Ben Van Heuvelen

Iraq is falling apart

The news out of Iraq is very bad, but it’s important to understand it all. Why is Iraq falling apart? What and who is ISIS, and how is it different from al-Qaida? What can the U.S. do? What might the future look like?

I’ve been engaged in answering these questions a lot over the past couple of days. I’ve written an article for the Washington Post and spoken with Brian Lehrer at WNYC in New York and Warren Olney at KCRW in Los Angeles. And my colleagues and I at Iraq Oil Report have been continuing to report.

Have a read/listen:
Unity meeting seeks to defuse tensions as refinery targeted
The biggest oil refinery in Iraq
Amid turmoil, Iraq’s Kurdish region is laying foundation for independent state
Iraq Falls Apart
The Emergency in Iraq Rocks Washington
Kurdish military redraws map as ISIS surges

Iraq’s security crisis

A boy walks past by a bus damaged from s

Iraq is in crisis: al-Qaida is resurgent, Shiite militias are mobilizing, and political leaders are polarized and dysfunctional. More than one in every 2,000 Iraqis has been either killed or injured in violence this year — the bloodiest since 2008. I’ve been writing and talking about it a lot these days, most recently with Warren Olney and a panel of Iraq-focused luminaries, on the NPR show To the Point. Have a listen.

The Arab League summit

I spent last Tuesday covering the first part of the Arab League summit, which was a meeting of economic ministers. The biggest events took place later in the week at the old Republican Palace; this one was at the Sheraton Hotel, which is right next to two landmarks of the Iraq War: Firdous Square, where Saddam’s iconic statue was pulled down in April 2003; and the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists stayed during the invasion. I’ve posted a few pictures below.

I also wrote a dispatch for Foreign Policy about the Iraqi government’s $500 million effort to temporarily transform the capital into a city that could host a meeting of foreign dignitaries: online here. Enjoy!


I’m collecting cool stuff from around the internet on a Tumblr page — mostly good journalism and other highlights of my daily reading. There might be some savvy way to integrate that page into this site, but I haven’t figured it out yet. For now, you can click here.

Day trips in Kurdistan

I’ve taken a few good day trips over the past week or so.

One was a long walk around Martyr Sami Abdul Rahman park in Erbil. It’s a couple square miles, well kept, and located pretty near the center of town, but the people here don’t seem to know what to do with it. There are enormous playgrounds filled with see-saws and jungle gyms, big fields perfect for picnics, benches along a lakeside promenade — all empty. I probably saw a dozen people over the course of three hours. When I returned on a Friday for a run around the park, I saw maybe 30. I’m not sure whether to chalk this up to winter, or whether folks just haven’t figured out the joys of public space quite yet.

Another trip was a visit to the Erbil refinery. I took a 40-minute drive northwest of Erbil to the shores of the Zaab River, which was a dividing line between Kurdish and Saddam-controlled territory between 1991 and 2003. My guide pointed at some hills on the other side of the river and said, “Saddam’s tanks used to be there.” Somewhere along the same stretch of shore, Alexander the Great fought the Persians.

Then, a couple days ago I took a trip to the Khor Mor gas field. Kurdistan likes to boast that it has 22 hours of daily electricity service (compared with maybe 6 hours in other parts of Iraq), and much of the feedstock for this power comes from a single field. The good people of Dana Gas, the company extracting the gas, arranged for a driver to take me on the 3-hour journey — first down a very straight and flat stretch of desert highway to the northern outskirts of Kirkuk, then due east through some orange-brown country whose hilly topography reminded me of those sand-drip towers children make on the beach, except on a much larger scale.

I took some photos along the way, and have posted a few here.

The Citadel of Erbil

Yesterday I took a taxi to the center of town to see Erbil’s main tourist attraction, the Citadel. People first started living there 7,000 years ago, just after humans figured out how to smelt copper. UNESCO says it’s the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world. To keep this record alive perhaps, the government allows a single family to continue living there while it’s being restored. (I didn’t run into the family yesterday, but maybe I’ll try to find them.)

