“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one wordis ‘to be prepared.'”—Dan Quayle

On a September afternoon, a dilapidated Iraqi navy patrol boat motors away from its moorings at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, and disappears over the horizon. There’ve been reports of smugglers sneaking black market sheep across the Persian Gulf, and the boat’s crew is going to investigate. Hours later, the crew returns empty handed. The captain says they arrived at the reported coordinates and found nothing. Bad intelligence, he claims. Listening to the captain’s report, Royal Navy Lt. Jason Bond, an advisor to the Iraqis, is skeptical. He wonders aloud if the captain is telling the truth or — as is so often the case in Iraq — if the smugglers just paid him off.

“Corruption is a massive problem in the Arab world,” said Ali Al Shihabi, founder and CEO of a U.A.E.-based investment firm. This corruption — which some say is a consequence of centuries of autocratic rule — makes economic development and law enforcement next to impossible. More is at stake than any dhowful of black-market sheep. At stake is the Western world’s reform and reconstruction of this troubled, extremist state — and, by extension, the success of the so-called War on Terror.

Counting American military personnel, coalition soldiers, and mercenaries, there are around 200,000 foreign occupiers in Iraq. While this may seem like a lot, in a country as large as Iraq, with 25 million people and problems as diverse as its landscape, 200,000 doesn’t stretch very far. Consider that at the peak of the Vietnam War, there were around three-quarters of a million foreigners (mostly Americans) in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands more in surrounding countries, supporting the war effort. The thinness of forces in Iraq means that Iraqi forces must do most of the policing. Besides, for two years now, the Bush Administration’s stated policy has been to gradually hand over security operations to Iraqi forces while reducing American troop levels.

But that hasn’t happened. In October, U.S. forces in Iraq reached a new post-invasion peak of 161,000. The same month, Gen. George Casey, commander of all coalition troops in Iraq, reported that only one of the Iraqi army’s 150 or so battalions was capable of operating independently. Casey said the Iraqi police were no better prepared. Iraqi security forces — including the army, police, border police, and navy — have proved incapable of safeguarding the country.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s economy is little better off than it was before 2003. Jobs are scarce, electricity is in short supply, and oil exports continue to hover at their prewar level of around one million barrels per day.

At the root of these twin failures is a culture of corruption that means every Iraqi cop, soldier, and government official is for sale.

UPI correspondent Pamela Hess, reporting from Iraq in October, said that corruption in the Iraqi interior and defense ministries means the nation’s security forces lack the credible institutional framework to compensate for the corruption of individual officers. In other words, nothing works in Iraq because nobody’s really doing their jobs. Iraqi forces fail at both ends: at the top where ministers and bureaucrats devote their time and energy to filling their own pockets, shortchanging their charges in the process — and at the bottom where soldiers and police are on the payrolls of criminals, religious parties, and insurgent groups. In September, British Army Maj. Andy Hadfield told me that as much as 60 percent of the police force in Basra answered to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The previous day, a Basra police captain turned down my request for an interview, claiming he was too busy. Hearing this, British Sgt. Glen Goldthorpe laughed. He speculated that the chief was avoiding us because the Iraqi had some local leaders inside and that “money [was] changing hands.”

Corruption is a problem even in relatively peaceful, Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq. On Feb. 10, I paid a visit to a Kurdish border patrol guarding the mine-strewn valley between Iraq and Iran in the eastern Diyala province. Locally-based American soldiers, including 2nd Lt. Rick Ferrell from the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, had complained that Iranians were bribing their way over the border. Iranian weapons and expertise — and even Iranian fighters — have been a major boon to the insurgency. The border patrol commander, Maj. Rashid Abid Kareem, insisted there was no illegal activity on his border. Ferrell, sitting next to me, just rolled his eyes.

While in the security sector, corruption means insurgents and terrorists can buy victory over local security forces. On the economic front, corruption diverts resources away from vital reconstruction projects.

In a Nov. 1 story, the Christian Science Monitor tried to pin down the cost of corruption in Iraq: “More than $2 billion a year is lost to stolen gasoline and fuel supplies, and Iraq’s Bureau of Supreme Audit says that up to $1.27 billion from 90 contracts was lost from June 2004 to February 2005 because deals were given to ‘favoured suppliers’ and cash was given to third-party firms to work out contracts.”

And if you think the democratization of Iraq will mean an end to corruption, think again. In Basra this summer, the elected provincial council staged a walk-out to protest British diplomats’ efforts to cut corrupt middlemen out of local reconstruction contracting.

Abdel Salam Sidahmed, director of Amnesty International U.K.’s Middle East Program, has said that the only solution to corruption is for Arabs to respect the rule of law.

Right. And who’s going to make them?

Western occupiers know all about the corruption undermining their efforts to secure and rebuild Iraq, but there’s little they can do. In Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, corruption is cultural, and culture changes slowly, if at all. Does anyone want the occupation of Iraq to last the decades it might take for the culture of corruption to reform itself?

Freelance writer David Axe has traveled to Iraq several times since the beginning of the war there.

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