Christian Parenti on Iraq Political Islam and Prisons
Christian Parenti is a teacher, author and disciplined left scholar with a PhD from the London School of Economics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, The Baffler and The Christian Science Monitor. He is also the author of two books: Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso. New York, 1999) and The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic Books. New York, 2003). The scion of a family of political journalists Parenti has been involved in both journalism and activism since the 1980's. Lockdown America, his first book, was a sobering analysis of the geometric growth of the prison industry in the 1990's. Lockdown starts as an exploration of the political scene and GOP interests in Law and Order issues in the 1960's and ends up in the 1990's describing the implementation of military technologies into the operating procedures of civilian police departments across the United States in response to a perceived out-of-control crime wave. Rather than just repeating alarmist rhetoric about crime and "declining moral values" as a rubric to describe and contain all social problems Parenti's book focused on the economic structures of contemporary society as being the origin of those same problems. Parenti says that "a crisis of overproduction in global capitalism" threatened to eliminate profit from consumption and in turn threatened the very structure of the system. Capitalism, Parenti argued, is flawed in that it needs poverty in order to function. There needs to be an unemployed population in order to have competition in labor. At the same time the poor have to be managed some how since they all rebel against the status quo sooner or later. Parenti saw the prison build-up, as well as the accelerated War on Drugs which helped populate those prisons -- vice industry being a traditional mode of escape offered to the poor -- as tangent to this understanding that prisons are a means of containing "social dynamite." In other words they exist to maintain business as usual rather than to protect or reform.
There was much in Lockdown America that was depressing. There was also much that was mind-blowing, illuminating and enlightening.
The Soft Cage, Parenti's latest book, details the history of police surveillance technology in the United States from the times of slavery to the post-modern high-tech digital eyes and databases of the post 9/11 War on Terror present. A timely book or what?
I interviewed Christian Parenti at his father's home in Berkeley about his fact-finding trip to Iraq, the nature of what he terms "Political Islam" and what he thinks decision-makers in the United States aim to get out of the prosecution of a Mid-East War.
This is an excerpt of an interview that will appear in Species #1
CP: There's this crime wave in Iraq right now (October 2003) because Saddam emptied the prisons and the US fired the police and everybody has a gun and everybody's poor and there's crazy, crazy awful shit happening. One of the more disturbing phenomenona are so-called "Misery Gangs." Misery Gangs are gangs of young men who prey on women. There's an incredible amount of sexism that's kicked in during the last ten years not the least of which is that women have started to wear the hajab again when before it hadn't been so common there. Iraq was traditionally very secular and modern but after Saddam lost the Gulf War in 1991 he initiated this thing called the "Faithfulness Campaign" by which he tried to curry favor with the Fundamentalist Moslems or Political Islamists. To do this he put the words Allahu Akbar -- "God is Great" -- on the Iraqi flag and legalized "honor" killing: where a woman who has been disgraced through rape or adultery can be legally murdered by a male relative. This is made worse by these Misery Gangs made up of young men who are too poor to marry, who have been scarred by endless warfare and who go around kidnapping women and raping them and then dumping them on the street afterwards. Often what happens to these women is their own families will then kill them. Women are living in total terror.
Aside from the crime there's fighting between the resistance and US counter-insurgency but the most stressful thing going on is the crime. As a journalist you don't feel that you are a target of political violence but people are getting car jacked and shot in the head all the time and there's nothing the police can do about it. The police are basically an irrelevant force. There's no government -- essentially -- in Iraq. People can steal cars at gunpoint and sell them in Iran. It's tax-free. You can smuggle a car across the border and get four or five thousand dollars for a late-model car.
S: How long were you in Iraq for?
CP: We were there for two weeks. It was basically a three-week trip with bullshit time on either end getting in and getting out.
S: How easy was it to get financing for this trip? You're a left journalist, not associated with the mainstream, corporate media so how did you put this all together?
CP: I had to finance myself. We all financed ourselves. Luckily right now I'm doing a post-doc for the London School of Economics and this involved a travel budget so I was able to get reimbursed. I'm still sort of waiting but in theory I'm going to get reimbursed for the major costs of the trip. But it was one of those things. This was not a money making venture. I wrote a couple of articles about it and made some money from those but the idea wasn't to go to Iraq and make some money. The idea was to go to Iraq because this is history happening. The US has committed a horrible crime there and blundered in a very serious way on it's own terms. This is going to be an important war to understand for the next several years.
S: I read one of your articles about Iraq in The Nation. You wrote about your experiences staying with a Florida National Guard Unit bivouacked in a former Red Guard Officer's Club. One thing that seemed to resonate in the story was their lack of adequate training and appropriate equipment in regards to being stationed in Iraq. Essentially these were guys who were used to doing weekend hurricane clean-up, that sort of thing, but all of a sudden -- bam -- they're in the middle of a situation that's difficult for them to understand. Having talked to a few Vietnam vets I think there's a few parallels between what these soldiers were experiencing, as you related it, and what these vets told me they experienced. They were put into a situation they don't necessarily understand besides the general political explanations. They don't receive any real training about the culture or the specific issues of the region. One thing that you mentioned was that they had to go buy decent walkie-talkies from merchants in the electronics district of Baghdad because they weren't provided with any. It seems like there are a lot of parallels, even though there aren't supposed to be, between Iraq and Vietnam.
