Sunday, November 25, 2007

And Life Goes On

In the November 14th edition of The New York Times, Kurt Campbell -- a former official in Bill Clinton's Pentagon -- asked the question, "What has become of the Iraqictects?" Campbell pointed out that, unlike the last generation of war planners -- whose saga the late David Halberstam chronicled in his book, The Best and the Brightest -- the advisers who planned the War in Iraq seem not to have experienced any adverse consequences.

Campbell, an alumnus of Harvard, recalled seeing, "the lonely ghostlike figure of Robert MacNamara, striding around Cambridge making presentations to a new generation of would-be strategists about how to learn from his mistakes of the past." MacNamara and his brethren had to "endure booing on college campuses, shunning from old friends and colleagues, brutal treatment from the communitariat at the time, and the kind of bitter despair that generally accompanies a thorough going battlefield defeat." Unlike the Kennedy generation of cold warriors, this group of hawks have simply left government to pursue "challenging new directions in the private sector." In fact, concluded Campbell, what is truly puzzling is how "normal" all this seems to be.

What has changed? Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine, recounts the assault on western democracies since the end of the Vietnam War. She contends that governments, from Chile to Argentina to Russia to Washington -- where the trend began -- have been, in her phrase, "hollowed out" by the evolving military industrial complex. Klein labels the next generation of this corporatist marriage the "disaster capitalism complex."

Taking a cue from Ronald Reagan, who declared that, "government isn't part of the problem, it is the problem," modern neo-conservatism has sought to dismantle government by contracting out to the private sector most of its functions. As a result, many former civil servants have left government service to found their own companies, which in turn have been awarded contracts to do what government used to do. Hence, Joe Allbaugh, the former director of FEMA founded New Bridge Strategies, whose mission is "to be the 'bridge' between business and the lucrative world of government contracts and investment opportunities in Iraq." His replacement at FEMA, the hapless Michael D. Brown -- after he was fired from that job -- set up his own company "specializing in disaster preparedness." And, of course, Erik Prince -- the CEO of Blackwater, a private mercenary army -- has been in the news a lot of late. In fact, there are more private contractors fighting the war in Iraq than there are American soldiers.

By privatizing the war, the Bush administration has dampened public criticism. Most citizens -- unless they have a family member in the armed services -- have no direct stake in what happens in Iraq. And, while the private contractors do have a direct stake, most contracts have been awarded on a no bid, cost plus basis. If they are lucky enough to have cultivated the right people, they have a guaranteed money making operation -- and there is lots of money to be made, despite all kinds of evidence that what they have been paid for has not been done.

This phenomenon is particularly striking in the case of Mr. Rumsfeld, who has recently "returned to the private sector." When he entered government, he was supposed to place his holdings in a blind trust. And certain investments, like his shares in Lockheed and Boeing, were placed in that kind of vehicle. But Rumsfeld refused to divest himself of his shares in Gilead Sciences, the company which he used to chair (the company which holds the patent on Tamiflu, the vaccine which the American government has chosen to stockpile in case of a flu epidemic.) When discussions were held about purchasing a vaccine, we are told that Rumsfeld left the room. But, even in his absence, things turned out swimmingly for Gilead. According to Klein, "In July 2005 the Pentagon purchased $58 million worth of Tamiflu, and the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would order up to $1 billion worth of the drug a few months later." If Rumsfeld had sold his shares in Gilead in January, 2001, when he entered office, he would have received $7.45 for each share. By refusing to sell those shares "through all the avian flu scares, all the bio terror hysteria and through his own administration's decisions to invest heavily in the company [writes Klein] Rumsfeld ended up with stocks worth $67.60 each when he left office."

The Vice Preisdent's fortunes have followed a similar path. While Mr. Cheney did sell some of his Haliburton shares when he entered office -- netting a profit of some $18.5 million -- Klein reports that he didn't cash out entirely. "According to The Wall Street Journal, Cheney hung onto 189,000 Haliburton shares and 500,000 unvested options even as he entered the vice presidency." Haliburton, as one of the chief beneficiaries of the new no bid cost plus contracting process, has done remarkably well during the war. Klein notes that, "the company's stock price rose from $10 before the war in Iraq to $41 three years later -- a 300 per cent jump -- thanks to a combination of soaring energy prices and Iraq contracts both of which flow directly from Cheney's steering the country into war with Iraq."

Through it all, these gentlemen have operated on the principle that self interest is in the public interest. In fact, what they have done is merge the private and public spheres, while reaping huge profits along the way. George Bush likes to compare the reconstruction of Iraq to the Marshall Plan. In fact, written into the Marshall Plan was a specific prohibition against American contractors participating in the rebuilding of Europe. The American government bankrolled the reconstruction; but Europeans actually did the work. The history of reconstruction in Iraq has been a history of American contractors reaping profits, even when work, in the vast number of cases, wasn't done. The Iraqis have simply stood by as spectators. And for the architects of the war, the profits have continued to roll in -- just as they did before this generation of The Best and the Brightest entered office. Life has gone on with astonishing normality. And they tell us that this is a war without end.

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