Co-reported alongside the news that Hunt Oil Company of Dallas had entered into an oil development contract in Iraqi Kurdistan was the fact that Hunt Oil's head honcho was a multi-million dollar contributor to the planned George W. Bush Presidential Library project. The thought was no doubt tempting: ah ha, a shady quid pro quo between two Texas oilmen. But resist the temptation. The modern history of economic development suggest that the dealings between Ray L. Hunt and George W. Bush don't need to be so conspiratorial or sinister for them to keep the world unbalanced and in a constant state of war.
We've learned at least that much from the 1970s mad rush to bring "development" to post-colonial Africa, Asia, and South America. That decade saw countries casting their lots with American companies like Bechtel, Fluor, and Halliburton for massive projects for new oil refineries, oil pipelines, and water purification systems. Yes, in some cases, heads of state were intent upon lining their pockets and corporations were dead set on bleeding struggling countries dry. But in many others, politicos honestly saw these works as investments in the future; contractors saw a chance to cultivate friendly foreign partners.
In the end, though, we've seen that the road to economic hell was paved with plenty of both good and bad intentions. Countries like Guatemala and Uganda that had rolled the development dice and lost found themselves both grafted on to the economies of the west and starving. Some, like Indonesia, were so deep in hock to global lenders that they rushed to restructure their economies to the World Bank's likings -- further enmeshing themselves in the West's economic orbit. Then there were leaders, like Ecuador's Jaime Roldós Aguilera, who tried to finesse their countries' relationships with the U.S. but often found themselves struggling to keep their jobs - and, in some cases, their lives.
That's just the 1970s. The full history of modern international economic development is, of course, similarly tangled, nuanced and messy. And while it doesn't take too much imagination to see how Hunt Oil's recent development deal in Iraq has already earned a place in that history, what might be less obvious is that the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas has too.
But let's start in the Middle East and work our way back to Texas. The Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) announced just about two months ago that it had reached a deal to give Hunt Oil Company exploration rights over the oil fields in Dahuk Province, along the northeastern border with Turkey. Should the company find the oil fields to their liking, they would be permitted under the contract to see up drilling rigs in those locations as early as 2008.
The big trouble with the KRG-Hunt Oil deal? National politicians had been toiling down in Baghdad for a long while to hammer out an oil law that would share profits and control among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd - the three major segments of the Iraqi population. Crafting that plan was the big political challenge before the Iraqi Parliament in the spring and summer of 2007. In fact, giving Parliament the breathing space in which to work out that agreement out had been one of the main goals of the recent injection of 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers in-country.
Now with the news that Iraqi Kurdistan had charged ahead with a unilateral oil scheme, negotiations in Baghdad fell apart. The hope that the U.S. might finally begin to withdraw its forces from Iraqi anytime soon evaporated in the dry desert air.
Oil is, of course, a business. And purely as a business exploit, the new KRG-Hunt development arrangement makes good sense. The exploration phase of a new oil project is wildly expensive; considerable time and money must be poured into geological and seismic survey work before the ground can ever be tapped for crude. Still, even the most rigorous research phase is no guarantee that drilling will produce a worthwhile oil source. Oil interests take on partners and sell stakes in their ventures as a matter of practice. Of course, doing so reduces size of the reward pie slice all involved get. But it also serves to greatly diversify cost and risk in an inherently costly risky business.
What's frightening is that that same sharing of the cost and rewards between country and corporation motivated one of history's most notorious oil development arrangements - the turn-of-the century deal between Persia (later Iran) and the British-based company known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). British business interests had a thirst for Persian oil; the government in Tehran couldn't afford to develop the necessary facilities to make use of the country's great natural oil resources. Together, they worked to erect a massive oil refinery in the city of Abadan in southwestern Iran.
Iran chafed against the amount of control APOC had over its oil until 1953, when Iranian leader Mohammed Mosaddeq made up his mind to finally extract APOC from his country, nationalize Iran's oil industry, and take control of Abadan. The West - Britain and the United States in particular - did not take kindly to Mosaddeq's plan to develop Iran alone. The CIA, under the direction of agent Kermit Roosevelt, engineered a coup that replaced Mosaddeq with the far more partnership-minded and conciliatory Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Mosaddeq's removal and the U.S. support for Pahlavi shook Iran. And some time later, they came back to bite the United States at least once - and hard: the events of 1953 became the rallying point for student militants when they held 52 American citizens hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran from 1979 through the day Ronald Reagan took office 1980.
