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A Jobs Program for Iraq
March 5, 2004
By Brian Youngblood

Despite new allegations of overpricing by Halliburton involving Iraq's reconstruction, Vice President Cheney would argue that Halliburton is simply getting a bum rap. According to Cheney, "They get unfairly maligned simply because of their past association with me." Of course. The charges of overpricing are simply the result of negative politics, not, say, actual corporate corruption.

Other than the bad political news for Bush, no mention is made of the impact of the scandals on the success of Iraq's reconstruction. But such perceptions of cronyism can only make the job of "winning hearts and minds" more difficult in Iraq. Building a democratic government in Iraq will mean nothing unless we also put Iraq's economic future back into Iraqi hands.

Simply bringing in other foreign corporations to participate in Iraq's reconstruction will do little to change the increasingly negative view Iraqis have of the occupation. The Bush Administration likes to compare Iraq to postwar Germany, but in Germany the U.S., under the direction of General Lucius Clay, decreed that no foreign companies would be allowed to participate in the reconstruction of the country. Only Germans would be hired for the job. The U.S. did not suffer a single postwar casualty in Germany.

If the Bush Administration were to take a similar course in Iraq, not only would the U.S save money, it would also help convince the Iraqi people that the U.S is on their side. Directly hiring Iraqis to rebuild their country could also stem the dramatic loss of jobs in Iraq, where estimates put unemployment anywhere from 50 to 70 percent. Such a decision would also allow direct participation by the Iraqi people in the rebuilding of their country, helping to lay the groundwork for eventual democracy.

The awarding of no-bid contracts to U.S. corporations, along with rules issued by Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, that allow foreign investors to buy control of Iraqi-owned enterprises, reinforce the perception among some Iraqis that the war was really about the economic plundering of their country.

Far more goodwill and jobs could be created if the U.S. were to use only Iraqi firms, many of whom tried to bid on the huge contracts given to companies like Halliburton and Bechtel. Supporters of the no-bid contracts will argue that these were awarded to companies according to their qualifications, not due to their political influence.

But what is reconstruction, exactly? It is constructing new roads, rebuilding schools…in other words, basic construction work. Clearly the Iraqi people, many of whom are well educated, could handle such work, and do at least as good of a job as the current contractors, at a fraction of the cost. Maybe by now the entire country would have working electricity again, and we would not be hearing more stories of corruption involving Dick Cheney's former employer.

Considering that we have already spent billions on reconstruction in Iraq, should we not ask what we are getting for our money? Obviously the ongoing attacks have hampered the U.S. effort, but the lack of jobs is a key factor in the increasing unrest. Bringing in more troops will help stabilize the country in the short-term, but long-term it is imperative that the Iraqi people are allowed to directly participate in the reconstruction of their country.

In short, we should tear up those massive no-bid contracts, and instead directly hire Iraqi firms. If more Iraqis were fully employed, the ongoing attacks might be less likely to occur, and a stable Iraq could emerge from the rubble.

The plans for Iraqi self-government will mean little if we do not also give the Iraqi people their economic freedom. But that would require the U.S. giving up the spoils of war, and putting the interests of the Iraqi people ahead of the interests of multinational corporations. The Bush Administration must decide if it will continue to let companies such as Halliburton reap profits in Iraq, or treat the Iraqi people as partners in the rebuilding of their country.

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