Almost a year after Barack Obama ascended to the White House, many of his supporters are bemused. His healthcare bill is a hefty improvement but it still won’t provide coverage for all Americans, and may not provide a public alternative to the over-charging insurance companies – if it passes at all. His environmental team is vandalising the vital Copenhagen conference by saying the US – the single biggest emitter of warming gases – will not sign up to any legally binding restrictions there. He has placed the deregulation-fanatics who caused the New Depression, like Lawrence Summers, in charge of the recovery. Despite the real improvements on Bush – such as the end of torture, the resumption of stem-cell research, and opposition to the coup in Honduras – many people are asking: why he is delivering so little, so slowly?
A pair of seemingly small stories about the forces warping American politics can help us to answer this question. At first glance, they will seem like preposterous caricatures, but the facts are plain. The institutions that are blocking progress on all these issues – Republicans in the Senate, and the mighty corporate lobbying machine that bankrolls both parties – have rallied over the past few months to defend two causes with very little popular support in the United States: rape and slavery. No, really. If we begin to explain how this came to pass, then we might see why the American political system is malfunctioning so badly, even after a landslide victory for change.
Let’s start with rape. This story begins in Iraq in 2003. The private military contractors sent by the Bush administration to guard the oil pipelines didn’t want to get bogged down in expensive legal cases if anything went wrong. When it came to Iraqis, the Bush team simply exempted them from all Iraqi law, in a move so sweeping one Senator called it "a license to kill". But what about if their employees attacked each other, or other Americans? The private companies insisted all their employees sign contracts saying that, whatever happens to them, they will settle it in in-house, through "arbitration". Why? While representing the company at a real legal trial costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, an arbitration panel costs a few thousand. It saves cash.
This policy came, however, with a different price tag. According to her later sworn testimony, Jamie Leigh Jones – a 20-year-old working for the contractor Halliburton/KBR – was hanging out with co-workers one night in Iraq when her drink was spiked. When she woke up, she was haemorraging blood from her vagina and her anus. Her breast implants were ripped. The damage was so severe she later needed reconstructive surgery on her genitalia. She surmised she had been gang-raped by the seven men she had been drinking with. When she approached Halliburton/KBR, she says they locked her in a metal container with no food or water for 24 hours. A doctor came to see her wounds and took DNA evidence, although it was later "lost." A guard took pity on her and loaned her his cell phone. She called her father, who called the American embassy – and only then was she released.
In an Iraq that was collapsing all around her, there was no chance of the Iraqi police investigating. Halliburton/KBR insisted that her contract required the alleged gang-rape to be addressed by the company’s private arbitration process, forbidding any claim in the American courts. (If this was how they treated blonde English-speaking American girls, what did they do if Iraqis said they had been abused?) After Leigh Jones went public, many other American women came forward to say they had similar experiences working in Iraq. Her legal team argues the refusal to allow rape to be pursued through the courts created a climate where it was more likely to happen.