The Citadel was built on an artificial earthen mound that rises about 30 meters above the rest of Erbil and the surrounding flatlands. From the parapets, you can see the city, the suburbs, and the Zagros Mountains to the north. The inside of the Citadel is divided in half by a wide north-south road. On either side, there’s a hive-like maze of corridors, huts, and hollows. I was walking around the Citadel at 4pm on a Friday — the middle of the weekend — and once I stepped off the main road it was entirely quiet. I’ve never been somewhere so ancient that was so recently inhabited. There were shoes and blankets inside some of the huts. In one, a dilapidated motorcycle. Here and there, restoration workers had left behind cement mixers and other large pieces of construction equipment. I imagined that I was encountering the aftermath of an Indiana Jones adventure in which protective ghosts have chased some agents of modernity from an old and sacred place.

The surrounding city is developing quickly. Qalat Park, just south of the Citadel, sits between Erbil’s grand bazaar and a mosque that looks curiously like the British Parliament. The park has some of the trappings of a tacky public space — fountains illuminated by tri-colored LED lights, walkways set so close to the fountains that a gust of wind can drench you — but the overall setting is so beautiful that the design quirks become charming.

I took a bunch of photos, some of which I’ve posted below. You ought to be able to click on any one of them to enlarge. Enjoy!

A lesson from the Senior Vice President for Solutions

(A street in Basra, March 2011.)

The distance between capital and labor is on my mind these days. Last week I was biking through lower Manhattan and I heard the chanting of Occupy Wall Street protesters, who had just marched out of Zuccotti Park. As I rounded the corner I saw them walking in a thin line towards some common destination. I didn’t follow; I had somewhere else to be. But I do share some of their anxiety about capitalism. A world of material concern can erode your soul if you’re not careful.

I’m writing this from Istanbul, where I’ve been covering the “Iraq Mega Projects Conference” at the Ritz Carlton. The most prominent features on the published schedule are keynote lectures and panel discussions with Iraqi government and oil industry players. But the most important events are the “networking coffee” and “networking lunch” breaks. They’re like speed dating sessions for capitalists. You make eye contact with someone, you reach into your coat pocket, and you shake hands with your right while exchanging business cards with your left. Your overt goal is to find out how this person can help you, and vice versa. State your business and they state theirs. Ask a few smart questions that show you know what’s up. At the end of the conversation, maybe scribble down a thumbnail description on the back of their business card so that you can file them in the right part of your contact list. Each person is interesting to the extent that he is useful.

This activity is arguably vital to the future of Iraq. I’ve traveled from Baghdad to Basra and can vouch that things are in a terrible state. Iraq needs schools, hospitals, housing, roads, and electricity — the very basics. Most discouraging of all, the country lacks what development economists and diplomats euphemistically call “capacity.” In other words, many government officials are not very competent. This is perhaps true in all countries, but after decades of war and dictatorship the problem is partiuclarly acute in Iraq because such a high proportion of well educated Iraqis have emigrated. Looking at these realities, you don’t have to be a free-market fundamentalist to believe that Iraq’s success depends on some help from foreign, private investment. And how does capital find its way into Iraq? Two men in an Istanbul luxury hotel exchange business cards.

With these thoughts in mind, I walked from a networking coffee break over to a conference room to hear a lecture by the Senior Vice President for Solutions of a private security company. His presentation turned out to be a PowerPoint marketing pitch. I began to tune out, scribbling a few notes merely out of habit. But then I reflected on my notebook, where I had recorded his company’s menu of services:

– Biometrics
– Asset tracking: where your employees are; how they are behaving
– Linear asset surveillence
– Covert unattended ground sensors
– Fiber optic intrustion detection
– Ground surveillance radar: detects people at 12 km
– Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): for use where no radar is possible; vehicle software tracks targets automatically
– Securing intellectual assets: like big-game hunting & “we are the animals in this process”

These are exactly the services I’d expect a security company to provide. But on another level, the menu gave a remarkably candid view of how Iraq looks through the eyes of foreign capitalists. Neighbors become “targets” to be tracked and employees become “assets” to be scanned and surveilled. Trust no one.

