Dec 1 2003

Iraq and ‘Neglect’

Since the victory declared in Iraq turned out to be premature, the Bush administration has been doing more and more media criticism. Their complaints about the media may be dubious, but they do get results.

For example: On Fox News Sunday (10/26/03), Paul Bremer, the administration’s overseer in Iraq, took issue with a New York Times story from the day before that said that the U.S. was seeking funds from other countries “for reconstruction of water, power, health care and other systems devastated by the American invasion six months ago.” Bremer told Fox‘s Tony Snow, “I don’t know where the New York Times got that idea. In fact, when you travel around Iraq, you’re struck by…how very little collateral damage there was in the war…. The devastation that has been done in Iraq is 35 years of total economic mismanagement and cronyism and theft. The problems in the water and electricity systems that the New York Times is talking about have been there for 40 years.”

Bremer is peddling a strange version of Iraqi history. In fact, 40 years ago, Iraq was still largely undeveloped, just beginning to reap the benefits of oil nationalization, and public access to clean water and electricity increased dramatically during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But his comments did get the attention of the New York Times, which noted his criticism in a next-day news story (10/27/03): “On Fox News Sunday, Mr. Bremer also disputed an article on Saturday in the New York Times that said Iraq’s infrastructure had been devastated by the war six months ago, asserting that the damage had been inflicted by other factors, including decades of neglect. A correction of an editing error in that article appears on Page A2 of the Times.”

Talk about fast service. The correction read:

Because of an editing error, a front-page article on Saturday about the conference of donor nations held in Madrid to rebuild Iraq referred incorrectly to the factors that depleted Iraq’s water, power, health care and other basic systems. They suffered from years of war and neglect, as well as from the effects of the invasion six months ago and the looting and sabotage that followed. The American invasion was not the sole cause of the devastation.

It is true that the invasion was not the only cause of Iraq’s problems. Another major factor, which was ignored by both Bremer and the New York Times, was 12 years of sanctions, enforced by the U.S., which made it highly difficult for the country to repair the damage done to its infrastructure during the 1991 Gulf War.

The fact that sanctions would hobble Iraq’s efforts to rebuild its water treatment facilities, and that this would lead to widespread disease, was explicitly predicted in Pentagon planning documents at the beginning of the Gulf War (The Progressive, 9/01). Essential water purification materials like chlorine were restricted on the grounds that they were “dual use”: They could be used to make chemical weapons as well as to make water safe to drink, so Iraq had to do without.

To refer to the consequences of the U.S.’s calculated policy of denying vital technology to Iraq as “decades of neglect”–that’s a falsehood that really deserves a correction.


A Popular Euphemism

The New York Times is not the only media outlet that is using “neglect” as a euphemism to avoid talking about the effects of U.S.-backed sanctions. NPR‘s Guy Raz (10/23/03), asked why the reconstruction of Iraq was so costly, responded: “Well, in part it’s because of the war damage, of course, but I would say that’s a very, very small part of the problem. Nearly every major infrastructure section in the country was totally, you know, outright neglected by the previous regime.”

The Washington Post referred in an October 16 report to ” the challenges of rebuilding an Iraqi infrastructure severely damaged by decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein and two wars with the United States.” A headline in the Los Angeles Times(10/5/03) read, “Insurrection, Decades of Neglect and High Expectations by Iraqis Complicate a Daunting Task.”