The best hope for an American role would be American recognition that each of its military interventions has only done more damage than the last
Broken windows exert a mysterious power. My own sense of their mystery is a personal one. For anyone born in an American inner city, buildings with broken windows are familiar. They impose themselves as you make your way to school through the neighborhood. They foster a sense of dread that a child does do not understand but does feel intensely. The response of adults heightens that sense. Stern warnings are issued not to go anywhere near those buildings.
I have always felt that there was more to the unsettling impact of broken windows than my childhood experience suggested. Studies of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq have confirmed that intuitive sense. For this study of corruption in Iraq I will draw extensively on a general theory of corruption that is known as the broken windows theory of corruption. This theory has generated countless transnational empirical studies. It was first put forward by American social scientists but has attracted the attention of scholars across the globe. Given a core assumption of this study that the roots of the rampant corruption now plaguing Iraq have been nourished by American rather than Iraqi actions, tt is appropriate that the theory originates in America in the work of the prominent political scientist the late James Q. Wilson,.
Windows constitute a thin, vulnerable membrane that perpetuates the illusion of an inside that is safe and an outside where shadows lurk. In fact, as we all know, dark shadows reside both within and without. The connections between them are complex. As both Freud and Jung explained, shadows without are more often than not projections of the shadows that lurk within. Broken windows expose that secret. They unify those two shadowy worlds, shattering the illusion of safety.
To break windows is to commit an act of psychic as well as physical violence. This study argues that the American assault on Iraq aimed deliberately to break windows. The United States projected its own demons onto Saddam Hussein and all Iraqis concealed behind his manipulated image. The terrible sound of shattering glass was the sound of purposefully “ending the Iraqi state,” the overarching strategic purpose of the American invasion. The twin evils of corruption and sectarianism were unleashed as means to consolidate that end.
President Obama has recently explained how the horrors that began with the invasion of Iraq reflected “how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.” He asked that the architects of the American response, including the invasion of Iraq, not “be sanctimoniously criticized,” let alone held accountable for their criminal actions. The projected fears of our frightened “patriots,” as the president named them, became projectiles as the coalition dropped some 4,845 bombs on Iraqis. In the end hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered. To this day CNN regularly celebrates its coverage of “the skies lighted over Baghdad,” as though reporting on some kind of fireworks celebration. The coverage never mentions that the American unprovoked and unjustified attack on Iraq was a war crime. It was purposeful. A weakened, divided, and sectarian Iraq was the conscious strategic aim of the American-led coalition. Americans and Israeli interests drove the policies. As a primary source of international law, the judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal in the 1945-1946 case of the major Nazi war criminals is plain and clear. The International Court declared that “to initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The stenographers of the international corporate media dutifully reported the high ideals by which the aggression was justified. Iraqi nuclear weapons would be found and destroyed. Iraqis would be rid of their odious dictator. The looming specter of the mushroom cloud would dissipate. A post-invasion, democratic Iraq would provide a model for the transformation of the entire Islamic world. Faced with such duplicity one thinks of Henrik Ibsen’s trenchant remark: “Don’t use that foreign word `ideals.’ We have that excellent native word `lies.’”
Diverting attention to these useful lies screened from view the real motivations for the supreme war crime: oil, of course, but also the ending of an Arab state strong enough to challenge Israel. Most importantly, the “shock and awe” of the bombings and invasion provided a dramatic stage to showcase total and un-challengeable American power. The whole world would be given an unequivocal warning that the sole superpower intended to make real the abstract concept of “full spectrum” global domination.
The formation of the post-invasion Iraqi political order reflected this same sweeping strategic vision. It entailed the active cultivation of sectarianism and corruption to perpetuate Iraqi weakness. At the same time, the commission of this supreme war crime dramatically weakened the American constitutional order. Millions of Americans and Europeans in even greater numbers actively opposed the invasion. The freedoms to express such massive dissent from an imperial policy would have to be curtailed. They have been. The impact on American democracy has been crippling. Here, however, the focus will be on the devastating consequences of ending the Iraqi state with just a side glance to the ways the launching of an illegal invasion corrupts a democratic political order.
