Operation Free Iraq(A)
On March 19, 2003, I and millions of other people around the world watched as the first bombs were dropped on Iraq in “Operation Free Iraq”. We watched media analysts hover over maps of the Middle East with color-coding, arrows, stars and circles. A picture of early morning traffic in downtown Baghdad lurked on the television split screen; automobiles, trucks and pedestrians moving around as if in a normal world on one side while carefully coifed commentators with bland expressions introduced generals and politicians on the other side of the screen. At the bottom of the screen, sports scores, the weather and movie advertisements paraded by. The momentary appearance of Saddam Hussein in the square dominated by the streets of Baghdad, wearing thick glasses, communicated to the world through an interpreter in mantra-like cadence admonishing and condemning, enhanced the surreal experience.
Later, my five-year-old grandson tried to make sense of it all. He asked what was going on and was told it was “real war” with people dying, but far away. He said when he played with his plastic soldiers, they would fall down but pretend to be asleep and then get up later, unhurt. His twin sister said that it must be real because it was “on camera”. Later still, Senator George Allen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared on CNBC with a smile as he described what was good for Iraq in the long run. On the other side of the screen, pictures of buildings in Baghdad glowed with fire.
So we have a war, and, to the gallery of observers long conditioned to docudrama, the action remained distant. A report from The Guardian on line, filed from Baghdad, actually likened it all to a modern game:
“As bombers rumbled overhead and missiles ripped through the sky, one deafening explosion followed another, shaking the foundations of buildings on the opposite bank of the Tigris. From the east side of the river, it was like watching a gigantic video game. As soon as one building was hit, low-flying jets struck again, barely before there was time to register the damage. They set off great jets of fire as easily as the flick of a cigarette lighter.”
On the first official day of conflict, the stock market, agnostic as it is about death and destruction, added 21 points to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The volume leader on the New York Stock Exchange that day was El Paso Corporation, up 16% on the news of a settlement with California to pay back $1.7 billion of the $3.3 billion it is alleged to have cost the state during the energy crisis. The next day the Dow added a whopping 235 points.
As investment managers, our highest responsibility to our clients is to remain professional and focused on the basic business of the economy. It is also our job as socially concerned investors, on behalf of our very special clients to avoid being lulled by the numbing media-hyped war and focus on issues, both domestic and global, which will influence our future well being. We pledge to do our best on both fronts.