For example, in July two enterprising Middle Eastern firms started offering cellphone service in Baghdad, setting up jury-rigged systems compatible with those of neighboring countries. Since the collapse of Baghdad's phone system has been a major source of postwar problems, coalition authorities should have been pleased.
But no: the authorities promptly shut down the services. Cell service, they said, could be offered only by the winners in a bidding process - one whose rules, revealed on July 31, seemed carefully designed to shut out any non-American companies. (In the face of strenuous protests the rules were revised, but still seem to favor the usual suspects.) Oddly, the announcement of the winners, originally scheduled for Sept. 5, keeps being delayed. Meanwhile, only Paul Bremer and his people have cellphones - and, thanks to the baffling decision to give that contract to MCI, even those phones don't work very well. (Aside from the fact that its management perpetrated history's biggest accounting fraud, MCI has no experience in building cell networks.)
Then there's electricity. One reason Iraq still faces blackouts is that local experts and institutions were excluded from the repair business. Instead, the exclusive contract was given to Bechtel, whose Republican ties are almost as strong as Halliburton's. And if a recent story in The Washington Post is accurate, Bechtel continues to ignore pleas by Iraqi engineers for essential spare parts.
Meanwhile, several companies with close personal ties to top administration officials have begun brazenly offering their services as facilitators for companies seeking Iraqi business. The former law firm of Douglas Feith, the Pentagon under secretary who oversees Iraq reconstruction, has hung out its shingle. So has another company headed by Joe Allbaugh, who ran the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and ran FEMA until a few months ago. And a third entrant is run by Ahmad Chalabi's nephew.
There's a moral here: optimists who expect the administration to get its Iraq policy on track are kidding themselves. Think about it: the cost of the occupation is exploding, and military experts warn that our army is dangerously overcommitted. Yet officials are still allowing Iraqi reconstruction to languish, and the disaffection of the Iraqi public to grow, while they steer choice contracts to their friends. What makes you think they will ever change their ways?
Traditional liberal democratic measures, like open tendering for contracts, work better because they're more efficient. The The New Right project seems to have a lot to do with cronyism and not much to do with getting things done quickly and well. You would expect people who worship so sincerely at the altar of the market to advocate competitive tendering.
You'd also wonder why the Bush administration seems incapable of functioning under the same democratic checks and balances as, for instance, the Roosevelt administration fought World War II. A commission of inquiry met within days of Pearl harbour. Somehow I suspect Osama bin Laden might be slightly less dangerous than were Germany and Japan. But I could be be wrong...