In the days of the Roman Empire people used to compete to be awarded positions of responsibility in her various outposts. From one far-flung corner to another plums like Tax Collector and Customs Officer were wildly sought after, even to the point of being passed down from father to son.
Lest you think that the people of the ancient world were filled with a burning ambition to serve their emperor in whatever way possible, those were two of the positions in which individuals saw the most potential for the lining of their own pockets with gold. Unlike those higher up in the chain of command, these lower offices provided plenty of opportunities for wealth, while requiring little outlay in return.
Unlike the governor, who received a cut from every office by the way, who had to host formal occasions and maintain a sizeable staff, these men were able to operate with a minimum of expenses and a maximum of potential for reward. As long as they weren’t stupidly greedy and did anything that would draw attention to their activities, they were set for life.
I’m sure that it was taken to be accepted practice by the central powers, and a studiously blind eye was turned to all such activities. As long as the Empire was getting its expected return it didn’t much care what individuals did out in the field. How else were you going to convince someone to leave the comforts of Rome to go the damp and wilds of Britain if there wasn’t the opportunity to come home far wealthier than when you left?
Ten years or so after starting one of these positions a person who played their cards right could be set for life. There was little or no auditing of the books or whistleblowing back in those days. As everybody from the guard at the customs shed to the governor was getting their cut, it was in all their best interests to see that the system was maintained.
So the recent revelation of the horrendous mismanagement of funds in occupied Iraq should come as no surprise. A U.S. government audit has revealed that tens of millions of dollars supposed to be used for the rebuilding of Iraq has either been squandered or is simply unaccounted for.
If one casts one’s mind back to the days when the American troops first entered Baghdad, while priceless artefacts were being looted from museums, they were standing guard over the offices responsible for the oil industry. This was where the money was going to come from to rebuild the beleaguered country.
With the ouster of Saddam the embargo could be lifted against Iraqi oil. The taps could be turned back on and the money could flow into the country again. It looked to be a foolproof plan. Win the hearts and minds of Iraqis by rebuilding the country, while at the time not costing American taxpayers a cent. How could it go wrong?
Well one way is that the American officials in Hillah responsible for overseeing the project were unable to account for $97 million of the $120 million in oil revenues earmarked for the reconstruction. No records seem to have been kept; tens of millions of dollars are reported to have gone in and out of the South Central region’s vault with nobody having any idea of who, where, what, or why.
What’s scary is this audit has only focused on the one region of the country, for one fiscal year, 2003-2004. Inexperienced American occupation officials, many of them people who had worked on George Bush’s campaign, were responsible for organizing this “hearts and minds campaign” aimed at winning over the Iraqi people.
Things are so bad that of the $23 million in oil revenues the project officials claim they can account for; there exists paper documentation for only $8 million. One must assume that the other $15 million has been accounted for orally as in “Joe took four of us for lunch, and it cost $50,000” or something similar.
Then of course there are the records of how some of the money was spent, or was supposed to have been spent, and that’s just as damming as the missing amounts:
- An American serviceman took as much as $60,000 and gambled it away in the Philippines.
- An agent keeping $700,000 in an unlocked footlocker.
- An elevator repaired at Hillah General Hospital for $662,800 that then crashed and killed three people.
- The pipes of an Olympic-sized swimming pool “repaired” for over $100,000 and still pouring out brown sludge.
- Only a quarter of the $23 million dollars entrusted to civilian and military project and contracting officers ever found its way into the hands of contractors.
- A contractor paid $14,000 four times for the same project.
- A contractor for a library only delivering 18 of 68 personal computers that they were paid for.
- Of $7.3 million spent on a police academy, $1.3 million was spent on unneeded construction or materials never delivered and $2 million is missing.
- Two field agents responsible for paying contractors left the country never accounting for nearly $700,000 each (they’ve never been identified and when the auditors confronted their manager he tried to give them fake paperwork)
- The U.S-led security transaction command spending $945,000 for seven armoured Mercedes-Benzes that were too lightly armoured for Iraq. Auditors have only been able to account for six of the cars.
South Central Iraq is the least contentious area of the country in that there has been little or no trouble. Audits for other more troublesome areas are still ongoing. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has been conducting the audits for the Pentagon and the State department. These preliminary results show that whatever the intentions of the people involved with the project, it’s been an abject failure.
People on the ground over there aren’t stupid. How much of the continued insurgency is connected to the fact that conditions aren’t improving for civilians as they had been promised? If in areas where there is little or no hostility and work is being done so shoddily that locals are actually dying, what do you thing their reactions are going to be?
The majority of the contractors are not American, but from other coalition countries and their allies, and they are showing themselves to be more interested in carpetbagging than doing any work.
In this sort of situation appearances are just as important as anything else, and according to these reports not only are there no visible results but it looks like nobody actually cares about rebuilding the country. To the people of an occupied country that can only lead to mistrust of the people who are claiming they are there to be helping them. How would you react to this situation if you were a local? If you saw money that was being made by your country’s revenues being shared out amongst foreign profiteers who seemingly have no interest in using it for its intended purpose, wouldn’t you be a little miffed?
Unlike the Roman Empire of old, the American government is a democracy and the people who work for it can be held accountable for their actions. Already the auditors have requested the American Ambassador to recover over $570,000 of misspent money and recommended that criminal charges be laid against certain individuals.
But it appears that millions of dollars will never be recovered and some people are getting off scot free. Will the actions of the Inspector General be enough to reassure the Iraqi people that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated and overcome the mistrust that has generated?
A lot depends on how much further the rot has spread. If this was an isolated series of incidents that has not been pervasive throughout the country, then trust can be won back. But if it is widespread, it looks as if the American forces could be tied up in Iraq for a good long time. Without the trust of the people, anything connected to the occupying forces is automatically suspect, lending credence to the arguments of the insurgents.
If George Bush wants to have Iraq wound down before he retires from office, a priority needs to be the salvaging of the reconstruction program. As long as it appears to be a means for Americans their allies to line their pockets at Iraqi expense the country will never be pacified.