Ambitions of Empire: Deconstructing the Bush Agenda with Antonia Juhasz

RS: One the most startling things in your book is the way you talk about the war. While it is popular to describe it as a failure, you describe it in many instances as exactly the success they were looking for. Could you describe therefore what they were looking for and what parts are really working for them, despite the fact that Iraq is an incredibly violent, dangerous, and tragic place right now.

AJ: I wouldn’t characterize it as them having achieved everything they wanted, but they are doing far better than they are given credit for, in that they had a very clear economic and political agenda, which they have come very close to achieving. Essentially, they were so blinded by their economic and political agenda that they were unable to face up to what the reality of imposing such an agenda on Iraq would be. The economic agenda was very clearly laid out by Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Libbey, Edelman, and Perle for decades, but what was crystallized with this administration was the need to gain guaranteed access to Iraq and its wealth by replacing Saddam and locking in not just a new leader of Iraq, but an entirely new economic and political infrastructure. This would lock in guaranteed access for US corporations to Iraqi’s resources; most importantly, Iraq’s oil. Reagan and Bush Sr. opened the door of economic access with Saddam Hussein for US corporations led by Bechtel, Halliburton, Lockheed, Chevron, and others. But this door shut when Hussein changed his mind about playing ball with the United States.

RS: And this was in the 1980’s before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990?

AJ: This was literally days before the invasion of Kuwait. At this time, we were buying more oil from Iraq than at any [other] time in history. And after Saddam Hussein closed that door, I believe that Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of them decided that they were not going to let themselves be tossed about by the winds of another dictator that they had done so much for. They devised the implementation of the most aggressive corporate globalization policy in order to secure access for multinational corporations. In Iraq, this policy was combined with a military invasion and occupation to ensure that the transformation would be complete.

RS: Is this relationship between military and corporate globalizing interests new in some respects? Where have we seen it before?

AJ: Well, it has certainly been a model that has been tried for centuries through colonialism and imperialism, but there has never been in modern history as overt a use of such a large portion of the United States military to implement a corporate globalization agenda as in this war. So far, over a million US soldiers have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. This full-fledged occupation and invasion has not been seen since Vietnam. And in Vietnam the US government did not succeed in implementing the type of economic transformation that they are succeeding in implementing in Iraq.

RS: This brings us to talk about the Middle East Free Trade Area, which is something not many people here in the US know about.

AJ: At first, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick entered into an environment where free trade was being heavily questioned, but then September 11 happened. He was able to use the stick of September 11 aggressively and forced developing countries who, prior to September 11 had indicated that they were not going to follow along with the WTO in Qatar, to all fall in line. This meant that the Doha Ministerial became the first successful ministerial in many, many years. Zoellick then proceeded to try and use that value of September 11 at the subsequent ministerials, but to less success. Cancun and the Hong Kong Ministerial failed, so he decided that he would adopt the Bush Administration’s very unilateral approach to everything that it does and start to negotiate on bilateral basis. That model has been most aggressively applied in the US-Middle East Free Trade Area, announced by Bush one month following the invasion of Iraq. Once this series of bilateral negotiations between the US and individual countries of the Middle East are all complete, they will be tied together into a Middle East Free Trade Area. Those negotiations are moving along at breakneck speed due to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which is the ultimate stick to carry against the rest Middle East.

RS: Your book is a real dialectic between civil society and these very sinister powers. I wonder about the victories of civil society that you’ve seen that have changed the shape of the war in some ways. Essentially, where does civil society and citizen power fit in?

AJ: First, I want to backtrack to clarify what I mean when I say the successful economic restructuring in Iraq, because to me that is very important in opening up what civil society is doing and can do about the war. I had written in detail in Left Turn about the 100 orders of Paul Bremmer a few years ago. Those 100 orders, currently being pulled into the new constitution of Iraq, laid the groundwork for the corporate invasion of Iraq by giving 150 US corporations $50 billon for reconstruction in Iraq for at least the first two years, completely bypassing hundreds of private and public Iraqi companies and millions of Iraqi workers who should have done the reconstruction themselves. In addition, the first Bremmer order fired the 120,000 key ministers in every government ministry in Iraq.

RS: So they essentially fired the entire government, turning Iraq into a country with no administration whatsoever and whose entire professional class was just laid off?

AJ: Exactly. After the first Gulf War, it was all these ministers that in three months time rebuilt the Iraqi infrastructure, including roads, bridges, electricity, water and sewage. They were fired by the US, however, because they would have stood in the way of the implementation of the Bremmer orders. The US plan was very clear: bust open Iraq to US corporations, lay the groundwork for those companies to stay put in Iraq, and have Iraq be a gateway to the rest of the region as they opened [it] up with the Middle East Free Trade Area. What I argue is that the Bremmer orders kept the state controlled economy in place but had the state operate to the benefit of the multinational corporations and regulate on behalf of multinational corporations, as opposed to social welfare and social benefit. Basically, it laid the economic infrastructure for a “free market” economy. For example, oil was the most important item on the US list of resources, but the Bremmer orders excluded the exploration and initial processing of Iraqi oil. Instead, what was needed to guarantee US access to Iraqi oil was an Iraqi oil law. The new oil law has its roots in Bearing Point Contract, the company that received $250 million to rewrite Iraq’s economic infrastructure and is a State Department working group. It opens up all of Iraq’s undeveloped oil fields to foreign private investment on terms that are highly favorable to the foreign private companies. This new law will be put into place when the new government takes it seat, and then the companies can get to work with the protection of more than 150,000 American troops. The Bush Administration succeeded in putting in place a government that supports the occupation, supports the new economic transformation, and supports the new oil law.

