Iraq, Democracy, and Free Labor

Defenders of the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq have thus far been unable to provide convincing evidence that Iraq harbored dangerous weapons of mass destruction, let alone posed an imminent threat to the US. These defenders then fell back on a broader, humanitarian argument: the US invasion was meant to free the Iraqi people from a brutal tyranny and install democracy in Iraq. Yet for the latter argument to carry any weight, the US civilian and military authorities now governing Iraq would need to demonstrate a commitment to democracy. The US occupation thus far has not only been heavy handed and inept in its efforts to provide minimal order, it has also undermined the pre-conditions of democratic governance. Its course spells further hardships for Iraqis and even carries significant risks for ordinary middle and working class Americans.

Democracy entails the right of a people to set its fundamental economic course. Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's chief civilian in Iraq, once bragged that Iraq would be given the right to fashion its own economic system, even if that meant the choice of socialism. Yet Bremer's notion reminds me of Henry Ford's quip that the customer could have any color Model T as long as it was black. Basic decisions that will make any future Iraqi choices moot are now being made by Bremer and his cohorts.

They have already awarded contracts to develop oil reserves and telecommunications to such favored US firms as Halliburton and WorldCom. The decision to privatize key state resources means that the profits to be made from these resources will flow not to Iraqis but to US firms. Perhaps such foreign expertise is worth it, but many of the contracts being entered into are non-competitive arrangements unlikely to assure the Iraqi people the best return on their investments.

Who will work for Halliburton and WorldCom? Once again, the occupying authority has removed basic economic decisions from the hands of future Iraqi governments. Amy Newell, national coordinator for US Labor Against the War (USLAW), a coalition of labor organizations that opposed the invasion of Iraq, pointed out recently that most of the corporations being tapped by the occupying forces for no-bid contracts are notoriously anti-union. In addition, some are already meeting their labor demands by bringing in foreign workers.

Not content to foster capitalism in Iraq, the Bush administration in effect is imposing its most predatory modern version. Such a course is not only unjust, it is also unlikely to deliver the promised gains. Giving key national resources to foreign monopolies is no way to assure their most efficient utilization. Having contracted out the Iraqi economy, the US government's next step will likely be to bring in the World Bank and the IMF. Loans will be extended -- all with the usual conditions. Iraq will be required rigidly to control the value of its currency and to limit all government assistance for food, health care, and education. Driving wages and working conditions down by contracting with anti-union firms, importing "guest" workers, and severely restricting social spending undermine the kind of strong domestic consumer market that has given emerging nations like South Korea an economic leg up in the last two decades.

Iraq is being forced to follow a course similar to that of Russia in the last decade. Throughout the '90s, the Russian economy stagnated to the point that many of the last century's gains in longevity were lost. Its economic decline has been recently reversed only because Russia at least enjoyed sufficient political and military muscle to decouple itself from IMF and World Bank demands.

The future of democracy is even more uncertain in Iraq. Economic stagnation and growing inequality in the context of an ethnically and religiously fractured nation is a recipe for authoritarianism. The Bremer administration's anti-union stance and its willingness even to censor Iraqi newspapers, something for which Saddam was routinely criticized, hardly helps to build a democratic culture. Newell correctly points out that "democracy has to have roots in the people, and the best way to do that is to have strong and independent trade unions; they are the anchor of democracy."

Throughout much of the Cold War period, key leaders of the US labor movement worked to suppress strong and independent trade unions abroad. Today, US labor has a major stake in reversing that heritage. An Iraq that seeks its economic salvation by repressing its own workers only contributes to labor's race to the bottom everywhere. And economic instability is one further element in a Middle Eastern conflict that now adds the lives of working-class American soldiers to its many victims. That the US labor movement now includes in its number many who will defend free labor in Iraq is something to celebrate as another labor day approaches.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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