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Imperial Troubles

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Iraq is approaching civil war, if it hasn’t already reached it, and President Bush could face the most embarrassing congressional setback of his tenure in the White House. It’s remarkable what troubles imperial ventures can bring. Talk about unintended consequences.

The president’s plan was to bring stability to the Middle East. Whoops. Apparently, he and his people failed to take into account that Iraq was pasted together by the British after World War I to make a country. Under the Ba’athist regimes that succeeded the monarchy the British set up, the minority Sunnis got to lord it over the majority Shi’ites and the Kurds (and a few smaller groups). It must not have occurred to the Bush administration that invading and removing Saddam Hussein would dramatically shuffle the deck, leading to who knows what? The ruling group in Washington doesn’t acknowledge that there’s something it doesn’t know. It predicted cheering crowds for American “liberators,” but instead we got an “insurgency” and a government sympathetic to another member of the “axis of evil,” Iran. Whoops.

Now things are really flaring up. A government-based hit squad is killing Sunni men, and angry Sunnis are attacking Shi’ite holy sites, bringing bloody retaliation. A daytime curfew has descended on Baghdad, which worked for a day but now seems impotent. Power could soon devolve to competing militias. Meanwhile the U.S. government is giving orders to the new democratic Iraqi government — only to have the prime minister politely ask that the “liberators” keep their suggestions to themselves.

If a civil war breaks out, what will U.S. troops do? It’s too ugly to contemplate.

But don’t let it be said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice doesn’t learn from experience. According to the Washington Post, “Revisiting [Egypt and Saudi Arabia] this week, however, her call for greater democracy appeared more muted [than previously], as some of the aftershocks of the democracy push have given autocratic governments more leverage in their dealings with the United States.” In other words, the Bush-inspired elections in Palestine didn’t work out as the president expected (what were they expecting?), so they need the help of dictators to keep the lid on things. You can’t make this stuff up. Power really is arrogant.

Then there’s the port fiasco. Karl Rove, the president’s political genius, really blew it on this one. Without the president’s knowledge, a multi-agency review approved the purchase by Dubai Ports World (owned by the Arab emirate) of British Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which operates a couple of dozen terminals at six major ports in the eastern United States. For some bizarre reason, no one thought that Arab management of American port terminals would be controversial. The point is not that the critics are right. The U.S. government should have no power to block a transaction between two foreign companies, even if one is government-owned. But it is amazing that the White House can be so incompetent when it comes to politics: Bush could see his first veto overridden by a Republican Congress. It doesn’t inspire much confidence in the administration’s ability in more substantive endeavors.

It is worth mentioning that knowledgeable people say that port security is a problem no matter who is managing the terminals. No surprise here: who’s in charge of port security? The federal government. And who owns the ports? Local governments and government-created authorities. No wonder the ports are insecure. Can you imagine a private profit-seeking company leaving itself vulnerable to terrorism? This suggests a way out of the port problem: privatize them.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.