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War n. globalisation by other means

First the US military bombed Iraq's hospitals, bridges and waterworks. Now US corporations are harvesting profits from "reconstructing" those installations. Blood was not just shed for oil, but also for control over all Iraq's vital services.

July 1, 2003
8 min read

The most vital of these is water. The company at the forefront of this lucrative reconstruction is the politically well-connected Bechtel Group. Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Schultz is the corporation’s previous president and a current board member and senior counsellor of Bechtel.

In the Herald Tribune in April, US commentator Bob Herbert wrote the following: “Last week Bechtel was able to demonstrate exactly what wars are good for. The Bush administration gave it the first big Iraqi reconstruction contract – a prized $680m deal over 18 months that puts Bechtel in the driver’s seat for the long-term reconstruction of the country, which could cost $100 billion or more. Bechtel essentially was given a licence to make money. And that licence was granted in a closed-door process that was restricted to a handful of politically connected US corporations.”

War has extended corporate rule in a way that the WTO could never do. It is this promotion of corporate interests that seems to be the main goal of Washington’s neo-conservatives.

Bechtel’s history of profiteering

Bechtel became the world’s largest construction company thanks to its role in the US’s construction boom following WWII. Today the corporation is responsible for over 19,000 projects in 140 countries, and has operations on all continents save Antarctica. Bechtel is involved in over 200 water and waste-water treatment plants around the world, in large part through its subsidiaries and joint ventures such as International Water (IW). The latter is a partnership between Bechtel, the Italian firm Edison and United Utilities in the UK.

The corporation’s executives have thirsted for control over the ancient land of Iraq for over 20 years. It was in 1983 that Reagan’s “special Middle East envoy” Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein to discuss a Bechtel proposal for a massive pipeline project. Saddam, who had a habit of preferring French, German, and Russian firms, eventually rejected the US plans. Two decades later Rumsfeld has finally ‘taken care of business” for Bechtel.

Bechtel’s good fortune in securing the largest contract for Iraq’s reconstruction highlights the lack of transparency in the US and exemplifies how corporate rule is established. When Washington handed out the contracts for rebuilding Iraq, US laws governing agency procurement were suspended. The standard competitive bidding process was ignored, and the US Agency for International Development (USaid) hand-picked a few companies for the bidding shortlist. Of these, only two actually did bid – with Bechtel emerging victorious.

Cradle of civilisation and conflict

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers provide a water lifeline in the arid Middle East. Encompassing between them the alluvial plain that was the cradle of the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian civilisations, these rivers are also a source of regional conflict. Turkey’s massive dam-building projects have upset the riparian states of Syria and Iraq. With over half the water of both rivers generated inside its borders, the dams put Turkey in a position to regulate river flow. Syria and Iraq worry that Turkish needs for irrigation and electricity generation will determine how much water flows to them, and they are sceptical about Turkey’s commitment to maintaining an acceptable minimum flow. (Unesco recently announced that a body of scientific mediators would be formed to handle such international water disputes.)

The introduction into the situation of Bechtel, a company with a history of aggravating water conflict, is a recipe for disaster. Its contract for rebuilding Iraq covers, but is not limited to, municipal water and sewage systems, major irrigation structures and the dredging, repair and upgrading of the Umm Qasr seaport. In the parched Middle East, with an international water dispute already seething, an attempt by a multinational water giant to grab precious water resources could spark serious wars.

People are already questioning the process that USaid and the US Department of Defense used in awarding these contracts. The US General Accounting Office has launched an investigation, and a group of senators has introduced a bill requiring the agencies involved to disclose more details. As examples from around the world show, such secretive collusion between huge corporations and government bureaucrats is not an isolated phenomenon.

Corporate rule is not an alternative to Saddam-style dictatorship; it is just a different type of dictatorship – the dictatorship of corporations, which have hijacked state power and used military might to grab markets. The new tyranny has been imposed in the name of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. There seems, here, to be some fundamental confusion about the meaning of “freedom”.

When much of Iraq’s 7,000-year-old Mesopotamian heritage was destroyed in the presence of the US military, Rumsfeld’s naive and irresponsible observation was: “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” On this logic, the terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Centre were exercising a legitimate freedom to “commit crimes and do bad things”. Did the US forces stand by as mute spectators then?

There is similar confusion about the meaning of “(re)construction”. What happened in Iraq was “de-struction”; it is being referred to as “reconstruction”. Innocent people were killed. Thousands of years of a civilisation’s history were erased. Yet Jay Garner – the retired US general who was initially chosen to oversee reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in the country – talked about “giving birth to a new system in Iraq”. Bombs do not “give birth” to society. They annihilate life. New societies are not “born” by destroying the historical and cultural legacy of ancient civilisations.

Maybe Washington does not perceive these acts as violations. US society was, after all, built on the genocide of native Americans. Annihilation of ‘the other’ seems to be taken as “natural” by those controlling power in the world’s lone superpower. Maybe the perception of the deliberate destruction of a civilisation and thousands of innocent lives as a “birthing” process is an expression of the Western patriarchy’s “illusion of creation”. This illusion identifies capital and machines – including war machines – as sources of “creation”, and nature and human societies – especially non-Western ones – as either dead, inert and passive, or dangerous and cannibalistic. This worldview creates the “white man’s burden” of a “duty” to “liberate” nature and non-Western societies (even with violence) – thus ensuring the “birth” of freedom.

Whatever the deeper roots of using the concept of “reconstruction” to justify the establishment of an economy of looting and violence in Iraq, the profiteering from war by corporations like Bechtel confirms that war is globalisation by other means.

For people worldwide the challenge is to converge the energies of the anti-globalisation movement, the peace movement and movements for real democracy. Our task is to reclaim the real meaning of “freedom”, rescuing the concept from the degradations it has been subjected to by the doublespeak of “free trade” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. The “freedom” being sought through ‘free’-trade treaties and the WTO and the “freedom” resulting from the Iraq war is the freedom of corporations to profit. This freedom is a licence to loot. And corporate looting and corporate freedom are destroying democracy and freedom for people and societies.

The new freedom to be sought by people worldwide is freedom from corporate dictatorship facilitated and enabled by militarism and war. This is as important for the citizens of Iraq and other countries invaded by global corporations under the protection of military or “free”-trade treaties as it is for the citizens of the US.

There is nothing new about using war for corporate profiteering. Bechtel’s behaviour in WWII helped inspire Ralph Casey of the US General Accounting Office to state: “At no time in the history of US business, whether in wartime or in peacetime, have so many men made so much money with so little risk; and all at the expense of the taxpayers of this generation [and] of generations to come.”

The Bechtel contract and the Iraq war that facilitated it have highlighted the lack of democracy, transparency and accountability in the way economic and political decisions are made by a US administration that has become indistinguishable from US corporations. When government has become the instrument of corporate interest democracy has ceased to exist. Instead of governance being “of the people, by the people, for the people”, it is “of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations”.

For democracy to thrive “regime change” is urgently needed – in the US, in Iraq and in every country where corporate dictatorship is becoming entrenched.Vandana Shiva is head of New Delhi’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology

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