The failure of the Iran-APOC partnership, the overthrow of Mosaddeq, and the repercussions throughout Iran reached their peak decades ago. By contrast, the Kurdistan-Hunt development deal is barely a month old, and still largely mysterious. Perhaps among the few people in world who have any real sense of how it will turn out are sitting in the executive suite of Hunt Oil, ensconced in the breathtaking Fountain Place skyscraper in downtown Dallas.
Sitting in that Texas office suite is, of course, Hunt Oil's CEO, President, and Chairman of the Board Ray L. Hunt.
While Ray Hunt has been busy over the last few months plotting to develop some of the most strategically important and valuable oil fields in the world, he has also been working over the last several years on a side project. The goal of that project also happened to be to bring another center of global power into the Hunt orbit -- a center of power named George W. Bush.
The story of the Hunt-Bush Presidential Library project began in the summer of 2001, when Ray Hunt left Dallas for a visit with President Bush in his 4,000 square foot home at Prairie Chapel, the Bush spread in Crawford. Though what would turn out to be Bush's first term had only just begun, the project that Hunt had on his mind would only bear fruit in the months and years after Bush had vacated the White House.
For over an hour on that day, Hunt shared with Bush his vision for erecting a George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University - the alma mater of not only Hunt himself but also First Lady Laura Bush. Not only would the presidential complex at SMU include the traditional archival library facility, but it would also contain a presidential "think tank" committed to the promotion of Bushian democracy around the globe. What Hunt was proposing to Bush was, in short, a massive development project, and one in the President's honor. According to published reports, Bush was quite intrigued.
With the President's evident interest in the proposal, Hunt set out to work to procure among the first necessary ingredient for a development project of that scale - land. And so some four years after first meeting with Bush, Ray L. Hunt wired Southern Methodist University $35 million for the purchase of Park Cities Plaza shopping complex located on Central Expressway, adjacent to the school.
Hunt's $35 million contribution for Park Cities matches the largest single contribution that Southern Methodist has ever received in school history. But because it was a cash transfer from a private individual to a private institution, Hunt's Park Cities pay-off remained undisclosed until revealed in a lawsuit filed by area residents upset at being moved to make way for the project.
And as the details of the planned George W. Bush Presidential Library emerge, it's become clear just how ambitious a development project it truly is. The main building of the library - the section that will hold two term's worth of documents, papers, and other archival materials - will come in at 145,000 square feet big - about twice the size of the field the Dallas Cowboys play on. What's more, adjacent to that facility will be the 40,000 square foot Freedom Institute - room enough to house scores of scholars and programs committed to spreading the Bush democratic vision around the globe.
It is undoubtedly an impressive tribute to the 43rd President of the United States. But the libraries dedicated to American presidents are somewhat strange in that, in many ways, they are self-tributes. The cost for the project is paid by the president, through, of course, considerable fundraising. And that debt is a burden that falls on a Commander-in-Chief in historically unsettled times - during the twilight of his presidency and his first years of retirement.
With more than a year left in office, President George W. Bush has already committed to a $200 million design commission, awarded to the Manhattan-based Robert A. M. Stern Architects.
In just initiating the design phase alone, George Bush has set a presidential library all-time total cost record. With not one tree cleared or one truck of concrete poured, the George W. Bush Presidential Library has already drained the president's pocket for twice as much money as what the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library cost the 41st president in full. The Stern commission alone also tops the full price of the most recently constructed presidential tribute, the $165 million William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.
And when the costs for design, construction, and operation are all tallied, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Freedom Institute is projected to cost George Bush in the neighborhood of $500 million.
When the cost of the development was revealed, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that "some skeptics aren't so sure that Bush can raise that much money." Indeed, from any angle, a half-billion dollars is some debt. Consider that Liberia - the poster country for the World Bank/IMF Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative - holds an IOU to those lenders totaling just $3.5 billion.
