Unwilling to wait for bombs over Baghdad, Washington lobbyists kicked off the real Iraq war weeks ago. They've been quietly squaring off for the contracts to implement George W. Bush's one-year remake of Iraq, the squalid dictatorship, into Iraq, the gleaming democracy.
With the reconstruction roughly figured to run at least $20 billion per year for many years to come, this is a bonanza for the construction and allied industries.
Last week, USAID asked five construction concerns to submit bids on an initial $900 million contract. Among them were three heavyweight players that collectively gave $2.8 million to presidential candidates over the past two election cycles. Two-thirds of that money went to Republicans, according to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The three are:
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•Bechtel. The huge engineering firm employed top Reagan officials before they took office, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Schultz and CIA director William Casey. Bechtel gave $1.3 million in PAC and soft-money contributions. A German report claims Bechtel sold weapons to Iraq during the 1980s.
•Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR). A Halliburton subsidiary, KBR has an open-ended contract to provide logistical support to the U.S. military around the world and reportedly is in line to put out flaming oil wells should Saddam Hussein set them afire. Halliburton was the second largest contributor, chipping in $709,000.
•Fluor. This corporation gave $483,000 to pols. Kenneth Oscar, the firm's VP for strategy and government services, recently was acting assistant secretary of the army, which has a $35 billion procurement budget.
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Sunday's talk shows were like paid political advertising for the Bush re-election campaign. Reporters were reduced to talking airheads.
Tim Russert to Dick Cheney: "How's your health?"
Cheney: "Good. No complaints."
Russert: "Do you prefer French fries or freedom fries?"
Cheney: "I don't eat them, whatever they're called."
Or Bob Schieffer on CBS: "Well, I mean, do you think that the president will announce some sort of timetable today from the Azores?"
Cheney: "Bob, I . . . I don't want to be in a position where I predict what my boss is going to do."
Schieffer: "I understand."
Instead of complaining about the U.S. press coverage, why not just skip it—or at least supplement it? Here is a very incomplete, short list of sites that will actually tell you what's going on:
BBC News(news.bbc.co.uk): best basic location for information about the war itself and the effects on other parts of the world. Replace CNN, ABC, Fox News, etc., with this. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC.ca/news/iraq): another strong alternative. Commonwealth Institute War Report (comw.org): an excellent resource for background articles on all aspects of the Iraq war. The London Independent (independent.co.uk): generally excellent foreign reporting. Watch for Robert Fisk's Middle Eastern stories. Financial Times (news.ft.com) for both general foreign reportage and business news. Replace The Wall Street Journal with this. Haaretz (haaretzdaily.com): informed, skeptical Israeli newspaper for news from what could soon be the second front. JUST BILL AFRICA
UN studies project up to 2 million people would be displaced by war with Iraq, with an additional 1.4 million refugees fleeing the country. Where they'll go isn't clear.
Jordan, Syria and Kuwait have announced they will not take any. Iran, which is still harboring 200,000 from the first Gulf War, is not likely to want any more. It's doubtful whether the UN can help much. "All UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness," says one UN report, adding that a "humanitarian emergency [is] well beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid organizations."
The effect of the war on developing nations is likely to be intense. They depend on oil, the price of which has risen from around $17 per barrel in December 2001 to upward of $37 now. Further, losses in trade can be substantial. In 1991, disruption in Iraq cost Jordan $32 billion. Sri Lanka, a large tea producer, took a hard hit when it lost its previous substantial sales to Iraq because of sanctions.
War looms as the debt burdens of poor countries remain high, with the third world owing a combined $2.061 trillion.
The millions of South and Southeast Asian workers in the Middle East will see their wages from oil and allied industries fall. The BBC reports more than half the people living in Kuwait are foreign nationals—mainly migrant workers from South or East Asia. Many workers send their earnings back home, so the past war shook the economies of nations from Egypt to the Philippines, which now has 1.5 million citizens in the region. Last weekend, the Philippine government set up a camp in Kuwait to house and protect its citizens there during war. "Many of the workers are afraid of losing their jobs," one told the BBC's East Asia Today. "If they leave, they are worried they might not have any jobs to come back to."
Of course, the quixotic course of the oil business may in the near term be a boon for the poor nations of West Africa, which control large reserves of newly discovered oil in the Gulf of Guinea. But Salih Booker of Africa Action said only a few will benefit. "As oil prices rise, the price of transportation and production costs will rise, and you will see a significant decline in growth for countries already heavily indebted," he said.
In Africa, violence from dictators or al-Qaida presents a relatively minor danger compared to other problems. Booker can think of better uses for American money. "The AIDS epidemic is the greatest global threat facing the world right now—greater than terrorism, greater than weapons of mass destruction," Booker said in an interview last week. "It is killing 3 million people a year. It is a public health crisis killing more people than terrorism, destroying more families, undermining economies because it is striking down the most productive sectors of populations and destabilizing economies. . . . The global need is for money for AIDS, not for war. Look at the levels of resources the U.S. is talking about: $200 billion dollars—and this is escalating—and meanwhile hardly any money is being spent on AIDS, by far a deadlier threat. And African countries can't grapple with it on their own."
Additional reporting by Phoebe St. John, Mosi Secret and Joanna Khenkine.
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