This column was written by Tom Engelhardt.
On Dec. 14, 2004, President Bush bestowed the highest civilian honor the nation can offer, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, upon L. Paul Bremer III, his former proconsul in Baghdad.
He offered this encomium: "For 14 months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty." And the president added, "Every benchmark ... was achieved on time or ahead of schedule, including the transfer of sovereignty that ended his tenure." ("He did not add," the Washington Post pointed out at the time, "that the transfer was hurriedly arranged two days early because of fears insurgents would attack the ceremonies.")
Bremer is an especially interesting version of a Bush-era freedom-spreader, in part because, thanks to Blackwater USA, the private security firm with whom the U.S. State Department has inked at least $678 million in contracts for protection in Iraq, and whose mercenaries continue to run wild in that country, his handiwork is back in the news right now.
In December 2004, less than six months had passed since Bremer, in his role as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in occupied Baghdad, had turned over "sovereignty" to a designated group of Iraqis and, essentially, fled that already chaotic country. Just before he left, however, he established a unique kind of freedom in Iraq, not seen since the heyday of European and Japanese colonialism. By putting his signature on a single document, he managed to officially establish an "International Zone" that would be the fortified equivalent of the old European treaty ports on the China coast and, at the same time, essentially granted to all occupying forces and allied companies what, in those bad old colonial days, used to be called "extraterritoriality" -- the freedom not to be in any way under Iraqi law or jurisdiction, ever.
Gen. David Petraeus, the president's surge commander in Iraq, has often spoken about a "Washington clock" and a "Baghdad clock" being out of sync and of the need to reset the Washington one. Bremer, who arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, quickly went to work setting back that Baghdad clock. When it came to the freedoms of Western occupiers (or liberators, if you will), including armed mercenaries, what he achieved on this score was truly a medal-snatching feat. He essentially turned that Baghdad clock back to the 19th century and made that "time" stick to this very day. On the eve of his departure, he issued a remarkable document of freedom -- a declaration of foreign independence -- that went by the name of Order 17 and that, in the U.S. mainstream media, is still often referred to as "the law" in Iraq.
Order 17 is a document little-read today, yet it essentially granted to every foreigner in the country connected to the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institution. Foreigners -- unless, of course, they were jihadis or Iranians -- were to be "immune from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of their Sending States," even though American and coalition forces were to be allowed the freedom to arrest and detain in prisons and detention camps of their own any Iraqis they designated worthy of that honor. (The present prison population of American Iraq is reputed to be at least 24,500 and rising.)
All foreigners involved in the occupation project were to be granted "freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq," and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be "subject to registration, licensing or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government." Nor in traveling would foreign diplomat, soldier, consultant or security guard, or any of their vehicles, vessels or planes be subject to "dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees," and so on.
And don't forget that on imports, including "controlled substances," there were to be no customs fees (or inspections), taxes or much of anything else; nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of Iraqi "headquarters, camps, and other premises" occupied, nor for the use of electricity, water or other utilities.
And then, of course, there was that "International Zone," now better known as the Green Zone, whose control was carefully placed in the hands of the Multinational Force, or MNF (essentially, the Americans and their contractors), exactly as if it had been the international part of Shanghai, or Portuguese Macao, or British Hong Kong in the 19th century.
Promulgated on the eve of the "return of sovereignty," Order 17 gave new meaning to the term "Free World." It was, in essence, a get-out-of-jail-free card in perpetuity.
Above all else, Bremer freed an already powerful shadow army run out of private security outfits like Blackwater USA that, by now, has grown, according to recent reports, into a force of 20,000 to 50,000 or more hired guns. These private soldiers, largely in the employ of the Pentagon or the U.S. State Department -- and so operating on American taxpayer dollars -- were granted the right to act as they pleased with utter impunity anywhere in the country.
More than three years later, the language of Order 17, written in high legalese, remains striking when it comes to the contractors. The man who, according to the Washington Post, composed the initial draft of the document, Lawrence Peter, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, now director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, which "represents at least 50 security companies." The order itself begins on private security firms with a stated need "to clarify the status of ... certain International Consultants, and certain contractors in respect of the Government and the local courts." But the key passage is this:
"Contractors shall not be subject to Iraqi laws or regulations in matters relating to the terms and conditions of their contracts ... Contractors shall be immune from Iraqi legal processes with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto ... Certification by the Sending State that its Contractor acted pursuant to the terms and conditions of the Contract shall, in any Iraqi legal process, be conclusive evidence of the facts so certified ..."In other words, when, in June 2004, Bremer handed over "sovereignty" to an Iraqi "government" lodged in the foreign-controlled Green Zone and left town as fast as he could, he essentially handed over next to nothing. He had already succeeded in making Iraq a "free" country, as only the Bush administration might have defined freedom: free of taxes, duties, tolls, accountability and responsibility of any kind, no matter what Americans or their allies and hirelings did or what they took. And it has remained that way ever since.
This is apparent even to the present, largely powerless Iraqi government, situated in Bremer's Green Zone, whose officials have complained angrily about the latest Blackwater shootout and whose prime minister termed that "incident" a "crime" by out-of-control private security contractors. "We will never," he said at a news conference, "allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood by this company that is playing with the lives of the people." As in Vietnam in the 1960s, even the officials of puppet governments often turn out to be nationalists; even they get fed up with their patrons' arrogance sooner or later; and, often, having spent so much time close up and personal with the occupiers, have nothing but contempt for them. They are the ones who truly know what "freedom" means in their country.
In Iraq, in a twist on the nightmare language of Orwell's dystopian novel "1984," freedom came to mean theft or the opportunity to be gunned down in the street by hired guns whose only job was to protect foreign lives.
By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation