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Larry Beinhart Headshot

The Great Experiment in (Neo-con) Freedom

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God bless our Neo-cons. They believe in Freedom. With a capital F. They believe that government is the enemy of Freedom.

Iraq - partly consciously, and partly unconsciously - was their great experiment.

The United States, driven by neo-con theology, and frequently run by neo-cons, went into Iraq. They removed the government. They removed the police. They removed the army. They removed the top administrators of all those horrid government bureaucracies. Then they stood back and watched what happened.

Then the looting started. The US, with the only government and only armed forces and only police powers around, stood back and watched.

One of the primary examples in The Tipping Point, How Little Thing Can Make a Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell, is the change in policing in New York in the nineties, in which the police and the city went after such petty crimes as subway fare jumping and graffiti. By immediately jumping on small things - the theory goes - the government demonstrated that it cared and would respond, and in the course of doing so, tended to locate the bad guys, because the robbers, killers, dealers and rapists, often violated all rules, not just the big one. The result was a dramatic decrease in crime. People commit far fewer crimes in a clean, well-ordered, well-maintained place than they do in rubble and graffiti strewn neighborhoods where the trash piles up.

Iraq demonstrates the opposite. When you let some people start looting and stealing and refuse to enforce order, more and more members of the population quickly get the idea and they understand that it's every person for themselves. We accept order and restraint because we know it's a good deal. By respecting hospitals, for example, we know that when we need medical care, they'll be there for us. But if we see that the government - in this case, Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and the United States Armed forces - simply stand by while some criminals loot the hospitals, there's no point in accepting order and restraint. The deal - the social contract - is broken. So more and more people become law breakers and then turn to informal organizations for power and self-protection and those turn into gangs and militias.

Let's not forget the theory that guns are good for you.

It's the idea that if everyone had a gun, criminals would be afraid to commit crimes because the decent folks would shoot down any who dared try something. Nobody would commit rape, for fear that the woman had a gun, or that her husband, father, brothers and cousins would race to her armed defense or organize a revenge attack.

In Iraq, we let everyone have guns. In fact, we left unguarded arms depots around, so people who wanted guns could steal them and arm themselves. The real result is that murder, rape, kidnapping, gang violence, and militias kill at will. This leads to hatred and more killing. If the facts were not fogged over by describing everything in terms of a war, we would notice that Iraq has the highest crime rate in the world.

It is necessary to understand that this has not been a series of minor flaws. Or even to say - as the superb book Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks does - that it has been an vast accumulation of severe flaws of execution all across the board. The issues are basic and a matter of philosophy.

The Neo-cons - and not just the Neo-cons, the whole right wing movement - grew up inside a very sheltered world. One built largely by New Deal liberals. Within it, freedom, both social freedom and economic freedom, could exist comfortably cushioned by the security of a well run and flexible state. This is similar to the way that middle class and upper middle class children can indulge in all sorts of pleasures and excesses, in mildly illegal activities and in economically high risk fields like the arts and being entrepreneurs, choices that can be disastrous for poor and minority kids. There is always a certain percentage of such privileged children that have nothing but contempt and even hatred toward their parents and their social group. They don't understand how their privileges made their life possible. It's not that they take it for granted, it's invisible to them.

Put their ideas - their philosophy - to work without all that safety and protection and you get Iraq.

They have terrific rhetoric and they're great with buzzwords that sound idealistic - but their ideas, in principle, are bankrupt. And will bankrupt anything they control. It's not a matter of execution. Or of minor flaws. Nor is it a matter of particular fools. It has not been just Bush and Cheney. It has been Rumsfeld, the Republican congress and senate, all the Democrats who followed along with them, and the vast majority of the media who echoed and supported all of it, thoughtlessly and uncritically. They could only have done so if they bought into the basic philosophical propositions. It is their principles we are concerned with and their principles will always bring us Iraq, the loss of New Orleans, great bogus enterprises like the War on Terror, and Enron.

One of the things that the Neo-cons and these Republicans have done, very successfully, is to treat law with contempt.

This is a matter of basic philosophical principles also. And virtually the same principles.

Rich and powerful people generally encounter the law only as an irritant. Preventing them from developing wetlands. Or dumping toxic wastes from their factories. Speeding tickets. Divorce laws that prevent them from keeping - or getting - what they think they deserve. They don't see the vast network of laws - invisible in their ordinariness and ubiquity - as that which permits their normal existence.

But we have laws for very sound reasons.

There are conflicts among people. Many of these conflicts come up over and over again. It is simpler and more efficient to come up with rules over how to settle those conflicts. That way, people know in advance, how things will work out, and conflicts can be relatively minimized.

International law is a particular object of neo-con and right wing contempt. That's because the United States is the biggest gorilla in the zoo and therefore tends to think if it could just get out past the laws that bar him in, he could do so many wonderful things. Indeed, they tend to think of international laws as a way for smaller monkeys to get away with stuff that they should be smacked down for.

But like domestic law, international law has grown out of experience. Certain conflicts and disasters have come up over and over again. So nations got together and said, let's make laws, so we don't have to guess each time what to do, we know how the games is played, and, in fact, we'll establish rules that we think generally lead to the best outcome and avoid disaster.

One of those laws - inscribed variously in the Hague Conventions of 1907, the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter - is that if a country conquers another country and becomes the occupying power, they are responsible to establish law and order, to protect the civilian population and property, supply food and medical care.

The failures to do those things, are crimes.

We need to ask, are we going to shrug them off as forgivable ineptitudes, or are we going to address them for what they are, violations of law. Normally, when we are dealing with the law, it doesn't matter if they are thoughtless violations. Or if Paul Bremer - for example - was ignorant of the law. Or if Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, et al, jumped over the law because of philosophical opposition to it.

Are we going to be a nation of laws - which is a very practical, efficient and useful way to be - or do we wish to drift toward becoming Iraq? And to turn the world into a series of Iraqs.