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Debate Halliburton | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Debate Halliburton

George W. Bush is ready to debate John Kerry.

The chronically underestimated president, who invariably prevails in face-to-face showdowns with his general election opponents, has been cramming for weeks. According to Bush aides, the president listens to tapes of Kerry's past debate performances and speeches while he is traveling and during his daily workouts. He has imported a lanky, boring New Englander, New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, to play the role of Kerry during practice debates at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. And he is now memorizing poll-tested one liners crafted to devastate the Democratic challenger and capture the headlines on the day after Thursday's debate in Coral Gables, Florida.

For his part, Kerry is prepping at a resort in Wisconsin. After two weeks of honing an increasingly aggressive message regarding the crisis in Iraq and the mismanaged war on terrorism, he will go into the first of three critical debates feeling confident. But if all Kerry does is wrestle Bush for the tough-on-terror mantle, that confidence will prove misplaced.

In a foreign policy debate that plays out within the lines defined by White House political czar Karl Rove, the best Kerry can hope for is a draw. Predictable punches will not upset Bush's delivery of the simple basic themes -- "battling against evil," "taking the fight to the terrorists," "safer now than on Sept. 11" -- that have allowed him to maintain relatively broad support in the face of increasingly awful news from around the world.

To knock Bush off message, Kerry will need to come into the debates with a message for which Bush is unprepared. And Kerry will have to hammer away on that message until it supplants Bush's mantras in the mind of the voting public.

So what should Kerry talk about? One word: Halliburton.

Kerry should make the crony capitalism that has allowed Vice President Dick Cheney's corporation to become the dominant player in the management of the botched occupation and reconstruction of Iraq a part of every answer to every question. The Democrat should explain to Americans, again and again and again, that one of the primary explanations for the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned out badly is the determination of this administration to assure that Halliburton be the primary profiteer in the region.

No corporation has gained more from the invasion of Iraq than Halliburton. Since the war began, it has moved from No.19 on the U.S. Army's list of top contractors to No. 1. Last year, the company pocketed $4.2 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars. And that's merely the take so far; the company's Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) subsidiary has collected what the Washington Post describes as "one of the contracting plums of the war: a classified no-bid deal worth up to $7 billion to do the restoration work."

Yet, by any measure, Halliburton and KBR have done a horrible job of managing the occupation and the reconstruction. The company has been investigated and fined for wrongdoing, and few days go by without new evidence surfacing to suggest that Halliburton either is massively corrupt or massively inept--or, and this is the most likely explanation, a messy combination of the two. Things are so bad that Halliburton officials are now talking about spinning off KBR in order to try to salvage what is left of the parent corporation's reputation.

Kerry has promised that, "As president, I will stop companies like Halliburton from profiting at the expense of our troops and taxpayers." Referencing that fact that Cheney continues to receive money from Halliburton--$178,437 in 2003 alone--Kerry adds, "I will stop companies from receiving no-bid contracts from the government when the president or vice president is still receiving compensation from that company."

That's a message Kerry should take into the debates. Bush wants to talk about "fighting against evil." Kerry should oblige him by forcing the president to address the evil of war profiteering -- and the crime of handing no-bid contracts to a company that is funneling money into the vice president's bank account.

*****************************************************************John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com*****************************************************************

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