Bechtel follows the rats

Huge Republican-linked construction firm won’t work in Iraq anymore due to lack of security for its employees.

If only Defeatocrats think Iraq is going down the tubes, I wonder why Bechtel has decided Iraq isn’t safe enough to build things in?

From the Los Angeles Times:

Bechtel calls it quits
after more than 3 years in Iraq

Violence has left few
of the company’s infrastructure projects
in the war-torn country
operating as planned.

By David Streitfeld, Times Staff Writer

November 3, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — Bechtel Corp. helped build the Bay Area subway system, Hoover Dam and a city for 200,000 in the desert of Saudi Arabia. It likes to boast that it can go anywhere, under any conditions, and build anything.

In Iraq, Bechtel met its match.

A firm that prides itself on its safety record saw dozens of its workers killed. And a company that celebrates achievement won’t know for a long time, if ever, exactly what it accomplished.

The assignment Bechtel won from the U.S. government in early 2003 was unique: Apply the brick and mortar needed to restart the long-starved and war-damaged Iraqi economy, allowing the country to blossom into a modern and free industrial state. Rarely had a single corporation been given so much power to affect so many so quickly.

More than three years later, Bechtel says its work on Iraq’s water and electrical plants, its bridges, schools and port, is done.

The company said this week at its headquarters here that it had completed 97 of 99 projects for a total of $2.3 billion, a sum that included its undisclosed fee. Only two Bechtel employees are left in the country. At its peak, there were 200 people from Bechtel supervising tens of thousands of Iraqis.

If the story for Bechtel is drawing to a close, this isn’t anything like the happy ending it once expected.

The company went to Iraq with a good deal of well-earned swagger. Chairman Riley Bechtel told the firm’s employees in April 2003 that Bechtel’s record was one “that few, if any, companies in the world can match.” The tasks it would undertake in Iraq, he added, were “the kind of work we do best.”

The company expected Iraq to develop from an aid recipient to a customer. The biggest U.S. engineering firm would help one of the world’s most distressed countries into the 21st century.

That hope receded with each suicide bombing.

“We were told it would be a permissive environment. But to the horror of everyone, it never stabilized. It just went down, down, down, and to this day it continues to go down,” said Cliff Mumm, who ran Bechtel’s Iraq operation. “I’m proud of what we did, but had law and order prevailed, it would be a different situation.”

At one Bechtel project, in the southern city of Basra, the company recorded this toll: The site security manager was murdered; the site manager resigned after receiving death threats; a senior engineer resigned after his daughter was kidnapped; 12 employees of the electrical-plumbing subcontractor were assassinated in their offices; and 11 employees of the concrete supplier were murdered.

All told, 52 workers associated with Bechtel projects were killed, most of them Iraqi. Forty-nine others were wounded.

Bechtel says it completed nearly all its assigned projects, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily operating as planned.

“Once projects were complete, the plant operating crews we trained often lacked the leadership, resources or motivation needed to run and maintain their facilities,” Mumm said in September testimony to the House committee on government reform.

If Bechtel gives itself high grades under the circumstances, others aren’t so generous.

“They thought, ‘We’re the world’s best, and we can go in and make this happen,’ ” said Rick Barton, a reconstruction specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“After all the money that’s been invested, the Iraqi people should be able to make it on their own. But we’re nowhere near that, let alone creating a shining city on a hill,” Barton added.

The looting and vandalism outpaced the rebuilding from the beginning.

In May 2003, the supposed end of open warfare, a survey of Iraq’s dilapidated electrical system showed 13 downed transmission towers. Four months later, the total had grown to 623.

“We were trying to hold the infrastructure together and at the same time build a platform to go forward and at the same time cope with a deteriorating security situation,” said Mumm, who recently returned to the U.S. “There were a lot of moving parts.”

The company’s critics give it points for remaining free of corruption, unlike some Iraq contractors. But they say it was too slow in restoring the power grid.

“In the critical years of 2003 and 2004, part of the growing sense in the Iraqi population that Americans were incompetent occupiers rather than effective liberators came because Bechtel hadn’t gotten the power grid on in the scorching hot summers,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an expert on government contracting. “American corporate reconstruction efforts like Bechtel’s failed worse in Iraq than American arms.”

The lack of an infrastructure fed the insurgency, which made it its goal to destroy the infrastructure. As time went on, Bechtel spent increasing amounts not on rebuilding but on protecting its workers.

Now that the reconstruction funds are running out, the fate of the Iraq infrastructure, like so much else in the country, is uncertain.

“Bechtel is putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner over their work in Iraq and then coming home,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. “But the mission has not been accomplished. Iraq still doesn’t have enough power, hospitals, clean water.”

Most of the bridges and roads and other projects built by Bechtel in the last century are still in use. Mumm hopes that the work the firm did in Iraq will survive.

“All that stuff is there, and available, should the Iraqis find themselves in a stable enough position to use them and take advantage of them,” he said. “I believe eventually that will happen.”

Some observations:

1. Bechtel is, of course, a solidly Republican firm. (Schultz and Weinberger were both senior executives at one point.) Many of the decisions that led to the current disaster were made in order to benefit Bechtel and similar companies.

2. Bechtel must have written off our war effort in Iraq, and the current Iraqi regime, as hopless. Not only does this decision risk the wrath of the U.S. government, but it likely damages Bechtel’s chances of working in Iraq in the future if Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition remains in power. Ergo, Bechtel management must have concluded that al-Maliki and friends will not remain in power long.

3. Why did someone (at Bechtel of all places) decide to make this announcement last week, when it could hurt the Republicans, rather than this Wednesday? At a guess, because even the beneficiaries of Bushoid crony capitalism have, deep down, a tiny pocket of patriotism, and the ones close enough to the situation to know what’s going on are in despair about the incompetence of the current junta.

4. A Google News search suggests that the story never made it off the business page. That says something about the competence of newspapers, and something about the competence of the Democratic noise machine.

5. If I were making a closing speech for a Democratic candidate tonight, I’d lead with this.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “Bechtel follows the rats”

  1. Somewhere out there on the net, there used to be a story about George Schultz, I think, calling George W in for a little interview to see if he was presidential material, perhaps when W was Texas gov. Schultz, if memory serves, talked about how the interview showed a W full of energy and curiosity, asking all the right questions, with Schultz concluding the interview by telling W that he ought to be our president.
    Did I just dream this? If not, where did the story go?

  2. What significant about this is that Bechtel could continue with 'activity' in Iraq. Accomplishing nothing, but getting paid richly for it.
    So things are so bad that one major firm decided that even the looting was over.

  3. Profit margins aren't going to be the same when the oversight comes. Getting out while the getting is good.

  4. No time right now to check, but isnt it true that the Bush administration has stopped funding for reconstruction. If so, surely that has something to do with the decision by Bechtel. Not that other causes are not contributing as well.

  5. Lots of people have remarked on the vast difference between W as governor and W as president. The difference being that the former governor's brain damage due to chronic drug abuse was masked by his youth. A decade on, the damage is showing.

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