Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Krugmanian Shell Game: Pea Not Included

The Administration - even Donald Rumsfeld - agrees that the American military forces in Iraq are lean. Others argue that those forces are not now and never have been sufficient even for basic military needs in Iraq.

But, incredibly, Paul Krugman writes in today's column that in his opinion American military forces in Iraq aren't being given enough to do. It is not enough that soldiers do soldiering, Herr Doktorprofessor thinks they should be doing more reconstruction, rebuilding, engineering - in short, more of all of the things that private American corporations are now doing. As Herr Doktorprofessor puts it:

There's also another element in the Iraq logistical snafu: privatization. The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized system its first major test in combat — and the system failed.

As usual with Herr Doktorprofessor's more striking complaints, there's not much provided to back them up - and the sources that are cited in context don't say what the quotes he chooses from them at first seem to say. He quotes the Newhouse News Service as reporting: U.S. troops in Iraq suffered through months of unnecessarily poor living conditions because some civilian contractors hired by the Army for logistics support failed to show up. But he omits the Newhouse article's qualification: conditions have improved. Worse, although Herr Doktorprofessor serves up this article to support his contention that it is Bush Administration officials who intervened to "privatize" something that the Army wanted to keep for itself, the article seems to say that it was the Army, not Bush Administration officials, who misjudged the logistics: "We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kinds of functions," Lt. Gen. Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistics chief, said in an interview. No evidence is provided to support Herr Doktorprofessor's insinuation that the relevant Army policies of the Bush Administration differ from those of the Clinton Administration. But, even if the Bush Administration has moved further into privatization, there is no evidence adduced that the SNAFU's are anything more than new systems being worked out. Herr Doktorprofessor's argument seems to be: There were some problems, therefore the military should do everything for itself. Without evidence that privatization is being persued for extra-military purposes, he is simply absurd. [UPDATE: It appears that Brown & Root was providing substantial military "privatization" support under the Clinton Administration in the Balkans at least as far back as 1996, to the considerable satisfaction of the Army at that time:

Troops used to carry everything, build everything, do everything. If it wasn't in their packs, they didn't have it. They peeled potatoes, hauled trash, ran the laundry, dug latrines and rigged showers. Today, much of that falls to private sector. Wherever American troops go in the Balkans, Houston-based Brown and Root Services Corporation is close by providing whatever life support services that U.S. Army Europe decides the troops need but can't provide for themselves. "We are reengineering the way the Army supports the deployed force during military contingency operations," said Col. Anthony Nida, commander of Transatlantic Programs Center. Nida recently returned from the Balkans where the Corps of Engineers is managing the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program contract.]

More importantly, there is no reason to believe - and constant complaints of military understaffing in Iraq give lots of reason not to believe - that there are enough soldiers available to do this construction work, no matter how much money and supplies Congress sends them. There just aren't enough "boots on the ground" to do what those already overworked guys are already being asked to do - never mind construction projects. I realize that Herr Doktorprofessor writes from the airy reaches of his Princeton Elfenbeinturm, but surely even he knows our guys in Iraq don't have time and men to spare.

But maybe our military isn't supposed to be doing everything after all! Herr Doktorprofessor also cites to the Baltimore Sun (the Bill Keller newspages of the New York Times seem to have chosen not to invest credibility in this set of stories) for the proposition: the Bush administration continues to use American corporations to perform work that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups can do more cheaply. Hey, there's an idea! Let's get the UN and nonprofit aid groups to do it cheaper! Who knew that the UN had a reputation for being thrifty and making sure money goes where it is supposed to go? Is that the history of the UN handling of the UN's Iraq Oil-for-Food money, for example? I don't seem to remember it that way. Well, even the UN must be able to do some things right if UN politics don't get in the way. That's what you need a Princeton economics professor to tell you!

Well, maybe not. The first tip-off is that it doesn't seem all that likely that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups would have spent a lot of time and energy building housing and facilities for US troops - so Herr Doktorprofessor never does tie up that loose end, and we are left wondering just how the troop housing and facilities for US troops should have been built. Too bad.

But it gets worse - as it usually does when one actually reads a Krugmaniacal "source." What the article actually says is:

The administration is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. corporations not only for major infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, but also for harbor dredging, repairs to electrical systems and buildings, and health services. The smaller jobs are all tasks that the United Nations and nonprofit groups have broad experience performing in Iraq and other nations recovering from wars. In fact, they are performing some of them, funded by the international community, alongside U.S. contractors in Iraq.

So it's only the smaller jobs that are tasks that the United Nations and nonprofit groups might perform - not the major infrastructure projects. Herr Doktorprofessor just leaves that part out. And the article also quotes Frederick Schieck, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development as standing by the administration's extensive use of American companies in Iraq: "The private sector will always be capable of responding more rapidly" and offers "easier decision-making," said Schieck, whose agency has a leading role in rebuilding Iraq. The United Nations' bureaucracy is "frequently slow to move," he said.

