Monday, July 26, 2004
Will kidnappings alter the Iraqi employment situation? (updated)
If coalition efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds hinge on the integrity of the rebuilding process, the Americans have already lost ground, say Iraqi contractors. Frustration over the country's high unemployment and the slow pace of reconstruction has intensified, they say, because of the perception that foreign companies and a cabal of Iraqi exiles are snatching the best deals. So exasperated are many Iraqis with the contract awards process that many compare it unfavorably with the abusive business practices that flourished under Saddam Hussein's regime. At least back then, Iraqis say, it was clear whom to bribe.
Iraqi kidnapping of foreigners and the killing of Iraqis working for foreign companies may be changing all that. NPR reports [audio] this morning that two Pakistanis and an Iraqi contract driver are being held hostage, while two cleaning women working for a foreign firm were killed in a drive-by shooting. The kidnapped contract driver now brings the total of contract drivers held hostage to seven.
I have not yet seen or heard commentary on this, but kidnappings of company employees pose a unique threat for U.S. reconstruction efforts and prestige. When kidnappers demand that a country's foreign troops be withdrawn, the U.S. can bring pressure on the country to "stay the course," though it was notably unsuccessful with the Phillipines. If a country decides, however, to remain, its soldiers have little choice but to accept the decision.
But in the case of a private company, while there are undoubtedly behind-the-scenes American efforts to prevent any appearance that the kidnappings are successful, there is really very little that can be done. A Kuwaiti company has just agreed to pull out of Iraq in return for some Indian hostages, and the U.S. has not uttered a peep.
The essential motivation is different for private enterprise. A company is there for the money, as are the workers. Prestige is of minimal consequence.
If the company stays in defiance of the hostage demands, what is it saying to its employees? Seeing a company sacrifice one of its workers is not exactly going to build company loyalty. The most likely result is that the company will leave, because if it accedes to the sacrifice of an employee, it isn't going to have any workers anyway. And you can bet that this is not a situation where management is going to step forward to fill the gap.
Of the $18 billion that Congress has appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction, only $450 million has been spent. In a Friday report ("Iraqi Employment Situation Troubles U.S. Congress" - audio), John Negroponte, our new strongman at the American embassy in Iraq, says he is "reviewing spending decisions."
It is undoubtedly troubling to the Bush administration that a larger part of American largesse is going to have to go to Iraqi firms instead of to Halliburton and other buddy companies, but I don't see any other options. The "security situation" is not going to get any better for foreign companies.
After posting today, I read James Glanz piece today in the NY Times. "Iraqi Insurgents Using Abduction as Prime Weapon" speaks of the international impact--
... [T]he taking of hostages has separated itself from the generalized violence in Iraq and become a prime weapon on its own. The method has the advantage, from the insurgency's point of view, of being cheap and almost entirely free of the risk run when American or Iraqi troops are confronted directly.
The personal nature of the tactic, usually involving video of the individual hostages with their captors and the threat of beheading, also ensures that each incident is given enormous exposure in the international media. As demonstrated by the pullout of the Philippine soldiers, which took place in the face of overwhelming public pressure in the Philippines to save Mr. dela Cruz, that exposure translates into a force that can move nations.
But the press continues to focus on symbol. The Philippine force consisted of fifty-one soldiers. Their presence was symbolic; their leaving was symbolic.
Then Glanz writes,
More specifically, the truckers who have been the focus of several recent incidents are part of an indispensable series of supply lines that bring materials in from surrounding countries. If those lines were to be disrupted, the entire American-backed effort to create stability and the conditions for a new government in Iraq could suffer.
And those supply lines are in the hands of foreign corporations. The real (as opposed to the symbolic) effect of the abductions is to be looked for here. Glanz came so close. All he has to do is connect the dots.