Wednesday, October 03, 2007

With the right pedigree, war is good business

The unfolding Blackwater USA saga shines a spotlight on many lamentable aspects of the Bush administration's war in Iraq - the lavish dispensation of U.S. taxpayer dollars ($1,222 per day for each Blackwater mercenary, which is roughly six times the daily pay of an average army soldier); the wasteful deaths of unarmed Iraqi civilians (at least one of whom was shot in the back while trying to flee during the Baghdad Square incident on Sept. 16); and the predictable dearth of accountability (not a single Blackwater employe has ever been prosecuted under U.S. law, because, as a State Department official testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, the legal issues are "very murky").

But today I'll just focus on the political dimension. Blackwater is a textbook case of how war can be good business for those who invest wisely in the right politicians.

Let's start by revisiting a comic moment in yesterday's congressional hearing on Blackwater. California GOP congressman Darrell Issa, in his questioning of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, was clearly intending to assert that Blackwater conducts its business in a non-partisan way, free of any ideological agenda. But, on his way to making the argument, he goaded Prince into putting some interesting facts on the record. (My annotations are in parenthesis.)

Issa: "Let's go to one area that hasn't been discussed...Is your sister's name Betsy DeVos?"

Prince: "Yes it is."

Issa: "And was she a former Michigan Republican party chairwoman?"

Prince: "Yes she was."

Issa: "And was she a former Pioneer for Bush?" (i.e. a major fundraising bundler in the '04 Bush campaign)

Prince: "I don't know. Could be." (she was)

Issa: "OK, was she a large contributor to President Bush?"

Prince: "They probably were."

Issa: "And raised a lot of money for President Bush?"

Prince: "Could easily be."

Issa: "Went to the Republican conventions in 2000 and 2004?"

Prince: "I would imagine they did, yes." ("they" is an apparent reference to Betsy and her husband Richard)

Issa: "Isn't it true that your family, at least that part of the family, are very well-known Republicans?"

Prince: "Yes."

Issa: "Wouldn't it be fair to say that your company is easily identified as a Republican-leaning company...You don't have to speculate overly, but isn't that something you generally understand?"

Prince (after conferring with his lawyer): "Blackwater is not a partisan company. We execute the mission given us...Yes, I've given political contributions. I've done that since college, I did it when I was an active duty member of the armed services, and I'll probably continue to do that forward. I didn't give up that right when I became a defense contractor."

Issa: "I think you're exactly right. That while being identified as partisan Republican, that in fact your company appears to have done what all companies do, which is in fact to do the job they're doing in a non-partisan way, and I would hope that this committee and the public takes note that labeling a company as 'Republican' because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again."

Chairman Henry Waxman (delivering the punch line): "Well, the only one who has done it is you." (laughter in the room)

Issa inadvertently performed an important public service. On the way to making an irrelevent argument - nobody is suggesting that Blackwater has guarded Republicans better than it has guarded Democrats - he managed to highlight a key facet of the Blackwater success story: The Prince family's longtime cozy financial ties with the party that ultimately gained power and enabled Erik Prince to make a pile of money in Iraq.

Issa cracked the door open in public, so let's swing it wide: Prince and his wife, since 1989, have rung up $263,150 in political contributions - virtually all of it to Republicans and conservative political action committees. Prince himself, a White House intern under George H.W. Bush, was later a founder of the Family Research Council, a prominent religious conservative group. Sister Betsy raised $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004; brother-in-law Richard was the '06 GOP gubernatorial candidate in Michigan. The DeVos wing of the family over the decades has donated tens of millions to conservative causes.

When asked yesterday whether his family connections, longtime activism, and lavish beneficence to the GOP had in any way helped him land his lucrative government contracts in Iraq (thereby enabling him to profit from the Bush team's partial privatization of the war), Prince replied in the negative.

But let's line up these two financial figures: Before George W. Bush took office, Prince's umbrella company, Prince Holdings, had reportedly received less than $1 million in federal contracts. In the years since Bush has been in office, Prince Holdings, sometimes aided by non-competitive bidding, has received more than $1 billion in federal contracts. (And how does that translate into profits? Prince replied yesterday: "We're a private company, and there's a key word there - private.")

That's a pretty big tab for the American taxpayer, especially considering Blackwater's reputation for alienating the Iraqi citizenry - and yet another example of how the neoconservative dream has gone wrong. As the Boss sings on his new CD, "The wise men were all fools."