$10 billion sure would buy a lot of baba ghanouj

February 08, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

BARELY NOTICED in the commotion surrounding President Bush's State of the Union speech last week was a story prominently displayed in one of the president's favorite newspapers, The Wall Street Journal.

While Mr. Bush was preparing to proclaim the wonders of a "free" Iraq, the story revealed there's no free lunch in Iraq. Specifically, the Journal reported, Kellogg, Brown & Root, the unit of Dick Cheney's alma mater, Halliburton, that has the contract to feed, house and bathe U.S. troops in Iraq, has come in with a $10 billion estimate for the coming year.

Ten billion dollars is a lot of money. It works out to about $67,000 a year per man and woman in the military being served by KB&R, assuming we keep 150,000 troops in Iraq, which we won't. Put another way, it's $182.64 a day. Ten billion dollars also is at least $4 billion more than the Pentagon has budgeted for the services provided by KB&R. The gap could be as much as $7.4 billion.

The Journal story appeared about the same time as an audit of Iraqi reconstruction funds found that nearly $9 billion was distributed with "less than adequate controls" by the former Coalition Provisional Authority headed by L. Paul Bremer III. Read that, no one's sure where all the money went.

One thing's for sure, it didn't go to Iraqi contractors, because they were not included in the sweetheart deals like the ones given to Halliburton and KB&R.

Before going any further, I should say that I believe our troops in Iraq and elsewhere should be fed as generously and housed as comfortably as possible. The troops face enough danger as it is without making them venture into harm's way on an empty stomach or without enough sleep.

But an opportunity exists to get them some really good food and to send some business to Iraqi contractors probably at a cost far less than what KB&R is charging. Here's a proposal that actually might have a collateral advantage because people who eat the same food tend to get along better than people who don't.

In the eight years I spent as a correspondent in the Middle East, I acquired a passion for Middle Eastern food. The Lebanese are the best at making it, but certainly the Iraqis know how to make it, too.

There is nothing like a Middle Eastern mezze, a feast that features all sorts of delicacies such as hummus, baba ghanouj, glorious salads, pickled little things, olives, stuffed grape leaves, great chunks of lamb marinated and grilled and served on beds of steaming rice, or shish taouk, spicy grilled chicken served with a heavy garlic sauce. Garlic's the thing. It's good for the stomach, and if you reek of it, people know you are not a stranger.

I don't know what KB&R is serving to the troops in Iraq, but if it's anything like the U.S. Marines in Lebanon were getting, I'd bet a great number of our soldiers at the front would love a good mezze, all the more if it's washed down with some good Arak, the anise and grape seed drink favored by people of the Middle East. After a few glasses of Arak, it's extraordinary how friendly people become.

The collateral advantage of this idea would be that thousands of Iraqis could be employed in the preparation of this food for U.S. troops. If they need some Lebanese to help them, they can fetch them across the Syrian border. Moreover, these food preparers would have to buy their goods from local Iraqi farmers and herders. A few billion dollars' worth of commerce thrown to them could only advance cordiality and friendship.

These foods are not completely strange to Americans. You can buy hummus, pita bread and other Middle Eastern specialties at practically any decent food market in America.

Security would be a concern, of course. We don't want our troops to be poisoned by insurgent food preparers. Someone would have to taste the food before it was served. Let that one be a no-bid contract.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Sun.

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