerrillas, and deadly air attacks have, once again, set a record when it comes to this unique freedom.
George Tenet, though a holdover from the Clinton years, wholeheartedly agreed with one of the earliest post-9/11 liberatory impulses of top Bush administration officials — the desire, as Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, to take off “the gloves,” or, as Tenet himself put it when it came to the CIA (so Ron Suskind tell us in his book, The One Percent Doctrine), “the shackles.” Those were the “shackles” that Dick Cheney and others believed had been placed by Congress on the imperial presidency after Richard Nixon came so close to committing the constitutional coup d’état that we have come to call Watergate, but that involved an illegal war in Cambodia, illegal wiretapping, illegal break-ins, robberies, black-bag jobs, and so many other crossing-the-line activities. As CIA Director, Tenet then delivered to Agency operatives the freedom to target just about anyone on the planet who might qualify (however mistakenly) as a “terror suspect,” kidnap him, and “render” him in extraordinary fashion either to a foreign prison where torture was regularly practiced or to a CIA secret prison in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, or who knows where else. He also freed the Agency to “disappear” human beings (a term normally used in our world only when Americans aren’t the ones doing it) and freed the Agency’s interrogators to use techniques like waterboarding, known in less civilized times as “the water torture” (and only recently banned by the Agency) as well as various other, more sophisticated forms of torture.
At the 2004 Medal of Freedom ceremony, the President spoke of 50 million people being liberated in his first term, but he probably should have used the figure 50,000,002. After all, Tenet, like Franks, had offered a necessary helping hand in the liberation of Bush — and Cheney as well. Both men took part in loosing a “wartime” commander-in-chief presidency (and vice-presidency) to which just about no traditional American check-and-balance restraints or oversight of any sort were said to apply.
L. Paul Bremer III may, however, be the most interesting of the three freedom-givers, in part because, thanks to Blackwater USA, the private security firm whose mercenaries continue to run wild in Iraq, his handiwork is in the news and in plain sight right now. In December 2004, less than six months had passed since Bremer, in his role as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in occupied Baghdad, had turned over “sovereignty” to a designated group of Iraqis and, essentially, fled that already chaotic country. A day before he left, however, he established a unique kind of freedom in Iraq, not seen since the heyday of European and Japanese colonialism. By putting his signature on a single document, he managed to officially establish an “International Zone” that would be the fortified equivalent of the old European treaty ports on the China coast and, at the same time, essentially granted to all occupying forces and allied companies what, in those bad old colonial days, used to be called “extraterritoriality” — the freedom not to be in any way under Iraqi law or jurisdiction, ever.
Creating the Free World Anew
General David Petraeus, the President’s surge commander in Iraq, has often spoken about a “Washington clock” and a “Baghdad clock” being out of sync and of the need to reset the Washington one. Bremer, who arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, quickly went to work setting back that Baghdad clock. When it came, for instance, to Iraqi oil, he ensured that Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, who had been involved in the State Department’s energy working group, would be tapped as Iraq’s oil minister, was surrounded by Western advisors who had worked for the oil giants, and set his mind to “privatizing” the Iraqi energy industry. With the third largest oil reserves on the planet, Iraq was, sooner or later, to be thrown open to investment from American energy firms and, in the process, that “clock” in Baghdad would be turned back perhaps 40 years to a time before energy resources were nationalized everywhere in the Middle East. (That the effort has, so far, largely, though not completely, failed wasn’t due to lack of effort.)
When it came to the freedoms of Western occupiers (or liberators, if you will), including armed mercenaries, however, Bremer achieved a true medal-snatching feat. He essentially turned that Baghdad clock back to the nineteenth century and made that “time” stick to this very day. On the eve of his departure, he issued a remarkable document of freedom — a declaration of foreign independence — that went by the name of “Order 17” [PDF file] and that, in the U.S. mainstream media, is still often referred to as “the law” in Iraq.
Order 17 is a document well worth reading. It essentially granted to every foreigner in the country connected to the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institution. Foreigners — unless, of course, they were jihadis or Iranians — were to be “immune from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of their Sending States,” even though American and coalition forces were to be allowed the freedom to arrest and detain in prisons and detention camps of their own any Iraqis they designated worthy of that honor. (The present prison population of American Iraq is reputed to be at least 24,500 and rising.)