RS: Can you talk about the blowback to this?

AJ: What the Bush Administration didn’t count on was civil society. What we hear the most about is the violent insurgency in Iraq, but what we hear less about is the mass, non-violent protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq opposing the military and economic occupation. In addition, there is the mass opposition among US soldiers now to the war, and 70 percent of the American public has turned against the war. Our activism has made it possible for that 70 percent to voice their opposition to the war. Our opposition has also succeeded in that the American public has not been sold [on the claim] that Iran is a threat to us, as the American public was largely sold on Iraq.

RS: That’s interesting. I was going to ask you about watching them drumming, but nobody marching.

AJ: They are using the same playbook for Iran and it’s not working because the American public has been wizened and informed. What I am afraid of with this particular administration however, is that it is so hard to differentiate where the corporation begins and the government official ends. There is a lot of oil in Iran and they have a lot to gain financially from going in. Their interest is continued corporate access in the region, particularity in the oil sector, such that if they lose their political capital by going into Iran, that may not be the worst thing on their minds. What I talk about in the “Alternatives” chapter of the book is the need to be making alliances with anti-globalization groups in the Middle East to spread more information. What I hear time and time again from people in the Middle East is that there just isn’t enough information on the US-Middle East Free Trade Area and that agreements get signed and all they feel are the aftereffects. We need to be sharing more information.

RS: There is a real sense for [US] activists that things were rolling forward post-Seattle, but that 911 really knocked all that off track.

AJ: It’s important to put September 11 in the context of what was happening with the corporate globalization movement. We had tremendous success shutting down the WTO negotiations in Seattle in 1999, the world banking institutions were further stymied in their movement forward, hundreds and thousands of people were converging to stop negotiations every time they started up, and hundreds of thousands were meeting at the World Social Forum. Clearly the tide had turned and large social movements continued to work together to advance the anti-corporate globalization agenda as we have seen blossom in Latin America. September 11, however, did have a tremendous impact on the ability of Americans to organize in the way that we had previously. It also had a tremendous impact on those nations who were forced to fall into line with the US under the threat that they would be seen as allies of terror if they didn’t. Just a few weeks after September 11, the next ministerial meeting of the WTO took place in Qatar and I had actually gone to Beirut several months earlier for a pre-organizing meeting of Middle Eastern groups who were organizing opposition to the Qatar meeting. Then, September 11 happened and most Americans were afraid to travel to the Middle East, including delegates to the WTO Ministerial and many NGO’s, and opposition activists were unable to travel to Qatar because it is a kingdom that heavily restricts entry and organized protest is illegal, as well. The counter event planned in Beirut took place largely without the presence of Western activists, which was fine because they had a wonderful event, but it had a long term impact in that there are very few connections between Middle Eastern anti-globalization activists and American and other Western anti-globalization activists. We are seeing the detrimental effects of this playing out right now.

RS: Where you think the anti-war movement was and is effective and what are the mistakes that we should be learning from?

AJ: I think the anti-war movement has done tremendously [well] in the link between hearing what is really happening in Iraq from journalists there and [getting that information out in] blog spaces. The movement has been really seeing the effects of the war, responding and listening to the soldiers who are returning from Iraq and their families, and working together to expose the realities of the war. And in some pockets, the movement has given wonderful attention to the corporations involved. What is on the lips of most Americans is high gas prices. However, if we continue to push the envelope on exposing the corporations involved, we will be able to directly expose the oil agenda, [as well as] how the Bush Administration is fighting wars on behalf of the oil industry and how that industry is part and parcel to the Bush agenda. We can expose what they are really after by working with workers in those companies to transform the very policies of those corporations, in this case policies that are about war and dominance, and we can apply the tactics we already have more directly to stopping the war and the Bush Administration. It’s really about teaming more directly all of our wonderful experience and organizing capacity we have in the anti-corporate globalization movement with the peace and justice movement, and this will be the harbinger of our success.

Antonia Juhasz is an author, activist, and policy-analyst living in San Francisco. She is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has previously served as the Project Director of the International Forum on Globalization and as a Legislative Assistant to two U.S. members of Congress. She is contributing author to Alternatives to Economic Globalization: a Better World is Possible, and her work has appeared in numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, and the Johannesburg Star. She is a regular contributor to LeftTurn.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist with a particular interest in geography, landscape, slowness, insurrection, indirect routes and subjects that escape category. She lives in San Francisco and is the author of ten books, including most recently A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.