Daddy Warbucks Is Alive and Well

The prospects for instilling democracy and staunching terrorism in Iraq have dimmed since our soldiers knocked over that Saddam Hussein statue. While the American military’s triumph over the dictator’s enfeebled and ill-motivated army was pre-ordained, the political triumph of liberal democratic values is not. When American forces depart, what they leave behind may well be a Shiite theocracy, supported and influenced by the terror-masters and mullahs in Teheran.

In the meantime, American corporations will at least have minted a few billion bucks.

For cynics observing the development of U.S. policy, the business of America still seems to be business, abroad or at home, and not democracy. The war was said to be about changing an evil regime, combating terrorism, eliminating weapons of mass destruction or an uplifting combination of the above-and certainly not about anything as grimy as oil. Somehow, the U.S. Special Forces secured the oil fields first, and the troops arriving in Baghdad set up their armor around the Ministry of Oil, and the Iraqi exile politicians now being groomed for power happen to favor privatizing their country’s petroleum resources. Preserving the oil fields from destruction was crucial, but whether they were saved for the future benefit of the Iraqi people remains doubtful.

As for post-war arrangements with traditional American allies and multilateral institutions, the administration’s exclusion of the United Nations, the French, the Russians and the Germans may or may not be in the national interest. Fareed Zakaria has argued persuasively in Newsweek that our true interest lies in making all assistance to Iraq “multilateral,” since this would “take some of the economic and military burden off the United States” and help remove the stigma of U.S. occupation in Iraqi eyes. The White House and the Pentagon, however, have rejected that eminently sensible advice, supposedly for geopolitical and strategic reasons-as well as to punish those who tried to thwart the drive to war. There’s another obvious downside to multilateralism: American corporations would have to share with their competitors in Europe and Japan.

Sharing the spoils might not trouble the ordinary taxpayer, who must contemplate spending additional tens of billions from Washington’s depleted treasury on Iraq’s reconstruction while domestic needs go unmet. Unfortunately, the ordinary taxpayer has little influence over the federal government’s dealings in Iraq, where enormous deals made in great haste will surely result in appalling waste.

Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded a contract worth $680 billion for the reconstruction of roads, bridges and other facilities to Bechtel, the San Francisco– based construction conglomerate whose Republican connections are comparable to those of Enron and the Carlyle Group.

Bechtel’s former president is George Shultz, who served as Secretary of State during the Reagan administration, tutored George W. Bush in foreign policy during the 2000 campaign and fervently advocated invading Iraq. The company’s current C.E.O., Riley Bechtel, was recently appointed to serve on the President’s Export Council.

The most startling coincidence is that the official responsible for overseeing the award of the A.I.D. contract to Bechtel is Andrew Natsios. A protégé of White House chief of staff Andrew Card, the A.I.D. chief knows the San Francisco company very well, indeed. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Mr. Natsios oversaw Boston’s Big Dig highway scheme, the largest and most scandalously inefficient building project in American history-whose chief contractor was none other than Bechtel.

In his zeal to rebuild Iraq, Mr. Natsios discarded normal bidding procedures for a rapid process that entertained proposals from only six companies. Why Bechtel won remains a mystery. But the firm’s performance in Boston is all too well-known, especially to Mr. Natsios, whose last job in Massachusetts was to restrain the cost overruns and mismanagement that infested the Big Dig. Under his supervision in 2000, the overruns quickly swelled from $1.4 billion to $2.2 billion.

Several months later, Mr. Natsios left that big mess behind to take up his current post in Washington. He departed just before the state’s inspector general issued a report describing his “reforms” as a failure that continued to invite “fraud, waste and abuse.”

Wherever there are winners, there must be losers, too. Halliburton Inc., the construction outfit that used to employ Vice President Dick Cheney and still pays him a million annually in deferred compensation, was slated for work as a subcontractor on the A.I.D. construction contract under Parsons Inc.

Unfortunately, Parsons lost out to Bechtel this time.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Vice President and his former colleagues, though. The Army Corps of Engineers gave a no-bid contract to put out oil fires in Iraq to a Halliburton subsidiary. And Halliburton also earned as much as a billion dollars as the primary logistics contractor for the American expeditionary forces in Iraq.

Oh, what a lovely war.