Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The magic of accountability

When Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw a shoe – and then another – at G.W. Bush many people thought ‘oh man, I wish I had done that’.
If only.
But if we threw a shoe for every mistake the Bush administration made in Iraq, the White House would drown in an avalanche of footwear simply over the review of the disastrous first weeks when the wrong people were given the wrong jobs, the wrong tools and no clear instructions or leadership.
By the time we start looking at the failures of post-invasion reconstruction efforts, I suspect we’ll be running out of shoes.

But now things will change, right?
Even though we know that Obama is inheriting the biggest US-made mess both at home and abroad, we still hope he has a charisma-infused magic wand that will allow him to fix things so we can all live happily ever after.
In reality of course, Obama will be constrained by what is already there and may not actually have the luxury of his convictions when it comes to Iraq.

That much was obvious when he failed to publicly denounce the privatisation of the war – a trend that has become coterminous with the Bush administration but was actually gathering momentum already under President Clinton – and promised a focus on accountability instead. Obviously, with no magic wand at his disposal, things can't be fixed overnight. But there may be magic hiding in this statement all right.

Since Paul Bremmer’s Memorandum 17, private contractors have been pretty much exempt both from Iraqi and home jurisdiction (wherever that may be). Although the tide is turning and lawsuits are currently being filed in Iraq and in the US against both individual contractors and the companies that employ and deploy them, private security firms remain a prime example of power without responsibility. Unsurprisingly, private security spokesmen dispute this, pointing out that the market has its own standards and, as commercial entities, it is in the private security firms’ interest to ‘get the job done’ as doing so gets them repeat custom. What these spokesmen fail to dwell on is that not getting the job done simply loses them a client, while it loses other people their sovereignty, their dignity, their life.

‘Get rid of them’ is obviously the simplest solution to all this.
Simple but not practical.
Limiting the use of private contractors would entail withdrawing from Iraq and/or Afghanistan or replacing them with more soldiers on the ground. With private contractors carrying out security and training operations on behalf of the US across the globe, 'getting rid of them' would also entail a radical re-think of US interventionist politics worldwide. Courtesy of Donald Rumsfeld, privatisation has gone so far, that reversing the trend will take years.

So wand-less Barack Obama promises us accountability rather than miracles.

And we all know that accountability could be an empty word and a series of committee meetings. Hardly the stuff of magic.

Yet accountability could also represent a first step towards regulation, so that the likes of Blackwater don’t get away with murder; control over the tendering process and a closer look over the complex nexus of interests served by the current arrangement.
Accountability could actually allow us to ask ‘what is it we are trying to achieve in Iraq and are these guys helping or hindering us?’.

Accountability could be an empty word. Or it could mean brining the whole force of democratic process to bear on the problem. And that would be magic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.

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