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Monday, October 13, 2003

The spoils of peace

The $87 billion President Bush wants for Iraq, I assume everyone knows, is not for foreign aid. Like the earlier $79 billion package, much of the money will go to Pentagon contractors and other firms that will do work in Iraq and get paid in the US.

Most readers of this blog already know that there are very serious potential problems with the economic rebuilding of Iraq. For example, Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, has received some very nice no-bid contracts related to the war on terror. Last week, the Christian Science Monitor had a good story about possible oversight of this process.

In particular, the story focused on Republican Senator Susan Collins (of Maine), who is worried about the possibility of profiteering and cronyism. The article, for example, mentions the $1.4 billion contract awarded to an Halliburton subsidiary and a $680 million contract awarded to Bechtel after secret bidding. The bids were submitted by just 6 firms that contributed $3.6 million to federal election campaigns, 2/3 to Republicans.

With the Vice President's old firm doing well and new (big) rewards handed over to Republican donors, it is easy to see how some might see crony capitalism at work.

A couple of years ago, Senator Collins helped draft a bill that required competitive bidding for this sort of activity -- but it allowed various loopholes, including one for national security.
"The problem is there is no oversight to see that these exceptions are used appropriately," she says. As chairman of the committee she once worked for, Collins wants those loopholes closed. Her "sunshine rule," cosponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, was approved by the Senate as an amendment to President Bush's $87 billion request for Iraq.

Recently, Josh Marshall blogged about the new lobby firm, New Bridge Strategies, that is positioning itself to connect US clients to the multibillion Iraq package. The firm's principles include Bush's 2000 campaign manager Joe Allbaugh (he was also Bush's cheif-of-staff when W. was Texas Governor). The Looters with Limos (I love that name)blog was also on to this story at an early date.

My friend Pete Dombrowski has been studying security-related economic issues for a long time and he knows much more about this issue than I do. He gave a talk about various military-commerical linkages in May that is available on the internet.

In the long section that I am going to quote, he suggests that these economic relationship could help perpetuate some of the false threats that I've been blogging about in relation to specific contexts, such as the war on terror and Iraq. He certainly advocates healthy skepticism:
Large multibillion defense contractors from Lockheed Martin to Boeing to Northrop Grumman also help the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and the Marines explore their understanding of the future. Using complex computer programs, futuristic facilities, and the expertise of retired officers and officials, the military has a great deal of help from its counterparts in the military industrial complex We as taxpayers pay dearly for such assistance, but it can be difficult to tell whether we get what we truly need for our tax dollars.

Without necessarily impugning the motives and patriotism of the men and women who participate in planning activities of all sorts, the potential conflicts of interest are clear. Who, after all, has the most to gain from envisioning a conflict-ridden world twenty years in the future, complete with heavily armed, aggressive adversaries working tirelessly against American interests? Who, after all, has an interest in developing expensive new technologies (stealth, precision-guided munitions, directed energy weapons and the like) to meet unforeseen but dangerous, "asymmetric" threats? Of course, the military has a stake in not being caught off-guard, unprepared for catastrophic threats to the physical security of Americans. But industry too, has a stake. It has a stake in selling as much of the most advanced equipment available as is possible. The future shocks always predicted for just over the horizon may turn out to be schlock as we discover that the assumptions and technologies underlying our most complex military planning processes may be deeply flawed or at a minimum blind to basic truths. For ordinary citizens, the point is to remain skeptical about both the challenges that face our country and the ways in which our experts tell us we can meet and defeat potential threats.

Did I mention that Pete works for the US Navy?

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