These fears are justified, of course. A foreign company in Iraq would be foolish not to anticipate violence, theft, and corruption. And there’s the rub. If they are wise to suspect that almost anyone might want to steal from them or blow them up, then this strikes me as a prime indicator that the situation is totally fucked up.

If we are looking for someone to blame for this mess, then let us start with Saddam Hussein and proceed to the disastrous incompetence of the early American occupation. I wouldn’t even begin to suggest that foreign companies are responsible for Iraq’s problems. But looking at the country through a private security contractor’s eyes gave me pause. It punctured the noble rhetoric of economic development that tends to buoy these investment conferences.

The investors basically say: sure we’re making a buck, but we’re also boosting Iraq’s standard of living. A rising tide lifts all boats. If you’re a little queasy about the aesthetics of the enterprise — the whiff of war profiteering, the soupcon of western condescension — then your bleeding heart should be considerably more troubled by the alternatives. This is how the world works. To be idealistic in the face of suffering without any concern for pragmatic solutions is to be sentimental rather than compassionate.

On each of these individual points, they are right. But in order to combine those points into an argument for a free-market investment bonanza, they have to ignore a lot of other relevant evidence. One way to bring the rest of the picture into focus is to look at a capitalist looking at Iraq through the window of an armored SUV. How much good can he possibly be doing for people he regards as threats, targets and, at best, assets? At this level of remove, investors and political leaders alike can point to something like GDP growth and mistake it for progress.

Thoughtful development economists, on the other hand, have tried to see how an oil boom looks to an average person. The statistics that come closer to measuring their quality of life are things like unemployment rates and median incomes. Those numbers tell a different story. They reveal that a massive influx of revenue can actually harm a country’s economy and governance. To wit: an oil sector might earn a hundred billion dollars, but it also employs only a tiny fraction of the population, removes any revenue incentive for the government to develop the rest of its economy, and for many reasons makes it harder to create jobs that rely on exporting anything other than oil. The rich get really rich; the poor, to the extent their lives get better, depend on the largesse of the rich.

This is a boilerplate summary of what is commonly called the “resource curse.” I’m not going to take this line of thought too much further, because I would need more than a blog post to explore with any intelligence whether the resource curse is an inevitable result of capitalism plus oil.

My smaller thought is about why powerful people routinely fail to understand the resource curse. At investment conferences you often hear someone utter the phrase “turn the curse of oil into a blessing” — they have heard of the problem — but they offer solutions in the form of corporate social responsibility projects that use a sliver of oil revenues to build schools and hospitals; they are not addressing a macroeconomic phenomenon that indicts the structure of their industry. This blinkered view is not just a product of self-interest. Much of the time, people with very good intentions are simply failing to see the world through the eyes of the people they’re nominally helping. They lack empathy. After all, effective capitalists see things — including one another — in terms of risk and utility.

Such an attitude is unquestionably useful, especially in a violent place. But I wonder if it can play any role in making a place less violent. I am reminded of a time when I got in line behind an armed private security contractor in a coffee shop on a military base in Basra: looking up, I saw an enormous patch sewn onto the back of his flak jacket that said in English and Arabic, “STAY BACK 100 METERS OR YOU WILL BE SHOT.” This practical advice is meant to prevent misunderstandings and save lives. But even though I was pretty sure the message didn’t apply to me, I found myself taking it personally. “What an asshole,” I thought. I could only imagine how an Iraqi would feel! I could also imagine the dirty look this hired gun would get from an Iraqi. And how that look might bring his hand to his sidearm. And so on, until they both start seeing each other as targets.

