So Tell Me, Mr. Immelt, Why Are You Killing American Servicemen?
Bill O’Reilly doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story line
By blackhedd Posted in Bill O'Reilly | Foreign Affairs | General Electric | Iran | nuclear weapons — Comments (30) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Years ago, a large young man from Flint, Michigan with nothing better to do started stalking Roger Smith, who was then the CEO of General Motors Corporation. The young man, with a small film crew in tow, would stick a microphone under Smith’s nose and ask him all kinds of strange questions. Later, he assembled the pieces into what looked like a documentary but in fact was tendentious propaganda.
General Motors learned then that truth is no barrier to being smeared effectively. And young Michael Moore learned that craftily-packaged lies can change the world.
I was reminded of that when I heard that Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News, showed up last week at the National Governor’s Association meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And he appears to have gotten in front of attendee Jeffrey Immelt, who is the CEO of the General Electric Company of Fairfield, Connecticut.
What O’Reilly wanted to know from Immelt more or less boiled down to: Why are you still killing Americans in Iraq?
It turns out that this has been a hobbyhorse for O’Reilly for quite some time now. He’s generated several flaps about General Electric this year.
So this is my way of trying to cut off another one.
On what basis does Bill O’Reilly believe that GE, a company with more than 300,000 employees and over $170 billion in annual revenue, is killing American servicemen and women?
It’s because until recently, GE had business operations in Iran. I decided to find out what this was all about, and here’s what I learned.
GE is a global conglomerate that specializes in what former CEO Jack Welch called “large, muscle-using businesses.” They include power-generation systems, jet engines, medical imaging, railway power, various consumer products, some enormous finance businesses, and of course the NBC broadcast network.
They also have a very large oilfield-services unit. GE Oil & Gas has a subsidiary named Nuovo Pignone, based in Italy. Nuovo Pignone makes heavy equipment for oil drilling (it's the same basic business as Halliburton and Schlumberger).
And until this month, Nuovo Pignone did business in Iran. GE has a healthcare subsidiary based in France that, until this month, had some Iranian operations as well.
So it’s pretty serious for Bill O’Reilly (or anyone else) to say that GE has been propping up the Iranian regime and thereby making it easier for them to sponsor deadly operations against American troops in Iraq.
And if true, this matters to you personally, seeing that you probably own a piece of GE yourself, either directly or through your mutual funds or 401(k) plan.
The truth of the matter, however, is that GE senior management decided to walk away from their Iranian businesses, three years ago. It takes that long to exit a business because you have long-term contracts with your suppliers and customers, and you have to wind those down over time.
Back in 2004, there was a shareholder resolution introduced at the GE annual meeting to divest the Iranian operations. The shareholders voted it down emphatically, because after all, business is business, and Jeffrey Immelt doesn’t get paid to make the company smaller.
But as I said, a year later, the management decided that getting out of Iran was the right thing to do, and the move was reported widely at the time. For one thing, it really is questionable to do business with America’s sworn enemies (more on that shortly). For another, a lot of veterans work for GE, and even more own GE shares. Their sensitivities matter a great deal.
And we’re not talking about large numbers in any case. The total volume of GE’s Iranian operations was probably less than $50 million a year. (By the way, Iran’s economy is not a small one. It’s about two-thirds the size of Mexico’s, with a similar per-capita GDP.)
According to GE, they have fully completed their exit from all business operations in Iran as of July 1, 2008. And that’s the answer to Bill O’Reilly’s question.
This does get rather sticky from a policy point of view, however. Iran’s reckless drive to obtain nuclear weapons is the most difficult foreign policy challenge in the world. Many people oversimplify the issue in terms of whether a war against Iran (probably initiated by Israel) is inevitable.
But for a whole lot of reasons, Bush Administration policy toward Iran has involved both carrots and sticks. At different points in time, the State Department has sought to either encourage or to cool off commercial contacts by American and European businesses in Iran.
I’m emphatically not suggesting that any of GE’s decision-making was conditioned by our government. I have no information to say whether that is true or not. But although GE is now out of Iran, there are other large Western companies still there today. One of them is British Petroleum, which is helping to develop the northern half of a large new gas field in the sparsely-populated Fars region. Who’s developing the southern half? China, of course.
If you look at Iran’s largest trading partners (both for imports and exports), you’ll find Japan, China and South Korea among the biggies, but also Italy, France and Germany. Italy in particular (where the oilfield-services business that became part of GE is based) has had energy-producing operations in Iran since the late Fifties, long before the Islamic Revolution.
Part of the challenge in dealing with Iran is the tension between the American and the European ways of diplomacy. The Europeans fervently believe that if you talk to people long enough and offer them enough of an incentive (including business relationships), they’ll eventually see things your way.
In America, on the other hand, many of us believe that when the Iranians say they intend to blow Israel off the face of the earth, they mean it, and peace will only come through forcible regime change.
But for better or worse, war with Iran is not an option, so we have to find another answer. To their credit, the Europeans have recently started to recognize that a nuclear-armed Iran is a very bad idea. They have shown signs of willingness to align with our next President to meet the threat in a coordinated way.
But there still is the matter of Bill O’Reilly. He has little enough credibility as it is, but if he keeps up the Michael Moore act, just ask yourself this: might some of it be simply a matter of overwrought competitive animus against Keith Olbermann? After all, Olbermann (who’s just about as worth listening to as O’Reilly, which is to say, not much) works for MSNBC.
And who owns MSNBC? General Electric.