War Profiteering

War Profiteering

Even before US troops arrived in Baghdad, looting broke out–in Washington.


Even before US troops arrived in Baghdad, looting broke out–in Washington. While Republicans in Congress and their allies in the media yammered about the need to silence dissent and “support the troops,” corporations with close ties to the Bush Administration were quietly arranging to ink lucrative contracts that would put them in charge of reconstructing Iraq. Bechtel’s contract, worth up to $680 million, to rebuild Iraqi roads, schools, sewers and hospitals drew a lot of media attention, but it was chump change compared with the deal greased through by Vice President Cheney’s old oil-services firm, Halliburton. The Army Corps of Engineers told Representative Henry Waxman that a Pentagon contract awarded without competition to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) to fight oilwell fires is worth as much as $7 billion over two years. The Halliburton subsidiary has been authorized to take profits of up to $490 million.

Congress dozes while the treasury is raided. Waxman has done the best job of monitoring the rapidly burgeoning relationship between the federal government run by Dick Cheney and a corporation formerly run by Dick Cheney. He’s been asking polite, persistent questions such as, “What is the exact nature of the work that Brown & Root is expected to be asked to perform under the contract?”

But where’s the outrage? Where is the leader with the courage to say, as Franklin Roosevelt did during World War II, “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster”? Democrats in Congress–and Republicans who have not placed their conscience in a blind trust for the duration of the Bush/Cheney years, a group we hope still includes Arizona’s John McCain in the Senate and Iowa’s Jim Leach in the House–should borrow a page from past wars, when the nation’s elected leaders knew what to call businessmen who used hostilities abroad as an excuse to raid the federal treasury. Senator Robert La Follette tagged them as “enemies of democracy in the homeland.” During World War II Harry Truman referred to some forms of war profiteering as “treason.”

When he heard rumors of such profiteering, Truman got into his Dodge and, during a Congressional recess, drove 30,000 miles paying unannounced visits to corporate offices and worksites. The Senate committee he chaired launched aggressive investigations into shady wartime business practices and found “waste, inefficiency, mismanagement and profiteering,” according to Truman, who argued that such behavior was unpatriotic. Urged on by Truman and others in Congress, President Roosevelt supported broad increases in the corporate income tax, raised the excess-profits tax to 90 percent and charged the Office of War Mobilization with the task of eliminating illegal profits. Truman, who became a national hero for his fight against the profiteers, was tapped to be FDR’s running mate in 1944.

How about authorizing a contemporary “Truman Committee” to oversee Iraqi war contracts? There’s a strong issue here for candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham, Dick Gephardt and all the other Congressional Democrats who would lead their party in 2004 against a President who will be rolling in corporate dough, some of it from companies that profit from war. Voters will respond to a Democrat who is willing to battle the profiteers. Like most Iraqis, most Americans want to see an end to the looting.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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