The capture of Saddam Hussein has taken center stage this week as President Bush's "America First" decision recedes into the background. That's our nation's policy to award prime contracts in Iraq only to those companies that "shed blood" during the conflict.
Only there's a slight problem with that. In an age of rapidly globalizing business, where can it be said that a company truly resides? Some of the president's biggest supporters are global companies, so why so confused a policy? In linking multinational corporations to their nations of origin, Bush sounds more like a WTO protestor than a mainstream Republican. After all, the GOP views unfettered business as the paradigm to achieve.
On New Year's Day, in all the bowl games featuring our best semiprofessional football teams, Corporate World will once again remind us all of the wonders of globalization. We'll see that nation-states, much less small communities, don't matter all that much any more -- not when jobs and money can move across transparent political boundaries with the touch of a computer keystroke.
I wonder what they'll they call it this year? The Nissan Motors/Deutsche Bank/Phillips Petroleum Rose Bowl Classic? It's no longer the Rose Bowl coming from Pasadena; it's all about which brand is bringing you the Rose Bowl.
And we will all wonder, as we watch this testimony to the reach of globalization, just exactly where do these corporations make all that stuff? Ah, yes, a rhetorical question. We know where. American companies are guilty, too. If you've done any Christmas shopping lately, you know that nearly all the gifts we give at this time of year are made in China -- even if the corporate headquarters is here. National identity, let alone community identity, has been turned into a marketing pitch that goes along with the TV ad that plays during the plentiful timeouts during the big game.
For too many of these companies, their loyalty to America only extends to tax breaks. Beyond that, it's only the bottom line that matters, which means cheap labor, anywhere it can be found. Yes, Corporate World is all in this together. German companies? French companies? Canadian companies? Russian companies? All go in search of cheap labor. And most of that comes from the same burgeoning pool of underpaid workers in what we euphemistically call the Developing World.
So what makes a company an American company anyway? Location? Location of what? Headquarters, we presume. But plants? Production lines? Who's kidding whom? Canadian companies have been blacklisted; so does that mean that the Ford Motor Company doesn't qualify? After all, it makes the American cop's best automotive friend, the venerable Crown-Victoria, mostly in Canada. A few years ago, this car actually made it onto the list of imported cars. Or consider this possibility: a blacklisted company that actually employs more Americans than a so-called American company, which has most of its work done offshore? It's not that out of the ordinary. So American companies might be doing less for American workers than some companies blacklisted by Bush. Oh, it's a tangled web.
The way around the problem for the blacklisted companies seems obvious: merge with an American company. What would Bush do if told that Bechtel was suddenly Bechtel-Daimler?
Given the enormous loss of manufacturing jobs during the Bush presidency -- those hundreds of thousands of jobs that have moved offshore -- one would think that the president would want to avoid drawing attention to the obvious: Companies headquartered in America have less to do with American labor than ever before, and more to do with the global economy.
The relentless logic of capitalism, when combined with demographics, no doubt makes this revolutionary change in the world order unavoidable. But the president, through his act of petty jingoism, gives evidence of being oblivious to all of its complexity, let alone the unintended political consequences he'll certainly trigger. You would think that America's balance-of-payments predicament, taken alone, would serve to highlight the situation; but, alas, apparently not. He's already created a mess out of the international steel markets when he reversed his own policies and slapped tariffs on imported steel a few years ago.
Nation-states do continue to matter, however. If the Iraq debt to Russia is to be forgiven, the Russian government will have to make the call. And if troops are to be sent from Canada to Iraq to help out, we can assume that the Canadian government will make the call. We need these things to happen, so why inflame an already tension-filled situation?
The president seems unable to view the region as a problem requiring an integrated strategy. Consider, for example, a country that supported the United States in Afghanistan -- and perhaps even "bled," but then parted company with the Americans over Iraq. Those countries are excluded. Or consider Germany and Turkey. Germany continued to allow the United States to use air bases. Turkey, while it has now sent troops during the "Mission Accomplished" phase, didn't allow the U.S. fly-over rights during the invasion. Germany is excluded. Turkey isn't. Go figure.
Speaking of spilling blood, after World War II, Douglas MacArthur, our "American Caesar," worked to see to it that the beneficiaries of rebuilding Japan were not American companies but Japanese companies, many of which were in on the spilling. Apparently he thought putting locals to work would be a key to achieving real reconstruction. It isn't as if Bechtel and Halliburton aren't trying to involve Iraqi companies; they are. Bechtel reports that several thousand subcontracts have been granted to Iraqi companies and businesses. But the truth is that the Bechtels of the planet view nation-states as little more than apparatuses for providing political and monetary stability, some handouts and cheap labor.
So we applaud the capture of Saddam Hussein, of course, but we also know that Bush's "in-your-face" contracting policy, again, makes success in Iraq harder just when it should be getting easier.
Publication date: 12/18/03