Halliburton, HIV, & Hypocrisy genre: Little Red Ribbon-Hood & Polispeak

In the run up to the election of George W. Bush, he was touted by his handlers as a compassionate conservative. He vowed to be a uniter, not a divider, to oppose nation building, and to restore integrity to the White House. As he enters his sixth year in office, many see this President as a study in contradictions. There are numerous examples to demonstrate this assertion. Two are particularly well suited. One is the result of a war of choice in Iraq and the other is a war of necessity in the battle to combat HIV/AIDS. Both have far reaching consequences for the people they impact. Exploring the political calculations is essential to understanding the contradictions that surround this President.   

Since the fall of Baghdad and the initiation of the rebuilding of Iraq, the company with close ties to Vice President Cheney, Halliburton, through subsidiary Kellog, Brown, & Root (KBR), has been awarded contracts worth in the range of $10 to $12 billion. Approximately twenty-five percent (25%) of this amount was awarded as a no-bid contract. The bulk of the remaining contracts were negotiated as cost-plus contracts which guarantees a profit margin regardless of strict and effective cost management and oversight. Halliburton has been under intense scrutiny and criticism for accounting errors and other questionable appropriation procedures. The government in 2004, under intense pressure from Halliburton critics, also withheld the payment of $186 million in payments for food services in 2004 after accusations that the company had billed more meals than actually provided. The company was also fined $7.5 million in 2004 by the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to disclose a change in accounting practices. It was reported in January 2006 that Halliburton intends to sell a minority share in KBR through a stock IPO. News of the reported offering sent share prices up nearly 5 percent to slightly less than $80 dollars per share.

The program to rebuild Iraq has garnered extensive criticism from political opponents of the President and Vice President, but also from lesser sized contractors who felt shut out of the process. Iraqi contractors also voiced concerns. Local companies, with Iraqi employees in need of work after the fall of the Hussein regime, were often excluded from the contracting process, thereby limiting the amount of reconstruction funding available to actually impact and improve the devastated Iraqi economy. The administration has maintained that very few contractors were equipped to take on the significant tasks needed to rebuild Iraq. Further, they argued that KBR, by taking on the projects, was working under extreme conditions at great risk to their employees which warranted monetary consideration under the contracts. Consequently, the vast majority of contracts were awarded to KBR while most of the remaining awards went to a handful of large American companies.

During this same time frame the President announced a $15 billion dollar initiative over five years to combat HIV. The program has been slow to mobilize and received international criticism when far short of the expected first $3 billion was allocated during the first year. The administration defended the slow funding, contending that a network to provide services and distribute medications needed to be implemented before the money could be used effectively. Many in the HIV funding and services community disagreed with this assessment but, aside from criticism, little could be done to accelerate the administrations position. Funding has since accelerated in the subsequent years, albeit not to the levels anticipated when the program was announced, however the criticism has shifted to a new front. Critics now contend that the administration's focus on funding abstinence programs rather that condom usage, coupled with the preferential awarding of contracts to religious groups, has the potential to limit the effectiveness of the much needed resources.

The Associated Press reports some interesting data that provides a glimpse into the administrations efforts to target awards to lesser known and established, as well as nontraditional aid providers. An aggressive effort is underway to find new religious and church based partners that share the administrations message of abstinence. Awarding money to new groups with little AIDS experience has been met with skepticism by a number of the larger, secular, and more established providers. Awarding money to new groups with little AIDS experience has been met with skepticism by a number of the larger, secular, and more established providers. Currently, nearly a quarter of the funding is going to these smaller fledgling organizations and experts warn that their lack of AIDS experience and expertise may diminish the impact of long sought and much needed funding dollars. There are indications that the administration, rather than considering these concerns, intends to expand their directive. The New Partners Initiative has earmarked $200 million for church and community groups. Some of these groups have experience in Africa but not necessarily with HIV and others have no governmental grant history. While the results of this AIDS initiative remain inconclusive, it's undeniably an important and significant effort in the fight against AIDS. Progress has been made and few would assert that the program is failing or will eventually fail. However, there are many AIDS experts who contend that the abstinence emphasis doesn't address the social and cultural realities of many of the regions receiving such assistance. This criticism is muted by the fact that any funding is seen as an improvement.

The rebuilding of Iraq and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative offer two examples of the Bush administration that demonstrate the frustration many feel when trying to distinguish fact from fabrication. The discordance in the approach to these two issues leaves one questioning the motivations, intentions, and sincerity of an administration that likes to portray itself as steadfast in its principles. One program rewards experience and proven abilities; the other program discounts experience and ability. One program consolidates services in a few large corporations; the other program seeks numerous small service providers. Both programs appear to show favoritism...one to well connected business associates...the other to ideological partners. This President likes to say that he doesn't concern himself with polling data. He asserts he's going to do what he believes regardless of its popularity. That strategy has been a Republican mainstay since it began directing this brand of criticism towards his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Republicans found that accusing the President or other Democratic opponents of shifting their positions dependent on polling data made Republicans appear principled while painting Democrats as vote chasers and panderers. This administrations calculation has long been to determine a salable set of principles, then stay on message regardless of the degree to which they adhere or deviate from that message in actual policymaking.

Karl Rove, the 'architect' and a brilliant strategist has been successfully championing one simple hypothesis...the voting public is lazy. Here's the equation...people are busy...both parents work in most households...they get their news in thirty second sound bites...they attempt to distinguish integrity and principles from the consistency of a politician's message...if you craft a message that appeals to a majority constituency and then repeat that message religiously...you will keep those voters even if you don't deliver so long as you keep saying that you want to and you will. This works because simultaneously they begin to point out the opposition's complex message. Democrats, albeit with good intentions, believe that if they can just get the public to listen to the details, they can demonstrate that the opponent isn't sharing all the facts...that issues have nuances and if the public will take the time to educate themselves, they will see the merits of their nuanced positions. This fails miserably despite being rational and reasonable...and it fails because they don't understand the voters.The 2004 presidential election is a perfect example. Rove instinctively found John Kerry's vulnerability..."I actually voted for it before I voted against it"...an indictment of only ten words. If that isn't enough convincing proof, look at the debates. One could quibble over whether Kerry won two or three debates but one can't argue that Kerry didn't win. The problem is that he won on detail and depth which takes time, attention, and can't be sold in a thirty second sound bite. The best analogy may be 'you don't sell ice to an eskimo.' The Republicans then 'swiftboated' Kerry's primary appeal in well timed spots and the race was over. Democrats will continue to struggle so long as they refuse to acknowledge this counterintuitive, yet fully real, construct.

The contradictions in the management of the rebuilding of Iraq and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative are apparent and legitimate indictments of this administrations incongruent and inconsistent actions. However effective the data, it is an impotent weapon in the political battle to defeat this administration. Granted, the data tells a story and, at a minimum, points out the discrepancies in the oft spoken sound bites that have become the hallmark of this Presidency. From these examples, one can make the case for a number of conclusions...this President demonstrates blatant cronyism, there is a predisposition to work with connected insiders and manipulate contracted arrangements, they are burgeoning theocrats who have blurred the lines between church and state, their actions are incompetent, bias is being institutionalized, their actions are corrupt. At the very least, something is wrong...and yet in the absense of the ability to tailor the message to the political terrain, Democrats will continue to win the battles but lose the war. It's the message, stupid!

Daniel DiRito | February 7, 2006 | 9:58 PM
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