Having faded from the conscience of most Americans as our war of aggression there became history rather than the stuff of elections and everyday life, Iraq is now back in the news as proponents of a new caliphate, the central government, Kurdish nationalists, and a host of other interests battle to maintain or dismantle the colonial-era creation.
But there have been other reminders of our presence there in the news. In the early 2000s, the U.S. invasion infamously opened the door to an Al Qaeda presence in the country—the very thing our lying Vice-President claimed we were going there to combat. The result was a battle between the rival ideologies of fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims.
But we introduced another kind of terror into Iraq when we invaded in violation of international law and in contravention of our own public interest. We razed cities, we destroyed infrastructure, and we killed tens and then hundreds of thousands of people. We also introduced mercenaries, most memorably in the form of Blackwater, to do some of the dirtier work.
Founded by religious fundamentalists, Blackwater came to comprise a kind of private army operating in Iraq. It became quickly clear that the mercenaries’ activities in Iraq were not always in keeping with the goals of the occupying U.S. force and the emerging Iraqi governments. Things came to a head when the mercenaries massacred a large number of Iraqi civilians in 2007.
It was reported late last month that shortly before the massacre, the State Department had launched an investigation into Blackwater’s activities in Iraq. The chief investigators were ordered out of the country by the U.S. Embassy, but not before a top Blackwater operative threatened to kill the chief investigator, adding that he would face no consequences because the death would occur in a lawless war zone.
Its investigation cut short, the State Department team nonetheless concluded that Blackwater was operating with “lax oversight” in “an environment full of liability and negligence”. According to the New York Times, the investigators wrote that “the management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves…Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law…the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and in control”.
The New York Times story provides further details of the culture and practice of the mercenary army, also noting that the death threat against the investigator was taken “seriously”, and was particularly disturbing because “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader”.
When the threats were reported, the U.S. Embassy, home to the successive viceroys handpicked by the neoconservative administration in D.C., shut down the investigation, effectively allowing mercenaries to dictate government policy and intimidate government investigators.
Thus a new kind of terror was introduced into Iraq, as hired guns, subject to neither Iraqi law, nor, it seemed then, to U.S. law, roamed the street killing at will. It was terror in the sense that mercenaries were used to introduce arbitrary violence onto the streets of Iraq. And it was terror in the sense that it marked the ascendancy of raw, lawless, violent profiteering over rational civilian rule, a move characteristic of the degeneration of republics into empires.
The power of Blackwater and its successor organisations in U.S. politics and in the Gulf represents a loss of control by the public over the conduct of our country’s international affairs, a loss which mirrors the ability of plutocrats in other spheres to wrest control of economic policy away from the public to be harnessed in the service of those who would profit spectacularly from the economic misfortunes of others, just as organisations like Blackwater profit from war, chaos, and death.
Some will see the triumph of such ideology and practice as an accidental phenomenon, the product of mismanagement and inefficiency in our immoral and ill-considered war of aggression in Iraq. But in reality, the use of indiscriminate violence, the ascendancy of profiteering, and the breakdown of civil law are all part and parcel of imperial war-making.
Unless the United States puts a halt to its colonial-style engagement with the wider world and moves away from policies driven by “national security” rather than “public interest”, we will only sink deeper into such a corrosive imperial state.