Update 11/19/11: I just came across this article from 2005, “The Ethical Economist,” by Joseph Stiglitz. It’s a review of Benjamin Friedman’s book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which spurred a pretty interesting public discussion among economists who are critiquing both free-market fundamentalism and anti-growth populism. They aren’t writing directly about the resource curse, but they do talk about similar themes of growth that helps people vs. growth that is unmoored from non-economic ethical commitments.

The familiar strange

At dinner on Tuesday night two friends were reveling in their recent trip to the Museum of Modern Art, raving about de Kooning. I loved their enthusiasm, but I couldn’t quite relate. I’ve never been moved by de Kooning.

Visual art penetrates my consciousness even more rarely and capriciously than music does. I can listen to a song for years and not even register the lyrics. Then one day I’ll be driving in the car with an album playing and realize not only that I know all of the words, but also that they are describing the contours of my soul. About a decade ago, for example, I was listening to Bob Dylan sing “Mama You Been On My Mind” —

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun caught flat
And covering the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather
Or something like that
But mama you been on my mind.

— when all of a sudden I realized that he was in that state of new love in which you are so taken with a girl that everything reminds you of her, but you’re playing it cool because you’d seem obsessive if you showed your feelings, even though you’re secretly hoping that she would find your manic enthusiasm flattering and endearing, and might even reciprocate it. At the time I made this realization, I was in such a state myself. I was ready to hear the song.

The last time I was in MOMA, I looked at almost the entire collection but didn’t really see anything. I walked past de Kooning without pause. I probably just wasn’t ready. But then I came upon Oskar Kokoschka’s “Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat,” a marriage portrait that the eponymous couple commissioned in 1909. I stood there and stared for what felt like an hour.

The reproduced image here fails to convey the painting. The scratches of the artist’s fingernails and the excess daubs of paint and the intensity of some colors and the dullness of others somehow combine to evoke a combination of intimacy and anxiety. I could imagine their conversations: every time they decide to reveal something to each other, they also withhold something greater.

This type of interior tension between two people is almost impossible to express with a just measure of beauty. I have seen dancers achieve it. In writing, the grand master is D. H. Lawrence. Here is a passage from The Rainbow, describing an early scene in Tom Brangwen’s courtship of a Polish widow, whom he’ll eventually marry:

Sometimes her vagueness, in which he was lost, made him angry, made him rage. But he held himself still as yet. She had no response, no being towards him. It puzzled and enraged him, but he submitted for a long time. Then, from the accumulated troubling of her ignoring him, gradually a fury broke out, destructive, and he wanted to go away, to escape her.

It happened she came down to the Marsh with the child whilst he was in this state. Then he stood over against her, strong and heavy in his revolt, and though he said nothing, still she felt his anger and heavy impatience grip hold of her, she was shaken again as out of a torpor. Again her heart stirred with a quick, out-running impulse, she looked at him, at the stranger who was not a gentleman yet who insisted on coming into her life, and the pain of a new birth in herself strung all her veins to a new form. She would have to begin again, to find a new being, a new form, to resopnd to that blind, insistent figure standing over her.

We are all so much weirder than we pretend we are! That is the lesson that leaps forth from almost every page Lawrence writes. Civilization has rendered us civil, but beneath our composed exteriors is a teeming fount of uncatalogued feeling that only great writers sometimes name. Words usually fail. I had tried to describe the Kokoschka portrait to my friend the de Kooning enthusiast over dinner, and then helplessly sent her a JPEG image the next day. Wisely, she responded merely with a hyperlink to an image of another painting:

Just so!

I thought immediately of a painting by an artist named Motke Blum, a Romanian by birth who now lives in Israel. When I was visiting Jerusalem, I wandered into a touristy artists’ colony just outside the old city, expecting to buy a kitschy drawing of the Western Wall that I could give a friend. Motke does make such drawings, which were displayed along one wall. But the rest of his studio was stacked and hung with hundreds of paintings, all of them seemingly united in the faith that their primary subject — light — has the power to reveal the essence of things. I sent an image of one painting to my friend.

“They are definitely speaking to each other,” my friend responded. I assume she was referring to the two paintings. And the beauty of their conversation is especially sharp because, though I’ve so far failed to translate it into words, I can still hear it.

