Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Who is being unrealistic?
I hope that by this time tomorrow everyone will have read Jason Vest’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” and that Left Blogistan will be abuzz with intelligent and nuanced expositions on its meaning. For the moment I want to comment on a small point that hit me while reading the part dealing with our delays in getting dependable electricity back on line. This has been a major irritation for urban Iraqis.
[T]he steam turbines at Iraq's Najibiya power plant have been dormant since last fall. As Yaruub Jasim, the plant's manager, explained, "Normally we have power 23 hours a day. We should have done maintenance on these turbines in October, but we had no spare parts and money." And why not? According to Jasim, the necessary replacement parts were supposed to come from Bechtel, but they hadn't arrived yet—in part because Bechtel's priority was a months-long independent examination of power plants with an eye towards total reconstruction. And while parts could have been cheaply and quickly obtained from Russian, German, or French contractors—the contractors who built most of Iraq's power stations--"unfortunately," Jasim told Chatterjee and Docena, "Mr. Bush prevented the French, Russian, and German companies from [getting contracts in] Iraq." (In an interview last year with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bechtel's Iraq operations chief held that "to just walk in and start fixing Iraq" was "an unrealistic expectation.")

Think about the meaning of that last quote—we can’t just walk in and start fixing things. Why the hell not? Imagine a major natural disaster in a populous part of the United States—an earthquake in Southern California or a hurricane in the Southeast. Americans demand results right away. Northern suburbanites get hysterical if their streets aren’t plowed the same day as a snowstorm. We wait a little longer after a real disaster, but we want results. The more basic the service, the less likely we are to tolerate delays. Imagine the response if Bechtel waltzed into Atlanta after a hurricane and said “it’s unrealistic to expect us to restore dependable electricity right away. First we need to make a study to see what other expensive services we can sell you. Expect to go without air-conditioning for at least two summers. Oh, and we’ll be billing you for the study.” Is it any wonder the Bagdadis are getting a wee bit cranky?

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