It’s the Economy, Stupid (even in Iraq)

by Haider Ala Hamoudi

This is my last post on this site. It’s been a wonderful experience writing this week, I hope all of you found it as beneficial as I have. Thanks to the commenters, and of course to the editors of Opinio Juris for the opportunity. Anyone interested in the topics I have raised here is of course warmly invited to my own, where some of these ideas, as well as others relating to Iraq and the broader Muslim world, will be discussed and debated and further expounded upon. Again, my deepest gratitude to all. Now on to the matters at hand.

When those unschooled in Iraq read the Iraq constitution for the first time, the greatest initial surprise (aside from the fact that even though it’s a Muslim country, the constitution actually looks normal—I wish I knew what they were expecting) tends to be concerning the scope of the economic rights granted in the document. There are rights to work, to health care, to social security, to education, to housing, and to protection for the widows and the elderly, among other things. Unlike, for example, South Africa, where many of these rights are qualified with a clause indicating that the legislature is entrusted with progressive realization of these economic rights, in Iraq the language is generally very broad and unambiguous. It is the state’s obligation to provide, and no qualifications are present. In understanding this rather startling result, or at least startling to American lawyers who’ve never seen anything like this, I think some light might be shed on some Iraqi frustrations with the United States that should be more obvious than they are.

Basically, the clauses found their way into the constitution because they were something each constituency could agree on. They all liked them, they all wanted to include them, and there was as a result very little discussion on most of them. Other than one concerning family law, that is, which really was an attempt to introduce notions of Islam into the law of the family, but the Islamists couldn’t do it directly, so they made it into a “right” of each person to choose their own law, which makes no sense but it’s all supposed to be organized by legislation later, so I guess we have to wait and see. Other than that, however, and the rights didn’t much change from first draft to last.

I suppose the Americans weren’t necessarily enthused about all of this, given American biases, but by the time the constitutional drafting had rolled around, they had long given up on having very much effect on the terms of the document, within reason. They had tried to manipulate the process—offering caucuses nobody could understand as a means to select the drafting committee, providing friendly American advisers, including some in academia, influencing the drafting of an interim constitution—but more or less they came to nothing. None of them worked, Sistani insisted on elections to select the body, and elections came (hard for an American administration to resist the one person one vote thing), advisers were quickly out, the interim constitution was going to be dead, Sistani more or less announced he was going to see to that. As a result, the US influence was some very savvy folks at State playing mediation, trying to make all sides happy, and making sure the document wasn’t a disaster, so they could say that Iraq had come together and forged a bold new national compact, and look up whatever the President said for the rest of it. The point is, that took work, because the groups didn’t get along, and didn’t agree on a great deal, and the US wasn’t about to waste energy on stuff that didn’t look embarrassing that they all agreed on.

Of course, this only begs the question, why did the Iraqis find these things so desirable? Why did they agree on a number of promises they could not possibly fulfill and, depending on the aggressiveness of the court, could well straitjacket policy for decades to come? I think here it is important to note one aspect of the Ba’ath, that isn’t often discussed. As with Lenin (Peace! Bread! Land!), the Ba’ath claimed to stand for three principles—Arab unity, freedom, and socialism. The first two, or the lack thereof, people know about, the final one they do not. This was not anything approaching a free market society. The public sector is huge, the former Minister of Commerce in Baghdad once told me he had about 75% more staff than he needed, and central government pressure was on more hiring, not less. Gas subsidies which cost the central government a great deal, and largely inure to the benefit of smugglers, are proving stubbornly durable. Rations for rice, cooking oil, sugar, tea and the like have been in place for almost two decades now, and simply cannot be removed. The insurgents when they took over Falluja suspended almost all government services, but not rationing. They had to let it continue, or the consequences could have been dire. To understand Iraq economically today, the most apt comparisons are to the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.

