Joe M. Allbaugh, a close friend of US President George Bush's and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency until last March, is here to tell you that his new company, which advises clients on how to get business in Iraq, is not trading on his White House connections. The Iraqis need assistance, Allbaugh said, and he can help.
"Because my friend is president of the United States, I'm supposed to check out of life?" Allbaugh said with some exasperation in a telephone interview on Friday from his office near Capitol Hill.
Allbaugh knows that people -- Democrats, in particular -- say he is part of a small coterie of businessmen linked to the Bush family who are seeking to profit from the war in Iraq.
"This is a political town, and obviously there are people who want to make a big deal out of what I do," Allbaugh said. "I have nothing to hide. I'm straightforward. I deal my cards on top of the table."
So here is his hand: Allbaugh, already the chief executive officer of his own consulting firm, the Allbaugh Co., is also the chairman of New Bridge Strategies, a just-formed, Houston-based company that sees a prosperous new world rising from the rubble of Baghdad. Other New Bridge directors include Edward Rogers Junior and Lanny Griffith, lobbyists who worked in the Bush I White House.
As the company's Web site, www.newbridgestrategies.com, says, "The opportunities evolving in Iraq today are of such an unprecedented nature and scope that no other existing firm has the necessary skills and experience to be effective both in the United States and on the ground in Iraq."
Allbaugh, who was Bush's campaign manager in 2000, said he was not looking for business in Iraq himself, but was offering his services to help other companies get the work -- like the contracts to build Iraq's cellular telephone system, to cite just one example. Already, the US government has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts to US businesses, some without competitive bidding, including to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which was Vice President Dick Cheney's company from 1995 to 2000.
The Senate has since demanded that all future contracts in Iraq be awarded by competitive bidding, and administration officials, including L. Paul Bremer, the top US official in Baghdad, have promised that they will. Allbaugh said that was just fine.
"We have no problem with that, because our clients are quality companies," he said, although he declined to name them.
As part of his package for clients, Allbaugh said, he also offers security in the form of yet another new company, Diligence Iraq, that works hand-in-hand with New Bridge. New Bridge is a minority partner in Diligence Iraq, which is just opening up in Baghdad. Mike Baker, the head of Diligence Iraq, serves as an advisory board member of New Bridge.
In other words, if your company wants to send over three people from New York to investigate business opportunities in Baghdad, Baker will secure the way in: a three-car convoy of armed SUVs driving 145kph, to avoid bandits, in an eight-hour-plus streak across the desert from the border of Jordan or Kuwait.
"We're playing the odds," said Baker, who also has a good business in what he calls "delivering payroll around the country" -- that is, driving stacks of US dollars to places where Iraqis get paid by the US authorities. "It's fairly low tech," Baker said.
The bottom line, Allbaugh said, is that rebuilding Iraq is tough work, but somebody has to do it. Besides, he said, he insists that his clients have Iraqi partners.
"The stories I've seen have been couched as if people are trying to game the system, and that's not what we're about," Allbaugh said. "We are trying to help Iraq become a capitalist country, and a leader throughout the Middle East. Iraqis themselves are asking for help."
Iraq, he added, "has been ignored for 35 years. The infrastructure is toast."
Allbaugh, 51, who still has a family farm in Oklahoma, first met Bush when Bush's father, George Bush Senior, was running for president in 1988. In 1994, Allbaugh ran George W. Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas.
"They needed a doer and someone who was a straight shooter and to bring some order to the campaign," Allbaugh said. "I was an enforcer for him."
Allbaugh, who is 193cm tall and close to 135kg, with bristle-cut hair, stayed on as Bush's chief of staff in Austin, Texas, and was part of the inner circle of his 2000 presidential campaign, along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.
In January 2001 Bush named Allbaugh to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which dispenses disaster funds and loans after hurricanes, floods and fires. He left on March 1 to start his own company, which dispenses strategic business advice (clients include Union Pacific Railroad), and to look for a future in Iraq.
"We fought a war, we displaced a horrible, horrible regime, and as a part of that we have an obligation to help Iraqis," Allbaugh said. "We can't just leave in the middle of the night."
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