O, dear me. Didn't Herr Doktorprofessor seem to indicate above that the biggest problem in his mind with the construction of the Iraq housing and facilities for US troops was that it wasn't fast enough. Yet, here, Mr. Schieck is quoted in the very article Herr Doktorprofesor cites saying he avoids the UN and non-profits for infrastructure projects because they aren't fast enough. Speed has stopped mattering? Herr Doktorprofessor just leaves that part out, too. And that's not all he leaves out, because the article continues:

The Bush administration wants to show the Iraqi people that benefits are flowing to them from the United States, something that wouldn't happen if the United Nations and private aid groups played a leading role. Schieck said nonprofit groups often fail to highlight the fact that their work is subsidized by the U.S. government. "This is taxpayers' money. There should be some recognition that resources of the U.S. government are making this happen," Schieck said.

Actually, I, personally, don't want the people in Iraq thinking that the UN rebuilt their country. So Mr. Schieck seems pretty on point here, too.

It's worth mentioning that Herr Doktorprofessor's criticisms of the "privatization" in Iraq follows his incoherent argument that American forces are not being given enough money and supplies for what they are already being asked to do - an argument based almost entirely on quotes from military men (mostly in the field) who want more. It appears we are supposed to be horribly embarrassed by an anecdote that some Italian soldiers had food that was "way more realistic" than MRE's ("meals ready to eat") - and that the food situation is supposed to be evidence of the pathology of the Bush Administration. Please.

Is a Krugmaniacally-detected "pattern" of pathological Administration penny-pinching insensitive to troop living facilities really consistent with the Newhouse article's admission: The Army has invested heavily in modular barracks, showers, bathroom facilities and field kitchens, ...? Setting aside the preposterous significance that Herr Doktorprofessor chooses to invest in troops eating MRE's, if there has ever been a military force which did not want more of nearly everything - men, supplies, rest, time - I have not heard of it. In fact, I have always more or less had the impression that a good officer always has a duty to the men in his command to claim that they have been undersupplied and underappreciated - but performed brilliantly and with valor, anyway.

I would. Let the guys with the desk jobs figure out the rest.

[No Comment: Atrios just quotes the Krugmania passage including the cite to the Newhouse News article, but Atrios provides no link to the Newhouse News article nor any other indication that he has read any other part of it than the bit Herr Doktorprofessor shoplifts.]

In any event, Herr Doktorprofessor's suggestion that troops - not companies - should do more, and his description of troop conditions, don't seem to square easily with a news article in today's New York Times, which both points out the long rotations troop shortages have caused and describes the current conditions the troops have to endure:

Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, wrote of his efforts to fly the soldiers back to the United States for up to two weeks of leave after they are midway through a 12-month deployment. .... Approval of the proposal and its financing would have to come from senior Army leadership, Pentagon officials said. ....

"Dear Screaming Eagle Families," the letter began, a reference to the division's famous shoulder patch. "Greetings from northern Iraq."

The general described procuring a division's worth of supplies in the field, and noted that "buying for a `family of 20,000' is not easy." Every day the division buys 100,000 pounds of ice from local merchants and consumes the entire output of a large bread factory.

"We've got just about every one of our soldiers on a cot now," he wrote, and fresh socks, underwear and T-shirts arrived recently.


"During the past couple of weeks, each brigade has also apprehended other important former regime leaders, pre-empted several attacks on our forces, trained and patrolled with new police officers, uncovered arms and ammunition caches, and assisted in a vast number of reconstruction projects, security tasks, and other missions to improve the situation for the citizens of northern Iraq."

The division lost six soldiers in those operations in three ambushes, and the general described the memorial service held in the field. ... The Army recently announced yearlong rotations for soldiers in Iraq. ....

In writing his letter, General Petraeus was no doubt aware that some families of soldiers from the Third Infantry Division had publicly complained about the long deployment and the delayed return of their troops, who were among the first to arrive in the region. Troop morale is of increasing concern to the Pentagon's senior civilian and military leaders .... To ease the separation of his troops from their families at home, General Petraeus wrote, each battalion will soon set up a computer center for Internet access and e-mail, and the number of telephones available to the troops will be increased. Over 200 satellite dishes should be installed in time to watch the fall football season, he wrote.

But reliable electricity remains a challenge, he wrote, which especially complicates efforts to cool the sleeping quarters.

MORE: Good things from Phil Carter.

STILL MORE: David Hogberg does the math on the column - and concludes that takes Krugman to a new low. Don Luskin (and also on NRO) does the round-up, and receives some troubling go-along-get-along feedback from someone who should know better.

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