Thursday, July 01, 2004

now it's about the oil

Sovereignty this, puppetry that. The fundamental point was made in the piece by Bruce Ralston I linked to a few days back. the US has swapped military bases in Saudi Arabia for military bases in Iraq. Those troops are there indefinitely on the same mission that originally took them to the Kingdom, namely to secure oil supplies.

Yes, finally, at last and unambiguously – it’s about the oil. About time, too. If I have to have a war, I want it to be about the stuff that powers ambulances, rather than one undertaken for reasons of imperial vanity, or in Blair’s case, as an example of psychopathic altruism. He’ll kill anyone to show how good he is. And since we’re dealing with a tradeable commodity, there’s also more of a chance of making a rational settlement instead of getting lost in the fog of culture war.

Back on topic, it follows that the basic task of any Iraqi government is to guarantee the security of US army bases by ensuring the consent of the Iraqi people to their continued existence, by any means from state terror to elections. My bet is that we’ll get a combination of the two. If the elections go ahead as planned in January, I look forward to taunting the pro-death squad left sometime round December as “unacceptable” candidates and movements are weeded out.

More generally, the ability of the Iraqi government to deliver will depend on whether the US is prepared to settle for bases in the country or wants the country as a base. This latter was plan A, but that foundered on the insurgency and the sheer incompetence of Bremer and Co. Since Chalabi got defenestrated, the US seems to have gone for a more minimalist approach, rehabilitating the old Baathist power structure on the one hand and making overtures to people like Sadr on the other. Both the main currents of the Iraqi insurgency now have the opportunity to get involved in formal politics.

Whether the insurgent movements come in from the cold fully depends on the amount of actual control any future Iraqi government has over social and economic policymaking. We already know some details.Foreign troops in Iraq will be ubermensch as far as locallaw is concerned; the UN retains control of the oil revenues, such as they are right now. Every minister will have a friendly team of advisers breathing down his neck.

If Allawi is going to succeed in his fundamental task, he needs as much freedom in other areas as possible. He's going to have to ditch the small stuff. Here’s the recently exited exarch on his economic achievements.

Open economy. Bremer said the economy in Iraq is more open than ever before, particularly during the past 35 years. Specific improvements include free trade, a liberal foreign direct-investment law, and low tax rates.

Sounds great. I’ll be filling my boots as soon as the profits from my Ostrich Farm investments clear. I think stuff like this will go as soon as possible. A combination of foreign military occupation and foreign ownership of the economy is a recipe for general insurrection, just as Russian style economic shock therapy would plunge large sections of the population into permanent immiseration. This is why I think the idea that Iraq is a puppet state is inadequate. Allawi needs more freedom of action than that.

Specifically, he has to satisfy a number of constituencies, most of which are heavily armed, many of which oppose each other’s policies and none of which trust him. He’s also got to deal with intervention from neighbouring states, especially Iran. He’s got to be a democrat, while preventing any outcomes of democracy unacceptable to his foreign sponsors. He has to be tough, without activating the sqeamishness of those same sponsors. If he acknowledges popular sentiment, he needs to let Iraq become a more Islamic place without manufacturing jihadis. He's got to stop Sunni/Shia conflict breaking out seriously. He’s got to stop the country splitting up without generating the kind of nationalism which would lead to hostility to the US military presence. He’s got to make the presence of US troops a non issue by giving the public some form of business to mind, and satisfy Iraqi political movements with the rents from that business in the form of control over public spending. If he succeeds, he’s clearly a genius and I want him as Prime Minister right now.

More likely is a kind of resurgent mediocrity, a place that’s a cross between Egypt and Guatemala in a rough year. And this is a best case scenario.