I’ve discussed in Howling in Mesopotamia some of the consequences of this. All too many of our employees and contractors seemed to measure their rights to payment based on appearance in the office, even if they were supremely unproductive during that time. Faculty seemed unwilling to take the simplest of steps to approve the use of our money to improve their facilities (for example, even the building of bookshelves), absent approval from superiors, which could weeks to arrive. (We gave up and simply started telling everyone that we had approval for everything we sought to do from George Bush himself, which seemed to work, even if we were not a government agency, a further demonstration of strong socialist bias). And most importantly, and actually most understandably, a populace that evaluated the change of regimes not by increased freedom, but goods and services provided. To the extent that this is true the world over (I think I know people here who would trade their vote for an iphone), it is dramatically more so in a society in which socialism played such a central role. And the failures of the Americans to deliver was, in many ways, the worst disaster of all from the Iraqi perspective.

in its middle tells the story of a neighbor of mine, Abu Ahmed, who was in fact early on more or less a supporter of the American invasion. As a Shi’i, he had no love for the Saddam Hussein regime, but in addition to the expectations of future Shi’i dominance (I don’t mean to downplay this side of things too, only point out other strong influences), he looked forward to a better life for himself and his family. Clean water, a good salary and continuous electricity were what he wanted, and everyone was certain that the Americans could deliver it, given their own domestic achievements. When it didn’t come, the assumption was that the Americans had deprived them intentionally, and the population began to turn. The book conveys Abu Ahmed’s growing frustration with the American rule to the point where, shortly before his untimely death, he shouted to me in the street well within earshot of American soldiers that if given $300, he would kill any number of them immediately. The insurgents had money, he said, and the Americans did not want to share theirs.

While the Iraqi expectations were unrealistic of course, and putting a man on the moon (a favorite Iraqi example of American prowess when they are determined to achieve something) is different than administering a country, it cannot be underestimated how badly the occupation went from a goods and services standpoint. I lived in Iraq for two years, and in that two years, I saw absolutely no improvement in living standards of any kind, other than perhaps the advent of the mobile phones and the satellite television. Electricity never improved, water quality never improved, hospitals looked the same, and so did schools (if you don’t count a paint job). I read about all sorts of achievements, I continually heard US senators proclaim how much rebuilding money had been spent for Iraq, and how it was Iraq’s turn to spend on itself, but that didn’t exactly mean much when they had no effect on a man on the street. Most Iraqis couldn’t understand exactly what these officials were talking about, some assumed the money had been smuggled by the CPA to Saddam, who it was commonly said before his capture was living comfortably in Hawaii.

I tend to believe that things might have been done to placate Iraqis at least temporarily. Distributions of truckloads of televisions and electricity generators would probably have done more good than unrealistic multibillion dollar infrastructure projects that would have taken years to realize in the best of conditions. Broad Rooseveltian plans to hire people to do a lot of nothing would have won a few friends as well, as opposed to trying to open the country to foreign investment that was not going to be coming. There are any number of reasons the US did not do this, but one probably is that it isn’t the American way, at least under the Bush administration. Governments don’t pass out goodies, they set the rules to let people build them on their own and get out of the way. It’s largely laissez faire to this crowd.

It isn’t my purpose to deny this or advocate for it, only to point out that this isn’t the Iraqi mentality, bred of decades of socialist rule. And if someone is going to try to help Iraq out of its current economic nightmare, at least taking cognizance of the Iraqi mentality might be a good place to start.

5 Responses

  1. I’m reminded here of the former Soviet Union, which some folks thought could be transformed rather quickly into an American-style capitalist economic order, which of course did not happen and may never happen.

    Two things in the post, rather tangential to its overall tenor, nonetheless rubbed me the wrong way, First, I don’t think it’s fair to the New Deal era to speak of “Broad Rooseveltian plans to hire people to do a lot of nothing,” although in the current ideological economic climate such comments often go unchallenged.

