Bush's gift to taxpayers—and Halliburton.

Bush's gift to taxpayers—and Halliburton.

Bush's gift to taxpayers—and Halliburton.

Policy made plain.
April 17 2003 3:58 PM

Thanks for Nothing

Bush's gift to taxpayers—and Halliburton.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

President Bush, who was oh-so-sneery about the idea of "nation-building" during the 2000 campaign, is now nation-building with a vengeance. He plans to spend $60 billion or more over the next three years rebuilding Iraq. The agenda includes everything from repairing the oil fields to rewriting the elementary-school textbooks. Like the Clinton administration he ridiculed, he now realizes that you cannot pour soldiers and bombs into a country, declare it liberated, and come home.

But this is nation-building Republican-style, with huge contracts awarded in secret to politically connected companies. They now say that the "emergency" oil-field contract to Halliburton, formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney—and, gosh, who would have predicted that Iraq's oil fields might need to be repaired after a war?—is only worth $600 million, not the $7 billion originally reported. I suppose we should be grateful for that.

Advertisement

In fact, in an odd twist, we're supposed to be grateful for all these big crony contracts because they're going to good old American companies and not to the filthy French or the nasty Germans or Russians who were so terribly helpful—not!—in the recent festivities. The feeling seems to be: Hey, we paid for the destruction. If it weren't for us, there wouldn't be all these roads and bridges that need rebuilding. So, if someone's going to make money rebuilding them, it ought to be us.

To be fair, the Bush administration isn't pushing this line. It doesn't need to since it is awarding these contracts with no public bidding or discussion. Members of the House of Representatives were the ones who voted to add a provision to the war-financing bill that would have forbidden the awarding of reconstruction contracts to companies from nations that didn't support the destruction that made it all possible. The provision was removed by the conference committee. Nevertheless, justifiable public outrage about Halliburton and other sweetheart deals has been muted by a widespread feeling that "we deserve this."

Which brings to mind the punch line of that old Lone Ranger and Tonto joke. ("Well, Tonto, it looks like we're surrounded by Indians." "What do you mean, 'we,' Kemosabe?") What am I to Halliburton? What is Halliburton to me? Misdirected national emotion is turning into a theme of the Bush II years. We're filled with righteous anger at Osama Bin Laden, so we go and pummel Saddam Hussein. We're filled with gratitude toward the soldiers who fought this war and with self-satisfaction as the citizens who will pay for it, so we give a teary hug and a big wet kiss on the mouth to a company practically all of us have nothing to do with.

It's like getting one of those cards announcing that instead of a Christmas present, someone has made a contribution in your name to some charity you aren't interested in. "Dear American Taxpayer: We are pleased to inform you that in gratitude for all the billions you're going to be pouring into Iraq, the U.S. government has made a sweetheart deal on your behalf with a company you've never heard of." Eighty billion dollars—the size of just the first expense report the Bush administration has submitted to Congress—works out to about $1,000 that needs to be kicked in by each household in the United States. Of course we're putting it all on the credit card, to be paid for in the future, with interest. But it's still real money. If we made a contribution that big to our local public broadcasting outlet, we'd qualify for a CD recording by six, nine, or even 12 tenors. From the Bush administration, we don't even get a tote bag. But at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that we share a $10 trillion economy with some smiling companies that are doing well as a result of the war.

Reserving government contracts for domestic companies violates international law, of course. It seems like just the other day that Donald Rumsfeld was lecturing Saddam Hussein about the importance of obeying international law. The World Trade Organization rules forbid governments to discriminate against the companies of fellow members when they are looking to spend some money. This is not one of those high-minded international laws that we agreed to just because we're so noble and can't really be expected to obey, my dear fellow—we being the world's only superpower and all that. This particular law is superpower-friendly. Our country is the one with more of the big global companies that are most likely to benefit from open markets for government business. We also have a smaller government share of GDP than any of our major trading partners. That means we have more to gain from access to other nations' government business than they have to gain from access to ours. And therefore we have more to lose if other nations retaliate by cutting off our access to their government contracts, which they are understandably threatening to do.

And, lest we forget, the doctrine of free trade holds—based on near-mathematical proof, not just pious wishful thinking—that a nation benefits by buying foreign goods, not just by selling its own goods to foreigners. As the folks footing the bill, we should want the reconstruction of Iraq to be as inexpensive as possible. If a firm from Uzbekistan can patch a pipeline for less than a firm from Texas, giving the work to that firm in Texas is just paying too much. Even if the Uzbeki firm is able to underbid the Texas one only because it is getting an Uzbekistan government subsidy, that just means a bit of the burden is being shifted from American taxpayers to the taxpayers of Uzbekistan.

Thanks so much for that Halliburton contract, George. And all the lovely deals for Bechtel and other well-connected companies. You shouldn't have.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist, and the founding editor of Slate.