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The spoils of war

March 22, 2003 18:12 IST

Six executive jets were parked at Shaba's Lubumbashi airport in Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo, in the summer of 1997 as the American-backed rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, closed in on the previously American-backed ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga ("The all-powerful who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.")

Shaba was previously Katanga province, and the aircraft belonged to the world's biggest mining conglomerates and investment companies. They were again beating a path to mineral-rich but impoverished Zaire.

Two of the jets belonged to the mining giants, De Beers and Anglo-American. But it was not them that Kabila rewarded when he overthrew Mobutu. His first mining contract -- a mere billion dollars -- went to a company called American Mineral Fields that few had heard of.

Though AMF was registered in Canada, it worked out of Hope, Arkansas in the US. It was a coincidence, of course, that the small town of Hope was also the home of Bill Clinton, then US  President.

So, I was not surprised to read that Halliburton, the Texas-based oil and construction company, is rubbing its hands in anticipation of the money to be raked in from Saddam Hussain's downfall.

A Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown and Root, is among the five American companies bidding for contracts to restore Iraq's infrastructure after US forces have ravaged it.

The US defence department, run by Donald Rumsfeld, has already awarded Kellogg Brown and Root a contract to extinguish oil wells to which the Iraqis set fire. The contracts could be worth $900 million.

That's not quite as much as AMF's haul six years ago but, then, there is no presidential connection this time. The link is with the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who ran Halliburton from 1995 to 2000.

As defence secretary under the senior Bush, Cheney was a key figure in the previous Gulf War. As one of the Vulcans, as George W Bush's close campaign supporters were called, he bears much of the responsibility (shared by Rumsfeld) for the administration's arrogant determination to impose America's imperial vision of itself over the rest of mankind.

The two incidents are a reminder that there was never yet a war in which fortunes were not made -- and lost. There was never yet a moralist who did not have a sharp eye open for the profit motive. There is no corporate enterprise, certainly not in the US, that does not know which side its bread is buttered.

It's been much the same throughout history. Stately British managing agencies like Jardine's and Inchcape's, also household names in India, whose lofty taipans dominated the China trade, featured importantly in the Opium Wars.

The role of the United Fruit Company in bringing about regime change in Guatemala and of the massive telecommunications company AT&T in the overthrow and murder of Chile's president, Salvador Allende, is now well known.

Mobutu's own rise owed much to Belgian mineral interests which plundered the Belgian Congo and tried to strangle Zaire at birth by inciting breakaway movements and engineering the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the father of Congolese independence.

Incited and funded by Union Miniere, a Belgian mining corporation, Katanga and another province, Eastern Kasai, hoist the  flag of secession in 1960. The war that followed placed the United Nations under tremendous strain and brought India into acrimonious conflict with the US which backed the Belgians.

If war is an opportunity to make money, it is also an opportunity to exclude rivals. Readers may recall that the office of the Custodian of Enemy Property was opened in India during World War I, and that Siemens was placed under its control.

War also arouses patriotic passion, which is why the French hotel conglomerate Accor has hauled down the French tricolour from  the 10 Sofitel hotels it runs in America.

Shares in another French company, Sodexho Alliance, dropped by 14 per cent when it was rumoured that it had lost a $1 billion contract to supply food to the US Marines. Though the rumour was denied, a Marine spokesman admitted to a lot of flak over doing business with the French.

Clearly, the public takes its cue from Bush who blames America's isolation, and, even more incredibly, the war on Iraq on Jacques Chirac's threat of veto at the Security Council.

Hence the decision of a small restaurant chain in North Carolina to rename French fries Freedom fries, and French dressing Liberty dressing. Some country clubs have banned French and German wines.

A survey of heavy machinery manufacturers in Germany showed that the US exports of 25 per cent of them had been affected. Another 63 per cent fear reprisal. It was all dragged into the open when Lederett, a small leather manufacturing firm in an east German town, lost a key American customer.

The proprietor wrote an angry letter to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, blaming his loss on the government's worship at the "altar of short-term political success".

A task force set up by the American Council on Foreign Relations tells us that the American taxpayer may have to pay $20 billion a year and more for several years to set Iraq on its feet if it is devastated.

What the task force does not say is how much money US businessmen will make out of the devastation arising from Bush's West Asian adventure.

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Sunanda K Datta Ray