Evidence of massive corruption is everywhere on display in Iraq. We need, of course, more than the facts of myriad acts of corruption. We also need perspectives and theories to make sense of what lies before us. To deal with issues of corruption, the occupation of Iraq, and American empire we will need a very wide theoretical lens.
It is beyond the scope of this brief paper to review the extensive social scientific literature on corruption. But a few comments are in order. Classic studies of corruption focus narrowly on the individual level and the ways in which officials and bureaucrats turned public assets and responsibilities to gain for themselves and their families, their sect, or their party. Corruption in this light essentially means the appropriation of public goods to meet private needs and secure private gains. The scale of corruption in Iraq is too massive to believe that an analysis cast in these individual level terms will be in any way adequate. At the other end of the spectrum of theories about corruption are those cast in national and international frameworks. The general point of these macro approaches is to indicate the way that national and global norms are distorted by corrupt practices that violate them in practice even as they affirm them in principle. Such approaches will be helpful in making the connection between American imperial aims and the corruption of the legal and moral norms of the American polity. To consider corruption in these broader frames also has the advantage of bringing into view simultaneously both Iraq as the victim of an illegal invasion and America and its allies as the culpable invading powers. Having both in sight will enable exploration of the ways corruption of various kinds has had a major impact in both Iraqi and American settings.
The primary focus here, however, will be on the debilitating role of corruption in post-invasion Iraq. For this level of analysis, the most useful theories are in the middle range between individual and international levels. They focus on the way that community and national institutions are weakened by widespread corruption. Verifiable general theories of institutional corruption are very few. The bulk of the work at this level consists of rich case studies from which grounded explanatory theories are generated. Study of that largely empirical literature is useful mainly for suggestive insights into the ways that the specific case of Iraqi corruption may be viewed in comparative perspective. However, while general theories that establish causal connections have for the most part eluded scholars, there have been breakthroughs with work based on strong correlations. Such theories do go beyond the limited case study approaches. They do suggest what a general theory of corruption would look like. The broken windows theory of corruption, on which this study relies, is one such general theory.
My personal connection to the mystery of broken windows has made it easier to tailor the general theory to the Iraqi case. Broken windows in American inner cities result from quite purposeful actions. This understanding of the context out of which the general theory was generated makes it easy to make the useful rhetorical move from the adjective “broken” windows to the verb “breaking” windows that I use in my title.
Pimps and promoters, among others, have an interest in breaking windows. They circle poor neighborhoods like piranha, especially transitional neighborhoods. They look to extract their pound of flesh before absolute decay takes over. For their respective professions broken windows create wondrous opportunities for profit without regard to scruples as to how money is made. Broken windows create broken neighborhoods. Apartments become difficult to rent. Eventually, buildings are abandoned. The pimps and the prostitutes move in. Just when it looks like things could not get worse, the “suits” appear to assess prospects for “developing” the neighborhood. Working with the local authorities the promoters manage to get large numbers of buildings condemned. Remaining tenants are evicted as their apartments are declared unlivable. The contractors and their builders move in. Before long the demolitions begin and the lucrative rebuilding commences. From beginning to end the process is saturated with corruption.
For those familiar with post-invasion Iraq, all of this will sound strangely familiar. American wars in the imperial age rely on the black magic of broken windows. The American policy makers, deciders, and the corporate elite whose interests they serve have discovered the formula to turn destructive war-making into a highly profitable enterprise. The most remarkable discovery is that you don’t have to win wars to make profits in the billions from war-making. Lost wars, they exult, can be profitable! Win or lose, it is of course always the large corporations that profit and ordinary people who pay the price. This simple insight explains how the United States can lose a string of wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan and yet preserve an astonishing appetite for war-making.
The corporate promoters have their usual roles to play. War-makers and profiteers need their “respectable” hustlers. Where would Halliburton be without Dick Cheney? The best studies we have indicate that at least two and most likely three trillion dollars was spent on the Iraq war. War-making is expensive. However, the profits for those with privileged access are quite astounding. Service contracts totaled some 138 billion dollars A recent analysis of the companies that made money off the war by providing private support services to the troops reveals that the number one recipient was Houston-based energy-focused engineering and construction firm KBR, Inc. which was spun off from its parent, oilfield services provider Halliburton in 2007. Latest reports show that the company was given $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts over the past decade. It is important to note, with corruption our theme, that many of the contracts were awarded without any competitive bidding.
Like neighborhood redevelopment, wars must be packaged as a public good so public funds can be raided. The corporate media has the task of presenting the official deceit and lies as “news” and “analysis” to the general public. We like to pretend that Fox is the beginning and the end of the misinformation but in truth CNN provided the drumbeat, Fox the outright war hysteria. The public was kept preoccupied with the search for the mythic weapons of mass destruction or entranced by the displays of the latest weaponry in actual use, always smart, always precise. Meanwhile, behind the screen of deceit and lies great advantage was secured and huge fortunes were made. Israel was of course the major winner with the elimination of an Arab regime that supported the Palestinians. At the same time, it has come as no surprise to learn, years later of course, that the oil companies and related industries profited handsomely. Of all the war criminals, Tony Blair has emerged as the most artful in amassing a huge personal fortune to which he continues to this day to make impressive additions. Blair, it is reliably reported is earning millions by cashing in on his statesman role in launching illegal wars in the Middle East -- particularly the invasion and conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan. Few have been more helpful to the American imperial project and the Zionist cause than Blair. The huge personal fortune which he now enjoys is his reward for years of service to American's imperial strategy, and to Israel through major progress in advancing the Zionist cause. It's a bounty of corruption, war crimes and murder.
However, the galaxy of war criminal is much larger one and includes Condoleeza Rice of the mushroom cloud, Madeleine Albright of “it was worth it,” Colin Powell of the UN speech linking the Iraqi regime to the al Qaeda. It is worth noting that America lavishes all manner of medals and prestige on its war criminal while the real American patriots like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Glen Greenwald languish in prison or suffer exile from the country they have so courageously served. One day, let us hope, we Americans will get the labels, the exiles, and the imprisonments right.
Profits were not the only product of the criminal invasion, of course. The supreme war crime has also been a producer of violent extremists, coming to life out of the death, destruction, and disorder brought on by the invasion and the “creative chaos” of the invaders. The terrorist yield assures that the process of criminal war-making is transformed into an auto-catalytic one. More extremists fuel more wars on terror, with each group of violent militants worse than the last. Terrible in themselves, the successive waves of extremists are projections as well of the evil of the American war-makers and the greed and brutalities of the successor sectarian Iraqi regime the invaders put in place. They are, as Chris Hedges has argued, “the ghoulish face of empire.” Of ISIS, he explains:
They are the specters of the hundreds of thousands of people we murdered in our deluded quest to remake the Middle East. They are ghosts from the innumerable roadsides and villages where U.S. soldiers and Marines, jolted by explosions of improvised explosive devices, responded with indiscriminate fire. They are the risen remains of the dismembered Iraqis left behind by blasts of Hellfire and cruise missiles, howitzers, grenade launchers and drone strikes. They are the avengers of the gruesome torture and the sexual debasement that often came with being detained by American troops. They are the final answer to the collective humiliation of an occupied country, the logical outcome of Shock and Awe, the Frankenstein monster stitched together from the body parts we left scattered on the ground.
We now are watching the horrific spectacle of Iraq descending into destructive distrust and disunity. The tattered remnants of inclusive Iraqi nationalism are being shredded.
The broken windows theory of corruption considers corruption at heart to be about distrust and disorder. Research done on the basis of the theory, in turn, has established strong correlations between widespread corruption and to the breakdown of national coherence, not to mention development and democracy. Empirical studies also establish a very strong connection between corruption and systematic damage to a range of public goods, including health, education, and civil liberties. The definition of corruption as distrust and disorder represents a distillation of the scores of solid empirical applications of the theory. The application of the theory here builds on those results, although it does depart from the standard studies in one important way. Our focus is not anonymously broken windows as in American inner cities. Rather, the argument is that the extended American assault on Iraq, undertaken in the full light of global public opinion, aimed quite deliberately at breaking windows. Breaking windows is here understood as a policy. The American aim of bombing Iraq “back to the stone age” should be understood in precisely this way. The wanton destruction of the Iraqi national infrastructure cannot be satisfactorily explained in the usual ways as simply an American rampage or thirst for revenge for the assassination attempt on President George Bush senior or the need to endlessly humiliate Saddam Hussein. Windows were deliberately broken. The Iraqi capacity to repair them was decisively degraded in calculated ways. Corruption was in this way effectively seeded in what remained of the Iraqi national landscape.
