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And One It, Thankfully, Is Not

The Benchmarks Iraq is Missing

by ROBERT WEISSMAN

The Government Accountability Office has confirmed the obvious: the "benchmarks" the U.S. Congress set out to assess progress in the Iraq war will not be met by a September deadline.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Iraq is making major strides in meeting another set of benchmarks: those imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

At the end of 2005, the IMF entered into a stand-by agreement with Iraq. The deal makes IMF funding available to Iraq in exchange for the country adhering to certain IMF policy dictates. More important than the IMF monies, however, adherence to the agreement was a condition for Iraq receiving major reductions in its obligations to repay the enormous debts acquired under Saddam’s regime.

The IMF has just released Iraq’s most recent Letter of Intent, Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies, and Technical Memorandum of Understanding, dated July 17. The conceit of these documents is that they are "country-owned" and constitute a report on a country’s own decision to pursue the policies to which it has committed with the IMF. Everyone understands, however, that the policies are imposed by the IMF, and the reports are the supplicant country’s attempt to stay in the good graces of its financial master. Combined, the documents just released report on Iraq’s progress in meeting IMF-demanded policies.

With one crucial exception — privatization of the oil sector — Iraq reports it is making concrete progress in satisfying IMF demands that it turn its economy over to private corporations, cut back on government size and the government’s role in the economy, and withdraw labor protections.

The Iraqi government reports that:

* "We will continue resisting undue wage and pension increases and bonuses."

* It is strictly limiting hiring in the public sector "in order to keep the wage bill within the budgeted amount."

* It is cutting back on public pension expenditures, including by eliminating inflation indexation — a huge effective reduction in pension payments in a country where the inflation rate is 19 percent.

* Those public enterprises that have not been sold off or given away to private corporations — a top priority of former Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer — will be forced to operate like for-profit businesses, an almost certain prelude to subsequent privatization.

* It has undertaken measures to ensure foreign investors receive the same treatment as Iraqi firms.

* Tariff rates will be maintained at extremely low levels (5 percent), imposing enormous challenges for Iraqi firms that obviously must seek to operate in the most trying of economic circumstances.

But the news is not entirely bleak.

Apart from some non-trivial accounting issues, the one key area where the Iraqi government is not meeting IMF targets is privatization of the oil sector. (Presumably because this is also a key Congressional benchmark, the government does not acknowledge its growing troubles in this area. Instead, it states, "The GoI [Government of Iraq] will continue its efforts towards developing a competitive and transparent hydrocarbon sector. Draft hydrocarbon legislation will be submitted to the CoR [Council of Representatives] when final agreement between all concerned parties has been reached, possibly in the next few months. The envisaged legislative package includes a draft oil and gas law to regulate the sector, a draft law to reestablish the Iraq National Oil Company, a draft law reorganizing the MoO [Ministry of Oil], and a draft financial management law on the sharing of oil revenues.")

This remarkable — and welcome — failure reflects massive Iraqi opposition to Big Oil’s designs to gain control of Iraq’s oil resources, and the success of an international campaign to shine a spotlight on Big Oil’s planned oil grab. Every ethnic and geographic grouping in Iraq believes Iraq’s oil should be developed under the control of Iraqi state-owned companies rather than multinationals. Overall, Iraqis hold this position by a two-to-one margin, according to a July poll.

Says Antonia Juhasz of Oil Change International, "everyone thought this law was going to pass because no one knew what it was. Now that people know what it is, it seems far less likely that it will actually pass."

It is far too simple to say that popular mobilization can defeat the IMF’s extraordinary power, because there are countless examples of governments imposing draconian IMF policies despite popular uprisings, riots and insurrections. And Iraq appears to be acceding to most of what the IMF has demanded, outside of the crucial oil sector.

But especially because the IMF is now in a weakened state, a mobilized public in borrower countries now has a chance at resisting the IMF’s Big Business-friendly, anti-labor, anti-public health, anti-development policies. Iraq has far more resources than the poor African countries still most subject to IMF authoritarianism, but Iraq is also beleaguered by chaos and division exceeding that in all but a few nations. If the Iraqis can push back against the IMF — and the other powerful actors seeking to transfer control of Iraq’s oil to multinational corporate control — then there should be hope for resistance everywhere.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and director of Essential Action.