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A Plan for Iraq: Leave

May 7, 2003

When Bush announced the end of fighting in Iraq, he also threw the first pitch in the great American sport of telling a foreign country, about which we know nothing, how to restructure itself to our liking. The preferred model, of course, is the United States, or, rather, the part of the United States that particularly appeals to the would-be central planner who happens to be writing about Iraq. Thus are the web and print publications overflowing with articles on what kind of country Iraq ought to be and what the U.S. should do to bring it about.

Inevitably, the plans for Iraq also mirror the special interest of the institution or commentator in question. The social democrats recommend social democracy. Moderate free marketeers recommend a moderate free market. The militarists counsel more military control. The American mercantilists say that job one is getting contracts for American firms. Education reformers demand education reform.


And so on it goes in this great punditry free-for-all in which people are designing the new Iraq the way they might play a computer game like SimCity. (For a critique of the computer-game approach to economic planning, see Timothy Terrell's "Simulating Statism".) Consulting firms are being paid millions in tax dollars to crank out these plans for running an entire country. And of course every federal agency in Washington has put together a postwar plan for Iraq that mirrors its own highly detailed organization chart.


There are three major problems with all these plans that seem to have escaped everyone's notice. First, none of these plan writers will have their way. U.S. bureaucrats (civilian and/or military) are ultimately in charge here and the plan that is put into effect will be the usual internally contradictory and unworkable mishmash of competing views and interests that bureaucracies always produce. Those who believe they can tell bureaucracies what to do ought first to compel the U.S. post office to be efficient, and only then get the bureaucrats to run Iraq in the right way.


Second, none of these central plans can ultimately work because all of them partake of a problem that afflicts all central planning, namely that society and economic life are too complex to be run from the top down. A management blueprint for a whole country consisting of actual people is a ridiculous notion. The notion of planning a market economy is particularly egregious in this respect. Again, these federal bureaucrats ought to first try their hand at shaping up Washington, D.C., with all its poverty, crime, and nonworking public services, before tinkering with Iraq.


Third, and most important, none of these plans address the overwhelming reality that the U.S. government has no legitimate role to play in Iraq, now or ever. If anyone should be in charge in Iraq it is Iraqis. It is simply a law of civilized nations. As Richard Cobden, the great English liberal, said: "If you want to give a guarantee for peace, and, as I believe, the surest guarantee for progress and freedom, lay down this principle, and act on it, that no foreign State has a right by force to interfere with the domestic concerns of another State, even to confer a benefit on it, with its own consent." In short, no progress can take place until the military occupier, which only recently created unprecedented havoc, leaves the country.


Let's plunge straight into the specifics. The U.S. has no greater economic priority here than to get the oil wells working and refineries operating to create energy to run the country and to export. But the attempt has created nothing short of a comedy of errors—or at least it would be comedy if it were not tragic for the Iraqi people. Gas lines in northern Iraq are three-days long. Cooking fuel is in such shortage that the U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill to import a 30-day supply.  


And why is there such a shortage of petroleum products in a country with the second largest oil reserves in the world? Quite simply, it is not being refined. The U.S. bombed the power grid, so power plants are running at a fraction of capacity. This means that refineries can't process the crude oil that is piling up. That also means that other byproducts of refining, like gasoline, are not available. In order to meet demand, the power grid has to be fixed and the Iraqi export market will need to be kick started. Absent this, what we get is chaos.


Without gasoline to fuel cars, the entire economy comes to a standstill. The U.S. military realizes this and so it has variously taken charge of service stations and tried to get people whatever gasoline that is available. In one instance in Baghdad this week, the lines grew so long than the U.S. general in charge decided he would speed things up by not charging for the gas. Soldiers under his command pumped and pumped at his orders. Well, they must not teach economics at Officer Training School, because he didn't anticipate the result of zero price: vastly longer lines!


"Under socialism, who will take out the garbage?" went a snappy question that free marketeers once asked of their leftist colleagues. It is an important question that underscores the reality that no society is run by vast plans but by the doers of millions and millions of tiny tasks, most of them menial, that have to be coordinated one with another and be consistent with the availability of labor and natural resources. The reason this should be left to property holders is so that people can work out mutually beneficial trades with each other in a peaceful and orderly way consistent with human liberty.


Similarly, we might ask of all those people who demand a top-down plan for Iraq: "Who will pump the gas?" The U.S. has already given us the answer: panicked U.S. troops doing their best to forestall a civilian uprising brought on by anger at the unrelenting chaos in Iraq. War planners had a great time picking buildings to bomb and watching explosions from the air. But when it comes to actually running a country, death machines don't do much good, at least if your goal is to make life livable.


Neither, for that matter, does this game of administrative musical chairs, in which one blowhard bureaucrat is replaced by another in a tug-of-war between the State Department and the Pentagon. Average Iraqis are trying to get food, water, and transportation, but the State Department and the Pentagon are fixated on the issue of who will pretend to be in charge and otherwise staff the bureaucracies they are setting up!


Matters will not improve soon. Central planning of this sort can eventually settle down into a calm state of affairs of unrelenting, all-round poverty. But one thing it cannot do is create a viable working economy. If the problem of oil is ever solved, there will be a million other problems that will crop up unexpectedly and for which the U.S. will be (rightly) blamed. In the medical sector, for example, Iraqi doctors have taken to the streets to protest not the U.S. presence as such but the ties that a U.S.-appointed head of the Health Ministry has to the old regime!


For a look into the future of Iraq, turn your eyes toward Afghanistan. Everyone calls the U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan a success, but it has been less successful than the Soviet attempt at the same. The puppet government—whose writ doesn't run outside a small corridor in Kabul—can't pay its workers, and hasn't for three months. Afghans who go to work for the regime are commonly decried as "cat washers" because so many lived in America doing odd jobs and returned only on the promise of a government job.


The economy is in shambles. Signs declaring "Death to America" are now seen on the streets. The Taliban is reforming, in both senses, and may enjoy more support now than when it ran the country. Public protests are becoming more and more common. The U.S. can do nothing to stop this. It is the hated foreign enemy, no matter how much Americans like to flatter themselves with the title "liberator."


One Afghani quoted by the Washington Post summed up the issue succinctly: "If the foreigners stop interfering with the country, we can rebuild our country ourselves." How many millions and millions of people throughout history have pleaded the same!


Can Iraqis really rebuild? Maybe or maybe not. But the U.S. has no business planning its future. I have my own thoughts on what kind of government and economy Iraq ought to have. I would be pleased for Iraqis to click on a whole range of links on mises.org and www.LewRockwell.com that address a huge range of monetary, fiscal, industrial, and political issues.


But let us not forget that self-government is a first principle of freedom. That cannot be achieved so long as the U.S. military is there. The U.S. has done enough damage to this poor country. The proper U.S. plan for Iraq consists of one priority: get out!

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