Thursday, March 26, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch.31

An EHM Failure in Iraq

My role as president of IPS in the 1980s, and as a consultant to SWEC in the late 1980s and throughout much of the 1990s, gave me access to information about Iraq that was not available to most people. Indeed, during the 1980s the majority of Americans knew little about the country. It simply was not on their radar screen. However, I was fascinated by what was going on there.

I kept in touch with old friends who worked for the World Bank, USAID, the IMF, or one of the other international financial organizations, and with people at Bechtel, Halliburton, and the other major engineering and construction companies, including my own father-in-law. Many of the engineers employed by IPS subcontractors and other independent power companies were also involved in projects in the Middle East. I was very aware that the EHMs were hard at work in Iraq .

The Reagan and Bush administrations were determined to turn Iraq into another Saudi Arabia. There were many compelling reasons for Saddam Hussein to follow the example of the House of Saud. He had only to observe the benefits they had reaped from the Money-laundering Affair. Since that deal was struck, modern cities had risen from the Saudi desert, Riyadh's garbage-collecting goats had been transformed into sleek trucks, and now the Saudis enjoyed the fruits of some of the most advanced technologies in the world: state-of-the-art desalinization plants, sewage treatment systems, communications networks, and electric utility grids.

Saddam Hussein undoubtedly was aware that the Saudis also enjoyed special treatment when it came to matters of international law. Their good friends in Washington turned a blind eye to many Saudi activities, including the financing of fanatical groups — many of which were considered by most of the world to be radicals bordering on terrorism — and the harboring of international fugitives . In fact, the United States actively sought and received Saudi Arabian financial support for Osama bin Laden's Afghan war against the Soviet Union. The Reagan and Bush administrations not only encouraged the Saudis in this regard, but also they pressured many other countries to do the same — or at least to look the other way.

The EHM presence in Baghdad was very strong during the 1980s. They believed that Saddam eventually would see the light, and I had to agree with this assumption. After all, if Iraq reached an accord with Washington similar to that of the Saudis, Saddam could basically write his own ticket in ruling his country, and might even expand his circle of influence throughout that part of the world.

It hardly mattered that he was a pathological tyrant, that he had the blood of mass murders on his hands, or that his mannerisms and brutal actions conjured images of Adolph Hitler. The United States had tolerated and even supported such men many times before. We would be happy to offer him U.S. government securities in exchange for petrodollars, for the promise of continued oil supplies, and for a deal whereby the interest on those securities was used to hire U.S. companies to improve infrastructure systems throughout Iraq, to create new cities, and to turn the deserts into oases. We would be willing to sell him tanks and fighter planes and to build him chemical and nuclear power plants, as we had done in so many other countries, even if these technologies could conceivably be used to produce advanced weaponry.

Iraq was extremely important to us, much more important than was obvious on the surface. Contrary to common public opinion, Iraq is not simply about oil. It is also about water and geopolitics. Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow through Iraq; thus, of all the countries in that part of the world, Iraq controls the most important sources of increasingly critical water resources. During the 1980s, the importance of water — politically as well as economically— was becoming obvious to those of us in the energy and engineering fields. In the rush toward privatization, many of the major companies that had set their sights on taking over the small independent power companies now looked toward privatizing water systems in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

In addition to oil and water, Iraq is situated in a very strategic location . It borders Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, and it has a coastline on the Persian Gulf. It is within easy missile-striking distance of both Israel and the former Soviet Union. Military strategists equate modern Iraq to the Hudson River valley during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution . In the eighteenth century, the French, British, and Americans knew that whoever controlled the Hudson River valley controlled the continent . Today, it is common knowledge that whoever controls Iraq holds the key to controlling the Middle East.

Above all else, Iraq presented a vast market for American technology and engineering expertise . The fact that it sits atop one of the world's most extensive oil fields (by some estimates, even greater than Saudi Arabia's) assured that it was in a position to finance huge infrastructure and industrialization programs . All the major players — engineering and construction companies; computer systems suppliers ; aircraft, missile, and tank manufacturers ; and pharmaceutical and chemical companies — were focused on Iraq .

However, by the late 1980s it was apparent that Saddam was not buying into the EHM scenario. This was a major frustration and a great embarrassment to the first Bush administration. Like Panama, Iraq contributed to George H. W. Bush's wimp image. As Bush searched for a way out, Saddam played into his hands. In August 1990, he invaded the oil-rich sheikhdom of Kuwait. Bush responded with a denunciation of Saddam for violating international law, even though it had been less than a year since Bush himself had staged the illegal and unilateral invasion of Panama.

It was no surprise when the president finally ordered an all-out military attack. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were sent in as part of an international force . During the early months of 1991, an aerial assault was launched against Iraqi military and civilian targets. It was followed by a one hundred-hour land assault that routed the outgunned and desperately inferior Iraqi army. Kuwait was safe. A true despot had been chastised, though not brought to justice. Bush's popularity ratings soared to 90 percent among the American people.

I was in Boston attending meetings at the time of the Iraq invasion — one of the few occasions when I was actually asked to do something for SWEC. I vividly recall the enthusiasm that greeted Bush's decision. Naturally, people throughout the Stone & Webster organization were excited, though not only because we had taken a stand against a murderous dictator. For them, a U.S. victory in Iraq offered possibilities for huge profits, promotions, and raises.

The excitement was not limited to those of us in businesses that would directly benefit from war. People across the nation seemed almost desperate to see our country reassert itself militarily. I believe there were many reasons for this attitude, including the philosophical change that occurred when Reagan defeated Carter, the Iranian hostages were released, and Reagan announced his intention to renegotiate the Panama Canal Treaty. Bush's invasion of Panama stirred the already smoldering flames.

