Let's see. Who's less patriotic, the Dixie Chicks or Dick Cheney's long-term meal ticket, the Halliburton Company?
The Dixie Chicks were excoriated for simply exercising their constitutional right to speak out. With an ugly backlash and plans for a boycott growing, the group issued a humiliating public apology for "disrespectful" anti-Bush remarks made by its lead singer, Natalie Maines.
The Chicks learned how dangerous it can be to criticize the chief of a grand imperial power.
Halliburton, on the other hand, can do no wrong. Yes, it has a history of ripping off the government. And, yes, it's made zillions doing business in countries that sponsor terrorism, including members of the "axis of evil" that is so despised by the president.
But the wrath of the White House has not come thundering down on Halliburton for consorting with the enemy. And there's been very little public criticism. This is not some hapless singing group we're talking about. Halliburton is a court favorite. So instead of being punished for its misdeeds, it's been handed a huge share of the riches to be reaped from the reconstruction of Iraq and U.S. control of Iraqi oil.
A Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman of California, has raised pointed questions about the propriety of rewarding Halliburton with lucrative contracts as part of the U.S. war on terror when the company has gone out of its way to do business in three nations that the U.S. has accused of supporting terror: Iraq, Iran and Libya.
In an April 30 letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Mr. Waxman wrote:
"Since at least the 1980's, federal laws have prohibited U.S. companies from doing business in one or more of these countries. Yet Halliburton appears to have sought to circumvent these restrictions by setting up subsidiaries in foreign countries and territories such as the Cayman Islands. These actions started as early as 1984; they appear to have continued during the period between 1995 and 2000, when Vice President Cheney headed the company; and they are apparently ongoing even today."
According to Mr. Waxman, a subsidiary called Halliburton Products and Services opened an office in Tehran, Iran, in February 2000, has done work on offshore drilling projects and has asserted, "We are committed to position ourselves in a market that offers huge growth potential."
Shareholder complaints since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, particularly from the pension funds of the New York City Police and Fire Departments, have prompted Halliburton officials to agree to reevaluate their operations in Iran.
The federal government has been well aware of Halliburton's shenanigans. In his letter to Secretary Rumsfeld, Mr. Waxman noted that "Halliburton was fined $3.8 million in 1995 for re-exporting U.S. goods through a foreign subsidiary to Libya in violation of U.S. sanctions."
The fine was not enough to stop the company from dancing with the devil. It still has dealings in Libya.
Now, with the U.S. takeover of Iraq, Halliburton has hit the jackpot. It has only recently been made clear that an "emergency" no-bid contract given in March to the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root covers far more than the limited task of fighting oil well fires. The company has been given control of the Iraqi oil operations, including oil distribution.
"It's remarkable there's been so little attention paid to the Halliburton contracts," said Mr. Waxman. In addition to doing business in countries that have sponsored terrorism, the congressman said, Halliburton has been accused of overcharging the U.S. government for work it did in the 1990's. And last year the company agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to ward off possible criminal charges for price gouging.
"Their reward for that terrible record," said the congressman, "was a secret no-bid contract, potentially worth billions, to run Iraq's oil operations."
Halliburton and its subsidiaries are virtuosos at gaming the system. It's a slithery enterprise with its rapacious tentacles in everybody's pockets. It benefits from doing business with the enemy, from its relationship with the U.S. military when the U.S. is at war with the enemy, and from contracts to help rebuild the defeated enemy.
Meanwhile, the flag-waving yahoos are hyperventilating over nonissues like the Dixie Chicks.
By BOB HERBERT