CP: Yeah definitely. There are a lot of differences too. One of the main differences is that this is an urban war. It's hard to imagine how there would ever be the large-scale type of engagements that were a part of Vietnam. During the Vietnam Era everybody compared the war to World War II and said there weren't any large-scale engagements going on, that what essentially was happening was guerrilla warfare. In Vietnam, however, there were some pretty large-scale engagements between North Vietnam and the US and the Vietcong and the US. Because Iraq is mostly a desert except in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers -- and even there it's pretty flat -- I think it would be very hard to fight a traditional People's War in the countryside. What you see developing is an urban war. Much war like what happened in Algeirs between the French and the Algerians in the 1950's or a more violent version of Northern Ireland.
We didn't interview any people in the resistance. We did meet people who later turned out to have families that were connected to the resistance and were aiding them with money. Journalists who have interviewed members of the resistance report that there is a classic urban guerrilla structure of cells between four and six people, nom-de-guerre first-name basis only. Everything is on a need-to-know basis only. This structure is super compartamentalized and small-scale. Actions are hit and run terrorism against the Western presence there: the Coalition. It seems like they'll be able to sustain that for quite a while. The country is littered with arms. It's full of arms depots that the US can't fully guard.
S: But no weapons of mass destruction?
S: Just anti-personal ordinance?
CP: Just the type of weapons that the resistance is going to need to take out Humvees and soldiers one or two at a time.
S: What is the statistic of US soldier death right now? One or two a week or more frequent?
CP: General Sanchez said in the paper last week that they were loosing between four and seven a week and they're having 40 a week incapacitated by wounds. That's another thing: the body armor they're wearing right now is really good. It's not like the body armor they had in Vietnam. The body armor they have now consists of ceramic plates over your front and back covering vital organs. These plates can take at least one direct hit, maybe more, from an AK-47 -- a really powerful gun. The number of people that are dying from these wounds is really much lower than in the past such as in World War II, Korea, Vietnam. They also have really amazing trauma medicine: inflatable tourniquets and state-of-the-art trauma medicine. So you have to view the casualties in light of that. There are a lot of guys who are getting completely maimed who in the Vietnam Era would be dead but who are kept alive due to this amazing trauma medicine and who get sent back home. All that aside there have been more than 2000 guys who have been taken out of combat permanently.
S: What do you think is one of the principal motives behind the war?
CP: Globally you have a crisis in overproduction and you have a desire among US economic elites to go into regions like the Middle East and restructure them, force those economies open and also to subordinate the friends of the US: Europe and Asia. Here I'm using the ideas of Peter Gowen who wrote this book called Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian Bid for Global Dominance. He looks at one of the main rivalries in the world: the EU versus the US and Asia. "Asia" used to mean Japan but increasingly it means China and the whole cluster of economies around China and Japan. China and Japan are the two other poles of world capitalism. The US during the Cold War was able to maintain a type of direct and indirect leverage over the rest of the world capitalism because the US provided a security shield against Third World liberation movements and the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War and the end of state socialism that threat went away. There are elites in those other poles of capitalism that want more control and more autonomy from the US while the US wants to maintain its hegemony as the dominant ally.
I think that what is going on in the Middle East is that the US is trying to maintain itself as the petroleum gendarme of the region. The US doesn't get much of its oil from the Middle East, only about 14 percent. The EU and Asia are heavily dependent on the Middle East's oil however. If the US can be the security guarantor of mid-east oil that creates a type of subtle and powerful dependency on the US for the EU and Asian capitalist economies. They have to think twice about crossing the US on any matters if they know the US is securing their oil supply for them. I think that was one part of what's going on. It's also about Halliburton being mobbed up in the White House and wanting to get all these contracts and these oil companies. Some of the oil companies had mixed feelings about the war. They were worried about destabilization but they are also clearly interested in privatizing national oil companies especially the Iraqi Oil Corporation. Iraq is the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and that reserve was completely controlled by the Iraqi state.
S: I read an article written in British English -- and unfortunately I forget the author's name -- but one of the points he made was that a primary reason for going to war was that Saddam was threatening to start selling his oil for euros instead of dollars which is the international oil currency. If this happened the power of the dollar would be undermined and so would the advantages that the US has over all of the world's economies.
CP: I've heard that too. I don't know if he was doing that but what it gets at is that the threat posed by the euro to the US dollar. The dollar is the safe deposit box of the planet and that means that the US can run this massive trade deficit. It can consume much more than it produces while money will still be lent to the US, so this scheme will continue. Elites from Europe, Japan, Latin America, or wherever, take their excess cash and park it in dollar assets. That is to say in US firms, the US stock market and primarily in US Treasury and corporate bonds. In the nineties this freed up domestic money to go into the stock market. All that money, all that capital inflow, takes the form of cheap credit and subsidized consumption. This is not a sustainable system but for the moment that's what's keeping the US going. That instability and lack of profitability in the rest of the planet attracts investors to the dollar. That is to say assets valued in dollars and parked politically in the US and protected by the power of the US State. If the euro could displace the dollar as a secure currency it could help Europe stimulate its economies and create autonomy for Europe that it doesn't currently have. This would threaten this cycle of foreign capital financing US consumer debt which in turn finances gluttonous US consumption which keeps the entire world/planet economy turning over. Korea makes cars and electronics that the US must consume. China likewise. They're dependent on US consumption -- on the over consumption of the US middle classes. That gets at a whole deeper pathological imbalance in the global economy: that is to say global capitalism.