“No clue.” That is the conclusion of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. He has no clue where large parts of our $51 billion went to. From the moment that the Bush-Cheney administration set up invitation-only sessions to acquaint prospective contractors to the potential for lucrative government contracts before we had even invaded, until today, there was no real mechanism for controlling our money or tracking where it went or what we were paying for things like an $80 pipe fitting that costs $1.41.
I have a favorite story from Iraq, complements of the Jacksonville, Florida, Times-Union in 2004. The Times-Union is an editorially conservative paper, but a remarkably full-ranging one. They carried many stories in depth that other papers only covered in a few paragraphs.
This story involves a cement factory in Baghdad. It had been damaged in the invasion. Answering the invitation to have the United States assist in rebuilding, the owner approached the Army Corps of Engineers, who triaged such projects. They toured the plant, assessed the damage and told the owner that it would take two years and $20 million to rebuild his factory. Mindful of the need to appear to be rebuilding the country, the Corps handed him $20,000 and told him to look busy.
He went back to his factory, used some of the American money to replace destroyed or looted office equipment, took inventory of his remaining stock, sold that inventory and used the money from the sales and the remaining American money to repair the plant. Within three months, he was operating at above his pre-war level and turning a very handsome profit.
There were two morals to this story, and those who followed all the Iraq stories in the Times-Union could piece them together. Iraq was not a third world country when we invaded it. Maybe second-world, but not the backwards country we were told it was. Iraq was industrialized and modern. We broke it. We never properly fixed it. The Iraqi people had built that industrialized country and they should have been allowed to rebuild it instead of being cut out of the process with us sending in contractors who charged us $60,000 per year, plus living expenses, plus security costs, plus 3% profit for every truck driver brought in from America, who in turn did not have to pay American taxes on that $60,000 because of some clause in the tax code that exempts civilian workers in war zones.
The insurgency was fueled in large part by the massive unemployment in Iraq. Even when the American contractors hired Iraqis, they were notorious for not paying them properly or in a timely manner. Had we allowed them to rebuild their own country, there would not have been unemployed young men who could be recruited into the insurgency.
There are a couple of other stories from Iraq, both relate to how we spent our money. Under the United Nations “oil for food” program (1996-2003), Halliburton, yes, Cheney’s Halliburton, was given a contract to “modernize, improve and update” the Iraqi oil industry. In 2003, as a consequence of our invasion, Halliburton was given a contract to “modernize, improve and update” the Iraqi oil industry. Either Halliburton defrauded the United Nations by not fulfilling the contract they were paid for, or they defrauded us into handing them a contract to “re-do” what they had just finished doing for the United Nations. No investigation into these two contracts has ever been conducted.
Then, there is the port city of Basra. The historically legendary Tigris and Euphrates rivers join north of Basra. Below the merging point there is a lake and then a single river runs to the Persian Gulf. Once upon a time, there were beautiful parks and gardens along the riverfront in Basra, until Saddam Hussein built a military base there.
The people of Basra told the British who were administering the city just after the invasion that they were looking forward to the military base being dismantled and their riverfront restored. They were displeased to learn that the Americans planned to use that base for their occupation and for future Persian Gulf operations.
We may never fully understand what we did wrong in Iraq, and we certainly won’t know where all our money went. Maybe we should ask Dick Cheney.