freedom’s just another word

Tom Engelhardt analyzes the Bush administration legal framework that keeps US companies and personnel unaccountable

Freedom as Theft (excerpted)

Honoring American Liberators
By Tom Engelhardt

Let’s take a trip down memory lane….

(George W. Bush has slipped Medal of Freedom awards)….. 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.

….Bush said that the general (Franks) 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.” 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, as CIA Director, ….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” as well as various other, more sophisticated forms of torture.

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…and 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….

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 (Iraqis) in prisons and detention camps of their own.

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.

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.

Thus the State Department…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.

….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.”

….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.”

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.

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