Site update

Until recently this website existed through the generosity of a good friend, who basically built it from scratch. The layout was simple and attractive and I could update everything very easily without screwing stuff up. It was too good to last. For several reasons, Dylan had to take down the server, so I’ve had to find a less-attractive but just-as-functional Plan B. Voila!

The only real casualty of the transfer has been the loss of my previous posts from 2011. I could’ve sworn I copied everything to a Word document somewhere, but I just can’t find it on my hard drive. If/when I do, I’ll put the backlogged stuff back up here. In the meantime, I’ll resume my irregular posting. Thanks for reading.

Vigilante editing

David A. Baird has retired as the county prosecutor in Skidmore, Missouri. The New York Times today took the occasion to revisit his most famous case, the unsolved vigilante murder of a man who had it coming. Ken Rex McElroy was such a notorious thug that, after he was shot to death in view of several witnesses, every one but his own wife declined to identify the gunman. 30 years later, that pact of silence has held.

The story brought to mind an old piece by Pete Dexter, a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and later the Sacramento Bee. It’s collected in an anthology of his best columns, Paper Trails, which I recommend to anyone who loves writing that is both spare and rich. I couldn’t find the column anywhere on the internet, so I’ve gone and typed it out:

Old Pete had worked construction since he was eleven. He’d never laid brick or run the heavy machinery, he’d never been the foreman. He was fifty-six years old and he looked seventy, and he’d never wanted to be anything but common labor. He’d been good at it, and it had used him up.

He came to the job on time, he left on time. He didn’t say much while there was work to do, and he sat alone at lunch, eating a sandwich made out of Wonder Bread and bologna. He always shaved before he came to work, and he’d had the same lunch pail as long as anybody could remember. Everybody liked to work with Pete because he pulled his share.

The foreman was twenty-seven years old. He’d been shot up and left for dead in Vietnam, and he’d killed men there too. Some of his crew were kids, some of them were men in their thirties and forties, and there were days – mostly when his legs hurt – when he felt older than anybody who worked for him.

He thought he knew everybody he had – he could tell you who would steal and who wouldn’t, who would work if there wasn’t somebody there to watch him – but he’s been around men and fighting all of his adult life, and he also knew he could be wrong.

The kid carried a straight razor in his back pocket. He’s been on the job two weeks and the foreman hadn’t liked him when he’d come on, and nothing the kid had done in the time since had changed that.

He was a narrow-faced kid who never sounded right when he laughed. He dropped a word about the razor into everything he said, and sometimes, in a move so practiced you almost couldn’t see it, his hand would go into the pocket and bring out the razor, and when that motion had ended, the blade would be open and waiting, a few inches from somebody’s face.

And the kid would be laughing in that way that never sounded right.

The foreman had watched it and let it go. The only time he spoke to him was when the kid was talking instead of doing his job. The razor had given him a standing with the other kids on the crew, and when he talked, they stopped work to listen.

When that happened, the kid would say, “Yessir, Mister Boss Man. I gets right back to work in the field now.”

The foreman watched it and let it go. Some of the men thought he was afraid of the kid’s razor.

It didn’t matter to him at all.

From the first day, the kid had been after Old Pete. He had tried to talk to him that day, and as soon as he mentioned the razor, the old man had just walked away.

After that the kid had talked in front of him to the kids on the crew. “You get to be like old Pete,” he’d say, “you gone get hard of hearing too. Maybe somebody gone cut off your ears. Maybe they cut off your prick – hey, Pete, that how come you so mad? They cut off your prick? Hell, I be mad my own self.”

Pete never acknowledged the kid was there. The foreman stayed out of it. He understood that he couldn’t protect him without hurting him.

On the day it happened, the old man was sitting on cement blocks, eating his sandwich. The kid was talking and showing off the razor. Some of the others had gotten bored with the razor and had gone back to talking about women.

