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Serious Mission Creep
The War in Iraq's Newest, Strangest Twist

Jason C. Ditz | April 21, 2005

The United States' ill-conceived invasion of Iraq is now well over two years old. From the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal to the liberation (read: total destruction) of Fallujah, we've seen some pretty amazing stretches of the initial stated goal of the invasion. I would've thought nothing I read about the mission of US troops in Iraq would surprise me anymore... but something did.

Today, the Washington Times has an article describing (with their usual glowing approval) how the troops are tackling their latest problem: gasoline bootlegging.

It's a rather silly-sounding name for what is in reality a pretty silly problem. Basically, the government-controlled fuel distribution system in what is one of the world's most oil-rich nations is laughably inefficient. At official, state-approved gas stations, Iraqi motorists can expect to pay 200 dinars (about 14 cents) per gallon of gasoline. They can also expect a several-hour wait. You'd think someone could find a better system. Well somebody did...

Say you don't have hours to wait. No problem, you can go to an unofficial gas station down the road. No wait, no fuss... you pay more (about twice as much), but its obviously worth it to some people. They generally get their gas from the official gas station then resell it at a profit. So really, they're just doing your waiting for you and pocketing a modest convenience fee while providing a much needed service to those go-go Iraqi businessmen who don't want to spend all day in line waiting to gas up. Win-win.

Apparently, such a solution doesn't sit well with Iraq's gas stations. Even though they're still selling the gas in the first place (just by proxy), having a cottage industry build up around your incompetence (even though the Times was quick to blame Saddam) is probably not a reassuring thing, and there's also the risk that these new, higher-priced 'competitors' might find their gas other places and begin competing directly on price while still overwhelmingly beating them on convenience. So it's time to send in the Marines (or Army as the case may be). Its rather like a grocery store owner sending out a hired goon to tip over a farmer's roadside stand, except these lucky gas station owners don't even have to hire the goon... he's supplied complements of the United States Government.

So what's their interest in all this? Here's a direct quote:

"In Nineveh and Diyala provinces, U.S. troops are shutting down bootleggers and giving their gas away for free in an effort to control the price of gasoline, protect the livelihoods of gas-station owners and employees, and in the long term, reduce the wait and encourage investment in gas distribution."

How's that for mission creep? We all know that gas prices were at least an implicit justification of the war in the first place, but surely no one thought it was Iraq's internal gas prices that were to be fought for. It doesn't even make sense economically (not that such reasons ever do), because this is not really an example of rising gas prices, but rather an example of Iraqis being willing to pay a convenience fee. Everyone gets the same gas in the end, they just have to wait in long lines instead of paying someone else to do the waiting for them. It's kind of like outlawing those little bags of salad you can buy in the grocery store and making everyone shred their own lettuce and carrots in an effort to keep the cost of produce down.

Hopefully no one buys that all this is to protect the livelihoods of poor little Iraqi gas station employees. Nevermind the illogical nature of it (if customers are lined up for half a mile and waiting hours for my service, my job is not in jeopardy), does anyone still buy that anything the US government does anymore is for the benefit of individual Iraqi civilians?

Reducing wait times is even more laughable. Their solution to people having to wait a long time at gas stations is to close those gas stations not directly sanctioned by the state. Maybe it's the same logic you see at Best Buy sometimes: people are lined up twenty-deep, so we'd better close all but one or two of our checkout lanes. That'll reduce wait times, right?

They might think it encourages investment though. The concept of the individual entrepreneur is probably pretty foreign to the type of people who wind up in the American government nowadays. The correct way to make millions (or billions as the case may be) is to invest in a huge corporation that would benefit from certain government actions, then bribe the right officials to get those actions taken. The closest that type ever gets to do-it-yourself is to run for political office and push the actions through themselves. That's the American Way (tm), isn't it?

I've got a much more reasonable theory though: one that fits with their characteristic lack of concern for the civilian populace. Its about control. We need to keep control of the primitive natives as best we can... otherwise we run the risk of crazed moose-limb terrorists roaming the streets of Anytown, USA, or at the bare minimum, keeping our troops from building all the permanent bases they want in Iraq .

Keeping fuel distribution in the hands of a government-controlled few gives the Iraqi government more power. That government knows that it exists more or less at the pleasure of its American occupiers. If the US pulled out, the civilian government would be totally unable to handle the growing insurgency. So ultimately keeping Iraq's private industry at a bare minimum is the best way of keeping the Iraqi individual at the mercy of not only their own state, but by extension, the occupation forces.

In fact, reducing wait times at gas stations is probably the worst thing they could do from this perspective. People worry more about a neccesity when they have a hard time getting it. Its much easier to take fuel for granted if it requires little effort to acquire it.

So now we can think of the American forces' mission as less about stopping the insurgency (remember what Rumsfeld said , its the Iraqis who will have to do that), as it is about making Iraqis wait in line longer for gas.

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