From the empirical case studies generated by the broken windows theory we know that the existence of corruption, signaled by unrepaired windows, prompts distrust of public officials and institutions. Corruption, as one analyst has put it, acts as “the canary in the coal mine” to confirm that public officials cannot be trusted. It significantly affects the way citizens evaluate the efficacy of the political and economic systems of their society. Corruption, left unchecked, goes further. It breeds profound social distrust throughout society. More gravely, corruption on a large scale signals that public order has been effectively undermined.
Corruption prompts generalized social fear and insecurity. This broad conceptualization allows us to bring into view the ways the criminal invasion of Iraq prompted corruption not only in Iraq but also in imperial America. The symptoms of widespread corruption in the wake of the invasion accelerated markedly in both Iraq and America, though they took quite different forms. In Iraq corruption profoundly distorts national public life in social, economic, and political realms. The US as the sole superpower plays a preeminent global role. Its immoral and illegal invasion has corrupted hard won legal and humanitarian norms for international relations and domestic politics. The American criminal invasion of Iraq has undermined the commitment of ordinary Americans to them.
The calculated destruction of Iraq will rank as one of the greatest war crimes of the 21st century. American leaders did not stumble absentmindedly into Iraq. The fateful decisions that knowingly ‘‘ended’’ the Iraq state, decimated Iraqi society and killed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens were taken with great deliberation over the course of more than a decade. Under both democratic and republican administrations, the White House ordered bombings, crippling sanctions, and ultimately an invasion to dismantle existing national political and social structures to prepare Iraq for ‘‘remaking.’’
The end of the state was regarded as highly advantageous to American global hegemony and related Israeli regional dominance. These goals represented serious strategic miscalculations. Outcomes did not fulfill expectations. However, subsequent, unanticipated developments do not alter the fact that these goals provided the motivation for the invasion.
Empires, of course, are always innocent. An empire neither apologizes for its crimes nor holds those responsible accountable. Imperial America is no exception. The US has expressed no remorse for the massive death toll of Iraqis and no regret for the degradation of a fully functioning society with impressive developmental achievements, a vibrant and productive educated citizenry, and an incomparable cultural heritage. There has been no attempt to assess objectively the full extent of the damage done, no effort to understand how such unimaginable loss of life and massive physical destruction could be part of a rational foreign policy, no effort to identify those responsible at the highest levels for decisions that did such terrible harm, and no thought of compensation to the innocent victims.
When evidence mounts that their actions are in fact criminal, empires simply refuse to “look back,” as Barack Obama put it. The president insists on “moving forward.” That attitude comes naturally as empires always represent themselves as the agents of a higher order of progress. By definition, their crimes advance higher purposes of which their victims and even their own citizens cannot be expected to have any understanding. In the end, superior power assures that empires are not held accountable. They refuse to submit to the “opinions of mankind” and to the international laws that govern civilized behavior. Instead, empires routinely celebrate their crimes as high- minded successes and their war criminals as humane citizens of the world. For example, on 29 May 2012, President Barack Obamarecognized thirteen Americans, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Commenting on her service as the 64th Secretary of State, the President noted that, among other accomplishments, Albright was ‘a champion of democracy, human rights, and good governance across the globe.’ There was not a word in the citation about Albright’s role in the assault on Iraq.
No single figure articulated the blend of humanistic rhetoric in the service of sheer barbarism in asserting American dominance more effectively than Madeleine Albright. She explained ‘… the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.’ By Albright’s lights, Iraqis would be guided by the Americans to rid themselves of such a leader and win their freedom. The unconscionable Clinton policies toward Iraq of bombs and sanctions, over which Albright presided, paved the way for the invasion and ruination of a major Arab state.