The kid said, “I think I gone cut Old Pete.” He moved his hand into his back pocket and half a second later the razor stopped against the old man’s cheek. He had just bitten into the sandwich. He stared at the kid until he took the razor away. Then a thread of blood took its place. It collected almost into a kiss, and then washed down to the old man’s jaw line, where it collected again, and then dropped into the Wonder Bread.

The kid tried to laugh and apologize at the same time. The old man stared. He stared until the kid turned around to get help. Everybody was dead quiet, and while the kid was laughing in a way that would never be right, Old Pete stood up behind him and crushed the back of his skull with an iron pipe.

The foreman didn’t bother trying to restore breathing. He knew the damage almost without looking. The pulse stopped before the police arrived. Old Pete sat on the cement blocks and looked at the body while the foreman told them how it happened.

He said the twenty-pound piece of steel came loose from a cable and hit the kid in the back of the head. The police asked if anybody had seen it happen.

“We all did,” one of the kids said. “It happened while we were eating lunch.”

Typing another writer’s words is kind of voyeuristically charged, like sneaking into his bedroom during a dinner party and trying on his clothes. It’s also instructive. You get a particular sense of his choices that you don’t quite get from the outside.

What struck me just now is: I love how Dexter’s point of view is both strong and almost invisible. While he builds these three characters and sets the scene, he’s also teaching you a code of what it means to be a man. The kid’s offense isn’t a switchblade to the cheek; it’s a violation of a moral universe. Not that Dexter has to say that. If he did, the abstraction of it would put you at a distance, and you’d lose a level of sympathy for Old Pete and his conspirators.

This all leads me to wonder what Dexter would have done with the McElroy murder. Reading the two stories side by side — and recognizing the greater formal restrictions of a news story versus a column, and taking nothing away from A.G. Sulzberger’s fine story in the Times, which after all was compelling enough that it sent me to my bookshelf to find Pete Dexter — I’m struck by the difference between a good and a great writer. Take a look at Sulzberger’s lede:

The murder of Ken Rex McElroy took place in plain view of dozens of residents of this small farm town, under the glare of the morning sun. But in a dramatic act of solidarity with the gunman, every witness, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger.

Notice how his first verb lacks action (“took place”), and how he compensates with histrionic modifiers (“under the glare of the morning sun,” “dramatic”). Contrast that with Dexter. His protagonist, Old Pete, is an archetype just like the bully McElroy, but in Dexter’s hands the character doesn’t become a cliche. He writes five unhurried sentences, subject-verb-object followed by subject-verb-object. They give concrete details, and their simplicity functions as a safeguard against sentimentality.

How would Pete Dexter edit the Times’s lede? I wonder. I’ve taken my own pass here, grabbing a few good nuggets that got buried in the story and bringing them upward, while trying to preserve some of the writer’s original structure. Here’s my result:

Ken Rex McElroy had always seemed to cheat justice. He had stolen livestock, harassed women, and shot a local grocer in the neck with a shotgun, but still he got out on bond. Then, one day in 1981, he was murdered in plain view.

As many as 60 witnesses saw McElroy show up in town. He bought beer from the bar and climbed into his pickup beside his wife, when he was met by a vigilante gunman. But in an act of solidarity with the killer, everyone in this small farming town, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger.

It was the first major case for a young county prosecutor, not far removed from law school and just months into the job, who said it would soon be cracked. But the silence of the townspeople held. Now, nearly 30 years later, that prosecutor, David A. Baird, is preparing to leave office with his first and most famous case still unsolved.

A few paragraphs ago, I realized who the byline on the Times story belongs to: Arthur Gregg Sulzberger is the son of the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, which means whoever edited this story had the fraught task of tweaking their future boss’s words. Maybe that’s why those modifiers survived the copy desk? I don’t too much care, except that I hope my playful project doesn’t now seem petty. I also hope the heir to the Times is the kind of writer who appreciates the difference between the slice of an editor and that of a switchblade — or at least would respond with something less than an iron pipe to the head.