The Iraqi Prisoner

February 18, 2009

I’ve already noted how closely the actions of the Bush administration, and conservative fiscal policies in general, correspond to a venerable con game called the “Bust-out,” in which fraudsters pretending to take an interest in running a business use a down payment to gain access to the company’s credit lines and assets, then max out all the credit lines, sell off assets at fire sale prices, then clear out just before the deposit check bounces, leaving a bankrupted company hollowed out by unpayable debt.

Readings new stories of how U.S. contractors and military personnel appear to have siphoned off billions of dollars supposedly targeted for Iraq reconstruction projects, an even more venerable con game comes to mind: “The Spanish Prisoner,” in which the mark is induced to pay out large sums of money to secure the release of some unidentified prince being held overseas, in some vaguely defined location, with the understanding that the contribution will be returned tenfold when the grateful prisoner wins his freedom and showers his supporters with royal largesse. A variation of this con, known to police as “419 Fraud” or “Advance Fee Fraud,” has probably turned up in your e-mail — instead of liberating a prisoner, the pigeon is asked to help broker the release of a big pot of money in a West African bank. The target usually expects to get a phat return on the initial investment, but sometimes the con men are also milking the target’s idealism or charitable impulses. To get a picture of how it works, watch House of Games, David Mamet’s first and best film, in which the psychologist heroine is drawn into a long con with the promise of helping her patient get free of his gambling debts. (Though Mamet went on to make another film called The Spanish Prisoner, that con actually doesn’t figure in the plot, curiously enough.) Michael Caine’s character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also running a similar scam by convincing rich widows he’s a deposed prince trying to raise money for freedom fighters back home. 

The designation of Bush’s little Middle East killing spree as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was already a museum-quality specimen of Orwellian Newspeak when he rolled it out, but it becomes even more richly ironic when we consider how the American people were gulled into thinking that by throwing open their coffers to the Bush banditos, they could secure the liberation of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator in a place many of them couldn’t have found on a map if they had a three-day head start. In return for pretending the whole thing was a John Wayne movie with extra sand on the sets, they would get cheap oil and a nice friendly regime that would recognize Israel and provide us with free military bases, along with the promised cascades of candy and flowers. Remember how we were told the whole thing would pay for itself once the good guys got their hands on all those oil wells? Those were the days, huh?       

Meanwhile, while Bush’s cronies went on looting with both hands here in the States, another team of con-men (maybe even some freelancers — who could tell, with so much money flying around?) tapped into the tsunami — one might even call it the surge — of unmonitored cash flowing into the country. In return, we got a taxpayer-funded training ground for aspiring Islamist terrorists, a pseudo-government composed of crooks, religious fanatics and terrorist sympathizers (kind of like the GOP, when you think about it) and a host of brand-new regional worries that will plague the world long after Bush has strutted off to that great gated community in the sky.  

The only upside I can see to any of this is that political science students attempting to grasp the nature of conservatism need no longer waste any more time studying Friedman, Oakeshott or any of the other great minds of wingerdom. They need only read the latest e-mails from Nigeria, and everything they need to know about conservatism will become crystal-clear.