All foreigners involved in the occupation project were to be granted “freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq,” and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be “subject to registration, licensing or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government.” Nor in traveling would foreign diplomat, soldier, consultant, or security guard, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to “dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees,” and so on. And don’t forget that on imports, including “controlled substances,” there were to be no customs fees (or inspections), taxes, or much of anything else; nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of Iraqi “headquarters, camps, and other premises” occupied, nor for the use of electricity, water, or other utilities. And then, of course, there was that “International Zone,” now better known as the Green Zone, whose control was carefully placed in the hands of the Multinational Force or MNF (essentially, the Americans and their contractors) exactly as if it had been the international part of Shanghai, or Portuguese Macao, or British Hong Kong in the nineteenth century.
Promulgated on the eve of the “return of sovereignty,” Order 17 gave new meaning to the term “Free World.” It was, in essence, a get-out-of-jail-free card in perpetuity.
Above all else, Bremer freed an already powerful shadow army run out of private security outfits like Blackwater USA that, by now, has grown, according to recent reports, into a force of 20,000 to 50,000 or more hired guns. These private soldiers, largely in the employ of the Pentagon or the U.S. State Department — and so operating on U.S. taxpayer dollars — were granted the right to act as they pleased with utter impunity anywhere in the country.
More than three years later, the language of Order 17, written in high legalese, remains striking when it comes to the contractors. (The man who, according to the Washington Post, composed the initial draft of the document, Lawrence T. Peter, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, now director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, which “represents at least 50 security companies.”) Order 17 begins on private security firms with a stated need “to clarify the status of…. certain International Consultants, and certain contractors in respect of the Government and the local courts.” But the key passage is this:
“Contractors shall not be subject to Iraqi laws or regulations in matters relating to the terms and conditions of their contracts Contractors shall be immune from Iraqi legal processes with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto Certification by the Sending State that its Contractor acted pursuant to the terms and conditions of the Contract shall, in any Iraqi legal process, be conclusive evidence of the facts so certified”
In other words, when, in June 2004, Bremer handed over “sovereignty” to an Iraqi “government” lodged in the foreign-controlled Green Zone and left town as fast as he could, he essentially handed over next to nothing. He had already succeeded in making Iraq a “free” country, as only the Bush administration might have defined freedom: free of taxes, duties, tolls, accountability, or responsibility of any kind, no matter what Americans or their allies and hirelings did or what they took. In Iraq, in a twist on the nightmare language of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, freedom meant theft.
When it came to the Iraqi government, freedom also meant the freedom not to be informed. Take an example: The U.S. military recently announced that it was about to build a new base in Iraq, right up against the Iranian border, that would be ready for operation this November. Officially, such decisions are, of course, supposed to be made in conjunction with the sovereign government of the country, but Kaveh L Afrasiabi of Asia Times on-line informs us that “Iraqi officials were apparently not even consulted prior to an announcement on this issue.”
The Freedom of Bloody Sunday
“I saw women and children jump out of their cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot, but still the firing kept coming and many of them were killed. I saw a boy of about 10 leaping in fear from a minibus, he was shot in the head. His mother was crying out for him, she jumped out after him, and she was killed. People were afraid.”
This is the testimony of Hassan Jabar Salman, a lawyer “shot four times in the back, his car riddled with eight more bullets” as he attempted to escape a fusillade from Blackwater hired guns guarding a U.S. convoy in the middle of Baghdad. Only the latest of many Blackwater “incidents,” “Bloody Sunday” — depending on which report you read, between eight and 28 Iraqi men, women, and children died — brought into sharper focus the Free World that L. Paul Bremer III had helped create at the behest of his President.
In this rare case, the Iraqi government publicly and vociferously complained. As in Vietnam in the 1960s, even the officials of puppet governments often turn out to be nationalists; even they get fed up with their patrons’ arrogance sooner or later; and, often, their officials, having spent so much time close up and personal with the occupiers, have nothing but contempt for them. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promptly called Bloody Sunday a “crime” by out of control private security contractors. “We will never,” he said at a news conference, “allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood by this company that is playing with the lives of the people.” (Blackwater, unsurprisingly, denied that its guards had done anything but respond to an attack.) The Iraqi government then threatened to withdraw the company’s license and kick it out of the country.
As it happened, the State Department, which had inked contracts worth $678 million with Blackwater and had just recently awarded a new one for “helicopter-related services” to the outfit, had already “exempted the company from U.S. military regulations governing other security firms” and had allowed its estimated 1,000 or more employees in Iraq to operate without an Interior Ministry license of any sort that could be withdrawn. In addition, top State Department officials had praised the company’s work to the skies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promptly called Prime Minister Maliki to express her “condolences” and then the State Department suspended all diplomatic movement (other than by helicopter) out of the Green Zone and announced an “investigation.”