Beneath the patriotic rhetoric and the calls for action, however, I believe a much more subtle transformation was occurring in the way U.S. commercial interests—and therefore most of the people who worked for American corporations — viewed the world. The march toward global empire had become a reality in which much of the country participated. The dual ideas of globalization and privatization were making significant inroads into our psyches.

In the final analysis, this was not solely about the United States. The global empire had become just that; it reached across all borders. What we had previously considered U.S. corporations were now truly international, even from a legal standpoint. Many of them were incorporated in a multitude of countries; they could pick and choose from an assortment of rules and regulations under which to conduct their activities, and a multitude of globalizing trade agreements and organizations made this even easier. Words like democracy, socialism, and capitalism were becoming almost obsolete. Corporatocracy had become a fact, and it increasingly exerted itself as the single major influence on world economies and politics.

In a strange turn of events, I succumbed to the corporatocracy when I sold IPS in November 1990. It was a lucrative deal for my partners and me, but we sold out mainly because Ashland Oil Company put tremendous pressure on us. I knew from experience that fighting them would be extremely costly in many ways, while selling would make us wealthy. However, it did strike me as ironic that an oil company would become the new owners of my alternative energy company; part of me felt like a traitor.

SWEC demanded very little of my time. Occasionally, I was asked to fly to Boston for meetings or to help prepare a proposal. I was sometimes sent to places like Rio de Janeiro, to hobnob with the movers and shakers there. Once, I flew to Guatemala on a private jet. I frequently called project managers to remind them that I was on the payroll and available. Receiving all that money for doing so very little rubbed at my conscience. I knew the business well and wanted to contribute something useful. But it simply was not on the agenda.

The image of being a man in the middle haunted me. I wanted to take some action that would justify my existence and that might turn all the negatives of my past into something positive. I continued to work surreptitiously—and very irregularly—on Conscience of an Economic Hit Man, and yet I did not deceive myself into believing that it would ever be published.

In 1991, I began guiding small groups of people into the Amazon to spend time with and learn from the Shuars, who were eager to share their knowledge about environmental stewardship and indigenous healing techniques . During the next few years, the demand for these trips increased rapidly and resulted in the formation of a non-profit organization, Dream Change Coalition. Dedicated to changing the way people from industrialized countries see the earth and our relationship to it, Dream Change developed a following around the world and empowered people to create organizations with similar missions in many countries. TIME magazine selected it as one of thirteen organizations whose Web sites best reflect the ideals and goals of Earth Day.1

Throughout the 1990s, I became increasingly involved in the nonprofit world, helping to create several organizations and serving on the board of directors of others. Many of these grew out of the work of highly dedicated people at Dream Change and involved working with indigenous people in Latin America — the Shuars and Achuars of the Amazon, the Quechuas of the Andes, the Mayas in Guatemala—or teaching people in the United States and Europe about these cultures . SWEC approved of this philanthropic work; it was consistent with SWEC's own commitment to the United Way. I also wrote more books, always careful to focus on indigenous teachings and to avoid references to my EHM activities. Besides alleviating my boredom, these measures helped me keep in touch with Latin America and the political issues that were dear to me.

But try as I might to convince myself that my nonprofit and writing activities provided a balance, that I was making amends for my past activities, I found this increasingly difficult. In my heart, I knew I was shirking my responsibilities to my daughter. Jessica was inheriting a world where millions of children are born saddled with debts they will never be able to repay. And I had to accept responsibility for it.

My books grew in popularity, especially one titled, The World Is As You Dream It. Its success led to increasing demands for me to give workshops and lectures. Sometimes, standing in front of an audience in Boston or New York or Milan, I was struck by the irony. If the world is as you dream it, why had I dreamed such a world? How had I managed to play such an active role in manifesting such a nightmare?

In 1997, I was commissioned to teach a weeklong Omega Institute workshop in the Caribbean, at a resort on St. John Island. I arrived late at night. When I awoke the next morning, I walked onto a tiny balcony and found myself looking out at the very bay where, seventeen years earlier, I had made the decision to quit MAIN. I collapsed into a chair, overcome with emotion.

Throughout the week, I spent much of my free time on that balcony, looking down at Leinster Bay, trying to understand my feelings. I came to realize that although I had quit, I had not taken the next step, and that my decision to remain in the middle was exacting a devastating toll . By the end of the week, I had concluded that the world around me was not one that I wanted to dream, and that I needed to do exactly what I was instructing my students to do: to change my dreams in ways that reflected what I really wanted in my life.

When I returned home, I gave up my corporate consulting practice. The president of SWEC who had hired me was now retired. A new man had come aboard, one who was younger than me and was apparently unconcerned about me telling my story. He had initiated a cost-cutting program and was happy not to have to pay me that exorbitant retainer any longer.

I decided to complete the book I had been working on for so long, and just making the decision brought a wonderful sense of relief. I shared my ideas about writing with close friends, mostly people in the nonprofit world who were involved with indigenous cultures and rain forest preservation. To my surprise, they were dismayed. They feared that speaking out would undermine my teaching work and jeopardize the nonprofit organizations I supported. Many of us were helping Amazon tribes protect their lands from oil companies; coming clean, I was told, could undermine my credibility, and might set back the whole movement. Some even threatened to withdraw their support .

So, once again, I stopped writing. Instead, I focused on taking people deep into the Amazon, showing them a place and a tribe that are mostly untouched by the modern world. In fact, that is where I was on September 11, 2001.

- pages 182-188


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