Why Reconstruction at All?

Then there’s that other why question: Why, in our zeal to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we never considered spending a fraction as much to rebuild Detroit, New Orleans, or Cleveland (projects that, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq in their heyday, have never enjoyed widespread support)?

I use the term “reconstruction” for convenience, but it is important to understand what the U.S. means by it. Once corruption and pure greed are strained out (most projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply vehicles forcontractors to suck money out of the government) and the vanity projects crossed off (building things and naming them after the sitting ambassador was a popular suck-up technique), what’s left is our desire for them to be like us.

While, dollar-for-dollar, corruption and contractor greed account for almost all the money wasted, the idea that, deep down, we want the people we conquer to become mini-versions of us accounts for the rest of the drive and motivation. We want them to consume things as a lifestyle, shit in nice sewer systems, and send everyone to schools where, thanks to the new textbooks we’ve sponsored, they’ll learn more about… us. This explains why we funded pastry-making classes to try to turn Iraqi women into small business owners, why an obsession with holding mediagenic elections in Iraq smothered nascent grassroots democracy (remember all those images ofpurple fingers?), why displacing family farms by introducing large-scale agribusiness seemed so important, and so forth.

By becoming versions of us, the people we conquer would, in our eyes, redeem themselves from being our enemies. Like a perverse view of rape, reconstruction, if it ever worked, would almost make it appear that they wanted to be violated by the American military so as to benefit from being rebuilt in the American fashion. From Washington’s point of view, there’s really no question here, no why at all. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be us? And that, in turn, justifies everything.  Think of it as an up-to-date take on that classic line from Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Americans have always worn their imperialism uncomfortably, even when pursuing it robustly. The British were happy to carve out little green enclaves of home, and to tame — brutally, if necessary — the people they conquered. The United States is different, maybe because of the lip service politicians need to pay to our founding ideals of democracy and free choice.

We’re not content merely to tame people; we want to change them, too, and make them want it as well. Fundamentalist Muslims will send their girls to school, a society dominated by religion will embrace consumerism, and age-old tribal leaders will give way to (U.S.-friendly, media-savvy) politicians, even while we grow our archipelago of military bases and our corporations make out like bandits. It’s our way of reconciling Freedom and Empire, the American Way. Only problem: it doesn’t work. Not for a second. Not at all. Nothing. Nada.

From this point of view, of course, not spending “reconstruction” money at home makes perfect sense. Detroit, et al., already are us. Free choice is in play, as citizens of those cities “choose” not to get an education and choose to allow their infrastructure to fade. From an imperial point of view it makes perfectly good sense. Erecting a coed schoolhouse in Kandahar or a new sewer system in Fallujah offers so many more possibilities to enhance empire. The home front is old news, with growth limited only to reviving a status quo at huge cost.

Once it becomes clear that reconstruction is for us, not them, its purpose to enrich our contractors, fuel our bureaucrats’ vanity, and most importantly, justify our imperial actions, why it fails becomes a no-brainer. It has to fail (not that we really care). They don’t want to be us. They have been them for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They may welcome medicines that will save their children’s lives, but hate the culture that the U.S. slipstreams in like an inoculation with them.

Failure in the strict sense of the word is not necessarily a problem for Washington. Our purpose is served by the appearance of reconstructing. We need to tell ourselves we tried, and those (dark, dirty, uneducated, Muslim, terrorist, heathen) people we just ran over with a tank actually screwed this up. And OK, sure, if a few well-connected contractors profit along the way, more power to them.

Here’s the bottom line: a nation spends its resources on what’s important to it. Failed reconstruction elsewhere turns out to be more important to us than successful reconstruction here at home. Such is the American way of empire.

This article was originally published on TomDispatch.comand Huffington Post on August 16, 2012

Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to “reconstruct” that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their “liberation” by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.

I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I’m left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as “policy”?