THE BAKSHEESH BARRIER
Bribery, and corruption in general, continues to be the biggest threat to stability and the introduction of democracy in Iraq. Massive dishonesty is a problem throughout the region, which is major reason why democracy, or good government in general, has never been able to take hold.
One wonders about the direction of this relationship. It seems far more likely that democracy, which has popular sovereignty and the rule of law as fundamental tenets, would be an obstacle to a culture of bribery more so than the reverse.
Captured Iraqi oil ministry documents, recently published in a Baghdad newspaper, show a pattern of international bribery, since the 1991 Gulf War, involving millions of barrels of Iraqi oil (worth over $100 million). This was paid, in return for support for Saddam Hussein, to 46 organizations and individuals. The recipients included prominent Arab families, religious organizations, politicians and political parties in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Sudan, China, Austria, France and several other countries. Some of the organizations named, included the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Communist Party, India’s Congress Party and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Buying kind words is nothing new, but in a democracy, you’re expected to be open about it. In the United States, lobbyists have to register with the government, and payments from foreign governments reported. In the Middle East, you give, or take, the money and keep quiet about it.
Within Iraq, American civil affairs troops, and soldiers in general, constantly come up against Iraqis who offer to bribe them for special treatment. It’s unnerving for Americans to encounter such a pervasively corrupt atmosphere. The Iraqis take it for granted that the rules are for fools and that you buy your way to success, and screw those who can’t. This attitude, it is feared, extends to elections and dealings with elected officials.
There is also an investigation into bribery among Kuwaiti government official, who apparently demanded, and got, kickbacks from the American firms doing reconstruction work in Iraq. Halliburton, one of the major contractors, recently fired several employees and sent $6.3 million to the U.S. government. This was because the employees had taken that much as a bribe to send contract work to certain firms.
This isn’t particularly surprising. Not only is bribery ingrained in the local culture, it is especially rooted in their dealings with Westerners. It’s not as if the colonial occupiers of the Middle East were above corruption.