The assault on Iraq required a complete disregard for international legal norms. Madeleine Albright had no hesitation in contributing to that corruption of international law. Her attitude was vividly conveyed in a well-known exchange with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who argued that the bombing of Balkan states violated international law. Albright’s succinct reply spoke volumes that would be instructive for the Iraqi case: ‘Get some new lawyers’, she advised Cook. The total disregard for the impact of the reckless bombing on Iraqi innocents found its clearest articulation in Albright’s stunning comment when asked about a 1996 UNICEF report that up to half a million children had died as a result of UN imposed and US implemented sanctions. The interviewer posed the question simply and directly: ‘We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’ The then US Ambassador to the UN, without questioning the figure or expressing any regret over the stunning loss of innocent lives, addressed the issue as one of policy. ‘I think this is a very hard choice,’ she said, ‘but the price – we think the price is worth it.’ We have here an example of moral corruption of the highest order.
Future historians will not fail to give Madeleine Albright the recognition she deserves for her central role in paving the way for the human calamity in Iraq. Nor will they ignore the role of President Obama in cultivating the myth that it never happened. Obama argues passionately that, rather than a calamity, Iraq represents a decisive American success. We have here a stunning instance of the corruption of the historical imagination of Americans. The American military mission, the President told the world “had been quite simply “to help the Iraqi people seize the chance for a better future. And on December 18, 2011, their mission came to an end.” To the ears of Iraqis and those who have suffered with them through the invasion and occupation, these presidential fantasies have an odious character. Memories of Haditha, Abu Graib, Nisour Square, and above all Falluja render cruel and contemptuous the president’s grandiose talk of ‘opportunity in oppression’s place.’
It is natural for an American President to mourn American war dead, as the president did during his withdrawal speech. It is a corruption of elemental decency to restrict attention to only .5% of the war victims and leaving unmentioned the 99.5% losses of Iraqis whose land was invaded and whose country ravaged. For Americans, the Iraq War came close to destroying the US economy, undermined civil liberties, made arguments for murder and torture acceptable. Yet, even these terrible costs pale before what America’s unlimited imperialism did to Iraq and Iraqis. The American record in Iraq constitutes just the kind of ‘grotesque obscenity’ that Hans J. Morgenthau, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of international relations, saw clearly in the earlier Vietnam imperial adventure. Yet, President Obama reads this American nightmare as an American dream. Iraq, the President intones with no trace of irony, represents a great American achievement that shows the world who we are as Americans. The Presidents words suggest ominously, there will be more wars of unlimited imperialism and more medals for war criminals. Given the poisonous corruption of law and decency that the Iraq invasion prompted it is all the more important for those American, European, and Middle East scholars who are not
The broken windows theory of corruption with its emphasis on distrust and fear suggests that the remedy for corruption in Iraq will come on the national level or not at all. It will entail the consolidation of a unifying Iraqi nationalism that will restore the sense of a common good for all Iraqis. Today that remedy seems utopian. Yet, Iraqis have done the impossible before. It is important to remember the work of the Iraqi resistance in wearing down the occupiers. Iraqis even under a deeply flawed leadership did register a diplomatic success in this same spirit. In the end, the American military mission in Iraq terminated in an abject withdrawal because Iraqis rejected demands for immunity for US troops and contractors whose corrupt and criminal behavior had shocked the world in incident after incident.
The American military presence in Iraq was clearly the largest and most visible of the broken windows in that battered country. Iraq remains a land of countless other shattered windows. Today ISIS, the ghoulish face of empire, stalks the land, casting yet darker shadows. The US has begun the inevitable bombing. A realistic assessment would suggest that a shattered Iraq cannot be reconstituted. What seems most likely is the emergence of three antagonistic mini-states of Kurds, Sunni, and Shia, if all-out civil war can be avoided. Yet, for all the death and destruction of this terrible decade the legendary resilience and exorbitant talent of Iraqis holds out the hope that somehow the forces of distrust and disorder can still be brought under control. The critical victory of an American withdrawal on terms dictated by Iraqis prefigures this unwarranted hope that Iraqi windows can be repaired and that unified Iraqis will find from within the capacity to make the repairs themselves. The best hope for an American role would be American recognition that each of its military interventions has only done more damage than the last. We might contemplate very limited humanitarian aid and that means food supplies dropped to threatened minorities and not bombs or drone strikes. What is left of Iraq is best left to Iraqis.