Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iraq: The "Subprime" War

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By Caroline Fourest

Three trillion dollars is the probable cost of the war in Iraq, according to Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard Professor of Public Finance Linda Bilmes. Recently released in the United States, their book, "The Three Trillion Dollar War," has just come out in France (Fayard, 300 p., 22 euros). The two economists have taken official expenses into account, but they also cover collateral and obscured expenses, which they elucidate through a forward-looking budget that anticipates the war's macroeconomic effects. Most notably, they have calculated what veterans' medical care will cost, including disability pensions, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health treatments affecting some several hundred thousand American soldiers. That calculation may seem cold and cynical given the number of deaths - both direct and indirect - we're already having so much trouble quantifying. But this detour through concrete economics was necessary to wake up our nerves deadened by the daily announcements of deaths in Iraq - a rendezvous that has become as banal as the weather forecast.

"What's it doing in Iraq today?"

"Ten dead in an attack."

"Huh, like yesterday.... But they had forecast a lull."

"What can I tell you; there's no change in the seasons anymore!"

Among the reasons that explain this nervous disorder, let us recall that the Iraqi victims of attacks are killed by jihadists, not by Americans. Their madness does not, however, wash away the Bush administration's original sin: to have invaded Iraq without any thought for the consequences. This collateral damage is quantifiable. As a bonus, several factors that have spiked the cost of the war will have repercussions on the rest of the world. The first involves the privatization of the military. There are at this very moment 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq charged with securing the activities of the Iraqi and American armies. Not only do these security companies cost taxpayers dearly, but this privatization of the military relieves governments at war of accountability, opens the door to crimes which those governments wash their hands of, enriches over-armed mercenaries, and consequently increases the risk of instability at a global level.

Another exacerbating factor involves the way the war has been financed. Wars used to be financed by taxes once, which had the benefit of bringing their weight to bear on the generation that decided to go to war and consequently of pushing citizens to want to bring them to a close. The Bush administration, however, chose to finance this war by borrowing. Which will cost a great deal in interest expenses, but which also, once again, contributes to relieving the warmongers of accountability. Americans have decidedly been treated like children. They were lied to about the presence of weapons of mass destruction; they are still being lied to about the cost of the war - which the Bush administration continues to evaluate at around $800 billion. That's the subprime technique. They thought they'd take revenge on al-Qaeda with a lightning war. Now they find themselves indebted over several generations with a variable rate loan ... and since the American economy remains the global benchmark, we'll all be paying the bill, even if we were against this war.

For - as we are well aware - the latest inflationary incident in this turning of the tables involves the take-off in oil prices. Some paranoid people believe the Bush administration is Machiavellian enough to have invaded Iraq with an eye to supplying itself with cheap black gold. It didn't make any such sophisticated plan. It remains nonetheless the case that private oil and oil service companies like Halliburton - and their shareholders like Vice President Dick Cheney - have profited from the conflict, which poses questions about the contacts between the economic milieus that may profit from a war and the political world that holds the cards in hand to start one.

All these considerations would not have the same appalling effect had this war at least been good for something. Yet it has done nothing but undermine America's moral credit. Can America still be considered the world's premier democratic power? All the checks and balances that were its glory and made it great have blown up. Freedom of the press wasn't able to prevent the lie that was at the origin of the war. The Supreme Court includes new judges chosen by the Bush administration to close their eyes on Guantanamo. Now how can a country give lessons to other countries about human rights when it itself practices torture? When it passed up on the Security Council's opinion to conduct a preventative war based on a mistaken intuition, the United States not only lost money, it dirtied its own "world policeman" uniform. Stuck in a quagmire and indebted, it no longer has the means to intimidate Bachar Al-Assad. Not to mention the jihadists and Islamists who are making the most of a new outdoor training camp. Nor the war in Afghanistan which we're going to lose because of the dissipation of forces. Nor the political Islamists whose proselytism is spreading. September 11 could have become Islamism's tomb. But by responding to terrorism with an illegitimate and mistargeted war, the United States has more than anything else helped Islamists turn the world into a mass grave.

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