    Second, might we at least refer to Ba’ath party socialism as “nominally socialist” or “putatively socialist” or at least put “socialism” in scare quotes (e.g., ‘decades of “socialist” rule’). The fact that I identify with much of the socialist tradition and especially with the works of the “analytical Marxists” (Roemer, Elster, Cohen, Wright) perhaps makes me peculiarly sensitive to such things, but there’s always been a section on the Left who has long and firmly believed that much of what fell under the rubric of “Party-State Socialism” or the various forms of “socialist” programs that were put into practice under motley regimes in East-Central Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, or in Asia were a far cry from what Marx envisioned (having in fact said very little about what socialism was to look like) or even what the utopian socialists that Marx polemicized against had in mind when they dreamed and wrote on behalf of socialist ideals and projects.* Indeed, post-war social democratic politics perhaps better represents the legacy of the Marxist tradition than most of what fell under the heading of “socialism” or “communism.” As Meghnad Desai has written, Marx’s critique of capitalism political economy acknowledged capitalism as a progressive mode of economic development which was preferable to “reactionary alternatives.” And the mature Marx, unlike the Marx of the 1840s, was not convinced of the imminent demise of capitalism, even “excoriating contemporary socialists for their delusions about the prospect of achieving socialism.” Socialism means many things to many people, so unless we’re going to specify what we mean by the label, scare quotes should suffice to alert the reader of the wide range of possible and often contradictory meanings.

    *Cf. (several of these titles have excellent bibliographies):

    Desai, Meghnad. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. London: Verso, 2002.

    Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Arcade Publ., 1989.

    Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1990.

    Ollman, Bertell, ed. Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Pfeffer, Rodney G. Marxism, Morality and Social Justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    Roemer, John. Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Roemer, John, ed. Analytical Marxism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,


    Roemer, John. A Future for Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

    That said, I’m quite grateful for your second stint here guest blogging, as I’ve learned quite a bit (and no doubt others have as well), apart from the fact that it prompted me to buy and read your wonderful book. Yours is a perspective that truly deserves a wider forum and, I think, represents the sort of sensitive, well-grounded, and sophisticated analysis that is necessary in our age of globalization and cross-fertilization of worldviews and cultures. And I hope your blog attracts new readers, as they’ll find they’re amply rewarded for their small investment of time and attention.

    Thanks again, Professor Hamoudi (well, as I’m a bit older than you, maybe I can just call you ‘Haider,’ if that’s not disrespectful).

  2. Jhoover:

    Enter exactly as follows, as the link above is missing the final slash mark: or try here.

  3. Mr. O’Donnell, your first criticisms I accept, the second I am not so sure about. I didn’t actually mean to say Roosevelt hired people to completely waste time. I don’t think that, you are right to dispute the implication. I just meant that, as with the New Deal era, first priority should have been to hire lots of people, and then look to see what use they might be put to. The point I was trying to make was that even if they had been hired to do nothing (say pay half the Iraqi army to dig ditches and the other half to fill them), it would have been better than what was done, leaving angry unemployed armed men on the street.

    As for the second point, it does seem to me that the Ba’ath’s economic policies can be best described as “socialist”. I don’t think that implies, or at least it should not imply, that socialism must come hand in hand with Saddamist type rule. It’s an only a statement concerning the economic policies of the Ba’ath, which involved capturing large streams of revenue, owning major national resources,and, in turn, distributing relatively generous government services. They also caused massive inflation through excessive printing of currency, among other things, so it’s not like their socialism was pristine or their economic policy worthy of emulation, but still, on balance, I’d call it socialist.

    It’s perfectly fair to say that socialism can be done better (and it certainly wasn’t Marxist by any means, there was a private sector) but I’m not sure it isn’t socialist when the public sector is so large and the government owns and distributes so much, just because the political system was, for reasons having little to do with economic policy, worse than deplorable.

    Thanks again, and you can of course call me Haider


  4. Haider,

    Thanks for the clarification about the New Deal stuff. And I won’t belabor the “socialism” discussion, for I don’t want to detract from the main points of your post. I look forward to your next guest blogging stint and of course will be regularly reading your blog as well.

    All good wishes,


Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.