The good news for the deep-in-debt President of the United States, though, is that library fundraising isn't burdened by any of the onerous restrictions that tie hands in the raising of campaign cash. Any American citizen, corporation, or foreign government can pitch in on the retiring of an American president's library debt, and with no public reporting of that relief. Ray L. Hunt, for example, could chip in another $35 million or $70 million. Heck, the House of Saud could pay it off completely. With the way the U.S. law stands, no one beyond the president's circle has to ever know about it.
It was Bill Clinton's efforts to retire his multi-million dollar library debt while still in the Oval Office that drew him into one of the most unsettling and darkest controversies of his presidency. The ex-wife of American fugitive Marc Rich had been campaigning for a pardon on his behalf for years when a Clinton associate suggested she add something to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library fund.
With the time left in his president was measured in hours, not days, Clinton granted a full pardon to Rich in absentia. But because there is no public reporting of library fund donations, Denise Rich's $400,000 contribution only became known when it was leaked about a month after he had left office.
And the crimes for which the Clinton-pardoned Marc Rich was a fugitive in the first place? As it turns out, they bring us back to Iranian oil development and the doings of the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt circa 1979.
Rich's crimes, the forgiveness of which roiled American democracy, include entering into an oil production deal with Iran during the American embassy hostage crisis. That's an uprising, we know, ignited in the first place by U.S. attempts to install a support a leader who would allow the West's oil development projects to keep chugging along.
Of course, let's keep some perspective: the Rich contribution to the Clinton Library Fund in 2001 was just a fraction of the many millions Ray L. Hunt has already kicked in to the fledgling Bush Library Fund - about one-eightieth, in fact. And that makes it all the more tempting to conclude that Ray Hunt's incredible generosity to the George W. Bush Presidential Library project as the quid in a quid pro quo involving Iraqi oil.
But at this point, conclusions are just conjecture. The fact of the matter is that we don't know yet what if anything Ray L. Hunt expects from George W. Bush, or vice versa.
But the story of human existence is replete with the various reasons why people engage in economic transactions without expecting something immediately in return. Let's take just one. Anthropologists have long been intrigued by "potlatch" - roughly, competitive gift giving - an economic behavior exhibited among tribes of the Pacific Northwest. One tribe foists gifts of whale oil, canoes, and blankets on another tribe, and the giving is raised and reciprocated until tribes actually resort to torching their own wealth.
For many decades, anthropologists judged potlatch to be either economically irrationality or aggressive one-upmanship. But more recently, researchers have come around to seeing the forced sharing of wealth as a path to useful interdependence, by creating non-monetary debts between tribes sharing the same environment.
The Kwakiutl tribe, for example, might someday need help from the Tlingit; the Tlingit may get into a dust-up with the Haida they need to smooth over; the Haida could someday need a Kwakiutl ally in a face-off with a non-native enemy. Having potlatched together creates the sense of, hey, we're all in this together. And those debt relationships may well be useful to the tribes of the northwest somewhere down the road - and even generations hence.
In his classic work The Gift, theorist Marcel Mauss describes potlatch as a characteristic of "archaic societies." But it's not overly hard to imagine it being practiced in some form in Crawford or the West Wing.
Still, a look at the aftermath of 1970s development, the anti-nationalist Mosaddeq coup in Iran in 1953, and the 53 Americans held hostage over resentment of their country's interdependence with the west suggests that something as pedestrian as what this man and that man want from each other today or down the road might not matter much in the end.
The economic fortunes and fates of Ray L. Hunt and George W. Bush are intertwined, but let's finally get down to brass tacks. What, exactly, is the problem with interdependence between a Ray Hunt and a George Bush?
Simply put: when you have business interests as powerful as they are in this country, government has to be able to crack the whip on them on occasion. And the thing is, at the helm of our government today is a man completely entangled in the economics of the same corporations we need him to keep in check.
And as we've seen, when government leaders and corporate heads forge debt relationships and entanglements, those relationships can darken the last days of a President of the United States of America, mire populations into decades of poverty, and fuel never-ending wars.
What's more, we all end up living in a strange strange world where the future George W. Bush Presidential Library's Freedom Institute - a foundation dedicated to the promotion of peaceful democracy around the world - will sit atop land bought and paid for by the same man who may well have destroyed the last best chance at democratic peace in Iraq.