This was, of course, a classic tactic to diffuse such a crisis. Scores of similar “investigations” in Iraq have been launched, led nowhere (except in the case of extraordinary publicity), and been forgotten, including one set in motion by the State Department only last May after consecutive Blackwater shooting incidents and an armed stand-off between its guards and Interior Ministry commandos in front of the ministry itself. And who better to lead another such investigation than, once again, the second most interested party, the State Department? This, too, followed a Bush administration pattern of freedom from accountability in Iraq. In the same way, the Pentagon had investigated possible war crimes committed by its own troops (as at Haditha and Abu Ghraib); just as David Petraeus, the general involved in creating and implementing the President’s surge plan, was designated the perfect person to assess the efficacy of his own actions in a so-called Progress Report to Congress.
Can anyone be surprised that, despite Iraqi government protestations, three days after standing down, Blackwater mercenaries were again back on the job protecting U.S. diplomats — even while its employees faced possible charges for “illegally smuggl[ing] into Iraq weapons that may have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization”?
Of course, the very idea of taking “freedom” abroad through what our President has hailed as “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known — the men and women of the United States Armed Forces,” is an absurdity, unless you realize who is being freed. Ostensibly entering Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, our military proved itself — what are massively armed forces for, after all — a weapon of massive destruction. It finished the task of breaking an already oppressed and half-broken land. What the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” opened the way for was a looter’s paradise; the freedom it brought was the freedom to plunder.
The Iraqi looting began almost as soon as American troops entering Baghdad in April 2003 — and those occupying troops, without orders to lift a finger, did just about nothing (except, tellingly, guard the Oil Ministry) as Baghdad burned. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signaled just what kind of an era of liberation was indeed dawning. At a press briefing, with the verbal equivalent of a wink and a nod, he responded to a question about the looting of the Iraqi capital by saying, “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.” And he offered his infamous tag line for the ongoing disaster, “Stuff happens.”
It’s been happening ever since as those liberated by the invasion — the privateers, the freebooters, the crony capitalists, the neocon dreamers, the black marketeers and oil siphoneers, the mercenaries and criminals of every sort — were freed to do their damnedest in an atmosphere that combined the “wild East” with a gold-rush mentality amid spiralling chaos, mayhem, and destruction. Stuff just happened again in a square in the Iraqi capital on Bloody Sunday; it also happened in Haditha and at Abu Ghraib; it happened in neighborhoods being ethnically cleansed; it happens every day as roadside bombs go off and death squads and mercenaries and U.S. soldiers kill, and normal Iraqis flee for their lives. This is George Bush’s Free World and welcome to it.
In such a world, the looters and plunderers are even free to cleanse the past. Recently, British journalist Robert Fisk offered an update on the smash of civilizations that started with the invasion. He described an Iraq in which even farmers had been transformed into looters, while “heritage sites,” from the dawn of human civilization, from the literal Ur-moment of our world, when not destroyed down to the bedrock (to provide objects for Western art connoisseurs), were being turned into parts of U.S. military bases. He reported:
“2,000-year-old Sumerian cities torn apart and plundered by robbers. The very walls of the mighty Ur of the Chaldees cracking under the strain of massive troop movements, the privatisation of looting as landlords buy up the remaining sites of ancient Mesopotamia to strip them of their artifacts and wealth. The near total destruction of Iraq’s historic past — the very cradle of human civilisation — has emerged as one of the most shameful symbols of our disastrous occupation.”
Faced with such a world, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently gave a speech at the College of William and Mary in which, for the first time in memory, a top administration official didn’t wholeheartedly plug the spreading of freedom and democracy abroad in typical Bush fashion. In fact, at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy, he gave a talk entitled “A Realist’s View of Promoting Democracy Abroad,” in which he reminded his audience of the value of allying with despots to advance American interests: “Over the last century, we have allied with tyrants to defeat other tyrants. We have sustained diplomatic relations with governments even as we supported those attempting their overthrow. We have at times made human rights the centerpiece of our national strategy even as we did business with some of the worst violators of human rights.”
This talk was greeted enthusiastically by the nation’s pundits. Finally, a realist! Given the realities of our world, it’s not hard to understand why. Perhaps the rest of us can now breathe a small sigh of relief. Whereas, in the previous six-plus years, freedom was theft; now, perhaps, clarity has entered the picture and theft is simply theft itself.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2007 Tomdispatch.com