Bechtel, a corporate dynasty that recently celebrated its 120th anniversary, has delivered some of the worlds most renowned and celebrated construction projects. Bechtel’s reach spans all five continents, including ninety-five airports, eighty maritime ports, fifty hydroelectric plants, dozens of nuclear power stations, and signature projects including the Hoover Dam, the Keystone Pipeline, and the entire Saudi Arabian city of Jubail, to name a few. With such an impressive, long-standing record, it seems strange not to have heard of them. In the words of Bechtel’s third-generation CEO, Stephen Bechtel Jr, “We are not selling to the public. Therefore, there is no reason for people to hear of us”. However, I implore you do, for the Bechtel story is so fascinating it reads like a Hollywood script. A closer look at the dynasty’s significant, but not publicly lauded, ‘signature projects’ reveals the infamous Washington revolving door and the too-often, hand-in-glove nature of US foreign policy.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Once friendly ally of both Washington and Bechtel, Saddam Hussein, for whom the latter built dual-use chemical plants during the Iran-Iraq war, became the axis of evil poster-boy. By May 1st 2003, just six weeks into the Iraq war, President Bush delivered the infamous “mission accomplished” speech aboard the USS Lincoln. Declaring the $50 billion operation to be a success, attention began to shift toward rebuilding the ravaged country. One construction company was months ahead of the game. Long before Bush stepped aboard USS Lincoln, none other than Bechtel had already arrived as the first US-company to reconstruct Baghdad. The $1bn ‘mother-contract’ had, in fact, been solicited months before US troops stepped-foot in Iraq or the UN had been notified. A premeditated calculation by Bechtel and Washington, the scorched Iraqi infrastructure was a foregone conclusion. Given that the initial $50bn estimate swelled to $2 trillion, it is not outside the realm of possibility that so too did Bechtel’s $1bn contract. Indeed, billions were paid out under the categories of “task and delivery orders” and simply “other, avoiding procurement and public scrutiny. More valuable than the vast sums paid for the delivery of basic services, the terms of appropriation became the real jewel in Bechtel’s middle eastern crown. Bechtel had positioned itself in such a way that it essentially privatized Iraq’s water supply; from wastewater systems to its very distribution. Control over Iraq’s water supply is an invaluable asset for Bechtel and Washington alike. Further to the reconstruction of Iraq’s water, Bechtel was contracted to douse Kuwait’s 650 burning oil wells, rebuild Iraq’s healthcare infrastructure and deliver the CPA’s Green Belt. Granted certain projects were sub-contracted out, such as Ghurkhas hired for security, but whilst beneficiaries of post-war Iraq may have been diversified Bechtel remained the key contractor, or “hydra-headed American giant” to quote the New York Times. The relationship between Bechtel associates and vehement pro-war advocates remained largely underreported. From George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State and Bechtel ex-president, to Jack Sheehan, former Bechtel senior vice-president in charge of petroleum operations and Defence Policy Board member advising then Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.
The Dickensian highway
Stretching 48 miles, the four-lane-abreast highway is the most expensive publicly-funded project in Kosovo’s history. Completed in November 2013, the official cost came to $1.3 billion, or $25 million per mile. It must be noted that an official, ‘non-binding’, estimate offered by Bechtel was a much higher $551,225,824. In 2018 the majestic highway stands empty, used only to a third of its capacity as it cuts through a country where one in three Kosovars live on less than $2 a day, and only one in seven have the luxury of owning a car. The dynasty behind this ironic project is again Bechtel, and again plagued by concerns over secrecy and unethical practices. The blurring of the line between US foreign policy and corporate interests this time comes in the form of Christopher Dell, US ambassador to Kosovo. He has publicly disclosed his relationship with Bechtel, his subsequent employer after retiring from the State Department; during his diplomatic mission in Pristina he is reported to have exerted considerable pressure on the Kosovo government to fund a project that would cost it over 20% of GDP in 2010 alone. Dell, whilst lobbying Bechtel’s interests, ignored and acted in direct opposition to both IMF and World Bank advice. Whilst it is common practice for the US Embassy to lobby on behalf of corporations seeking contracts in foreign countries, the Kosovo highway offers an exceptional example of extraordinary abuse of political power for the corporate bottom-line.
Bigger than the military-industrial complex
These are just two of Bechtel’s contemporary examples, there are projects from Bolivia to the Balkans mired in similar controversy. Earlier still, in the 1960s the director of the CIA was a former Bechtel partner, John McCone. During his time the CIA backed coups in Congo and Indonesia, both of which happened to protect Bechtel investments in the region. Clearly the line between corporate and government power is not fine, nor is it blurred, it is simply non-existent. Bechtel is not alone in this profiteering nexus; the likes of Koch Brothers and Halliburton are, arguably, even bigger players in dictating foreign policy. The further one looks, the further this relationship undermines the democratic, liberal world-order presented to us today. Behind the democratic facade, Corporatocracy is pulling the strings.