Death of a Salesman

"Nobody dast blame this man," says Charley in a spontaneous eulogy for his neighbor, Willy Loman, in the concluding scene of Arthur Miller's tragedy. "A salesman is got to dream, boy."

And certainly nobody blames Nicholas Berg, beheaded in Iraq by ghouls from the Dark Ages. Berg had his dreams, and they weren't just of business opportunities in Iraq. Though just 26, Berg was already something of a globetrotter in the cause of building a better world. Working through the American Jewish World Service, he'd gone to Kenya to help construct a water access project -- the kind of project that Africa needs most, and for which Berg's idealism, engineering skills and evident affability suited him to a tee.

Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and a practical idealist who knows one when she sees one, called Berg "an unbelievable person -- highly skilled, highly humanitarian."

But what on earth possessed Berg to venture off to Iraq by himself to maintain and repair radio transmission towers? Berg's family says the idea sprouted after he attended a government-sponsored trade fair for businesses considering investments in Iraq. When Berg got to Iraq, however, State Department officials tried to talk him out of the idea and apparently even offered him a free ticket home.

In a sense, the battle between the Defense Department's deadly fantasies and the State Department's sober realism was being played out for the destiny of Nicholas Berg. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) -- established by and answerable to Donald Rumsfeld and his merry band -- has determinedly been recruiting U.S. businesses to come to Iraq, even as the State Department has been warning Americans to stay far away.

But U.S. businesses -- save for construction and security companies whose costs are picked up by the U.S. government -- have not been coming, much less investing. To date, PepsiCo is the only U.S.-based company to have made a sizable investment in Iraq. Despite the fact that the CPA has decreed a series of right-wing business panaceas that the Iraqis themselves might balk at (and that Americans have balked at), such as a flat tax on personal and corporate income, U.S. businesses still place a higher premium on security than on the economic brainstorms of Steve Forbes.

Though the Bush administration has failed to persuade its corporate friends to plunge into Iraq, all is not lost. In George W. Bush's America, there are plenty of low-wage workers desperate for the middle-income wages and health benefits that our construction and security companies are offering in Iraq -- with the cost picked up by U.S. taxpayers. Wal-Mart can afford not to follow PepsiCo into the swirl of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but workers in the Wal-Mart economy have far less discretion.

A remarkable story in the May 17 Washington Post profiled a number of low-wage, non-union truck drivers, machine operators, cooks and the like who are going to work for Halliburton's KBR and other such firms in Iraq. In most cases, the workers profiled had the gravest misgivings about going over, but decided in the end to go because their families needed the health insurance or the money to buy a decent house.

This puts a whole new light on what many of us have considered one of America's gravest problems. At first glance, the fact that one-quarter of the U.S. workforce makes no more than $8.70 an hour (as one recent Russell Sage study concluded), or that 44 million Americans have no health coverage, is proof positive of a dysfunctional political economy.

But it turns out to be plenty functional after all. Who would run the risk of meeting the fate of the four contract security workers in Fallujah if they could make decent wages and cover their families' medical expenses by doing the same job here at home? Wilsonianism abroad -- belligerent but on the cheap -- meets social Darwinism at home: Clearly, this is one instance where Bush's foreign policy and domestic policy work well together.

And that foreign policy, it becomes clearer every day, was rooted in the dreams of our salesmen. No, not Nicholas Berg's. The dreams that mattered were those of the administration's war hawks, from George W. Bush on down: that reconstruction would be easy; that there would be no consequences from our preemptive, unilateral war that we couldn't handle; and that we could remake Iraq in our flat-tax image even though we didn't know the territory. Bush and his crew sold this dream to Berg even as, in 2002 and 2003, they sold it to the American people and Congress. It was one part fantasy and one part fraud, and it created a self-defeating occupation from which there's no easy exit. These salesmen took credit and now deserve blame. As Willy Loman's widow insists, "Attention must be paid."

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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