With the stench of Enron growing more acrid each day, you'd think the last thing President Bush would want is to be seen toadying to another deep-pocketed energy giant.
Well, you'd be wrong.
In a shameless handout to a poor-little-me corporate mendicant, the president wants to spend close to $100 million to help Occidental Petroleum protect an oil pipeline unwisely built in war-torn Colombia.
For years, in a seedy little deal worthy of a Graham Greene novel, the oil company has been paying the Colombian army to protect its interests, forking over $1 for every barrel of oil produced. In fact, one out of every four Colombian soldiers in the field is assigned to looking after Occidental's assets. The trouble is, they aren't doing a very good job.
Colombia's guerrilla forces, which don't look too kindly on foreign multinationals in their midst, have made a habit of blowing up the pipeline. Last year alone, it was bombed 170 times and was out of commission for 266 days, putting a definite downward drag on Occidental's profits.
So here comes President Bush riding to Oxy's rescue with Super Huey helicopters and U.S. Special Forces to train a Colombian army brigade to protect the pipeline. When it comes to Social Security, Bush can't wait to privatize, but when it comes to corporate security, he can't wait to make private responsibilities public.
After years of insisting that our military involvement in Colombia will be limited to fighting the drug trade, why has the administration suddenly decided to thrust America deeper into a 38-year civil war? That war took an explosive turn on Wednesday, when President Andres Pastrana broke off peace talks and ordered the armed forces to retake control of the demilitarized area held by the rebels.
Could it be the over $9 million that Occidental has spent on lobbying since 1996 -- much of it used to push for more and more U.S. military aid to Colombia -- and the $1.5 million the company donated to federal campaigns between 1995 and 2000?
"It is something we have to do," said Anne Patterson, America's ambassador to Colombia. "It is important for the future of the country, for our petroleum supplies and for the confidence of our investors." Our investors?
Since when is U.S. foreign policy a publicly traded commodity?
I thought the Bush administration was all about promoting the "genius of capitalism" and foursquare against the government bailing out capitalists who make bad business decisions. (Team Bush is in danger of injuring itself if it doesn't stop patting itself on the back for "doing nothing" when a desperate Ken Lay played Dialing for Deliverance with Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.) And let's face it, Occidental's decision to build an oil pipeline in a country in the midst of a bloody civil war isn't exactly the kind of boardroom brainstorm that gets taught at Wharton. Indeed, even as the pipeline was being built, it was under attack. So Oxy chairman Armand Hammer cut a deal with the rebels, paying them millions to keep the oil flowing.
And now the oil-igarchy in the White House has chosen to reward this shining example of the idiocy of capitalism with a no-strings-attached corporate welfare check. Testifying before Congress last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell summed up the administration's position: "We thought a $98 million investment in Colombian brigades to help protect this pipeline is a wise one and a prudent one. What makes this pipeline unique is that it is such a major source of income." Income for whom? It's the new, improved Powell Doctrine: "U.S. military might should never be used -- unless it helps corporate America turn a profit."
The question is: Where do we draw the bottom line in the sand? According to Ambassador Patterson, there are more than 300 additional sites with infrastructure of strategic importance to the United States in Colombia. Are we going to pay to protect all of these, too? And what about the other pipelines around the world that are "a major source of income?" Will "investing" our military to keep them up and running prove "wise and prudent" or a foreign policy nightmare?
The reckless decision to elevate corporate interests above the public good in Colombia risks dragging American troops into a military quagmire. Imagine a mother getting the following notice from the Defense Department: "We regret to inform you that your son was killed in the line of duty while in Colombia. Secretary Rumsfeld and Occidental Petroleum wish to extend their deepest sympathies. Please accept our condolences and a coupon for a free tank of gas."
Sound far-fetched? It is, because, on second thought, Oxy will never give taxpayers free gas in exchange for our pipeline protection subsidy. Instead, we'll pay for it three times over: on tax day, at the gas pump and, finally, when the flag-draped coffins start being shipped home.