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COLUMN

Making A Killing Off Of War?

Maya Montenegro

Democrats and Republicans alike reacted angrily Tuesday after discovering that the White House has unilaterally moved forward with plans to award construction contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a short list of five American companies. To add insult to injury, Pentagon officials failed to attend the Senate committee hearings on post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

Republican Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said he was “startled by the news” that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has already been in touch with major corporations. Lugar, like many other congressmen, found out the news in morning paper, since the Wall Street Journal, rather than the Executive Office, decided it was something the public had a right to know.

The Administration has tried to put a positive spin on this preemptive reconstruction effort by suggesting that fast results will “win over hearts and minds by feeding hungry Iraqis, delivering clean water, and helping to pay teachers and heath workers while a new government is constructed.” A more skeptical observer might wonder why only American companies can feed hungry Iraqis. (He might also wonder why the United States-backed embargo -- which did little but starve Iraqi citizens -- was held in place so long).

Instead of opening up competition for the contracts to a wider pool of construction firms, USAID has solicited bids from a select group of companies, including the Lois Berger Group and Houston-based Halliburton, where Vice President Dick Cheney spent five years as CEO. Far be it from me to suggest insider interests, but something here seems less than pristine.

When, in the name of democratic ideals, the government squelches its own democratic protocols -- from denying Congress information to conducting closed-door business deals -- one has to wonder if the Bush Administration’s objectives in Iraq are indeed as noble as those it trumpets to the media.

An estimated $900 million are on the line for this initial contract, and this is likely to be just a small chip off the eventual reconstruction budget iceberg. If the United States truly wants to garner international support to “liberate the Iraqi people” and bring democracy to that country, it might consider offering some of these lucrative construction contracts to foreign companies. Instead -- even before the first shots have been fired -- the United States is planning to collect all the booty itself.

“Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people,” Colin Powell recently said on National Public Radio. But according to a Washington Post report, “Planners also hope Iraqi oil revenue can help pay for reconstruction.” Of course, the U.S. government will make sure that the Iraqi people want to pay to rebuild the infrastructure that the American military is about to smash to pieces.

What the Bush Administration can’t seem to understand (no matter how many anti-war protesters gather in the streets or how many foreign ministers butt heads with Colin Powell and Tony Blair) is that the United States’ combination of duplicity and unabashed self-righteousness is what rankles the international community most. This latest incident, however, marks a new high by bringing this arrogance home to roost. Said Democrat Christopher Dodd, “We’ve seen evidence of that [arrogance] in the allied reaction to the effort in Iraq and it’s now showing up here.”

I used to chafe at the extremism of the “No Blood for Oil” posters. Surely our motivations cannot be so transparent, I thought. Monday’s news of the multi-million dollar contracts exclusive to American companies has forced me to reconsider. It was, to borrow the words of British Labour party member Tam Dalyell, a “vomit-making” realization.

Maya Montenegro is a graduate student in the Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies.