Cheney's business stint hints at strategic vision But corporate turnabout may spur criticism

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – When Dick Cheney left the federal government for corporate Dallas, he did not expect to come back as part of the Republican ticket for the White House. That was apparent when he teed up for a June 1998 speech at the Cato Institute about policy damage done by U.S. economic sanctions.
"I welcome the opportunity to come to Washington and vent my spleen ... and say any damn thing I like," he told his luncheon audience.

What followed was a swipe at inside-the-beltway policy-makers worthy of the Dallas Petroleum Club – and an articulation of Mr. Cheney's strategic vision that values U.S. businesses as diplomats for democracy.

"Look what we do for the American people," he said after the speech, referring to private industry, where he had been working for three years as chief executive of Halliburton Co., one of the world's largest oilfield services companies.

"We bring in 9 million barrels of oil a day from around the world they don't want to produce here, and we sell it to them cheaper than water so they can drive their sport utility vehicles up and down the highway."

It was a sharp turnabout for a former White House chief of staff, Wyoming congressman and defense secretary who spent most of his working life hard by the Potomac, not in the oil patch.

But so total is Mr. Cheney's private sector conversion that it is already becoming grist for political opponents now that Texas Gov. George W. Bush has asked him to become his Republican vice presidential running mate.

Mr. Cheney's brief, busy and profitable detour into industry during the 1990s didn't just sharpen his view of business as a tool of public policy. It also saw him mastermind an $8 billion Halliburton merger with Dresser Industries, collect years of seven-figure executive salaries, some similar-sized bonuses and – according to federal filings this year – amass stock worth more than $10 million and the rights to buy hundred of thousands of additional shares.

And his service as a director for Union Pacific Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and Electronic Data Systems Corp. further moved him from Washington power circles deep into the milieu of America's business elite.

Important connections

To be sure, it was Mr. Cheney's extensive worldwide connections built during his government career that landed him in the Halliburton executive suite to begin with. At the same time, he has remained an important – though out-of-the-limelight – figure in Republican politics. An analysis by States News Service of Halliburton's political action committee donations shows contributions to GOP causes soared during his tenure.

But Mr. Cheney's post as a business leader, which officially ends Aug. 16, allowed him to be a blunt critic when he chose.

The 1998 Cato Institute speech "very much sounded like it was coming from a man who had crossed over into the private sector with no thought he would possibly be coming back to Washington in a prominent policy role," said Dan Griswold, a trade specialist at the institute.

Mr. Cheney told his audience that too many members of Congress have never been abroad and said more business executives should run for Congress.

"We have far too many policy-makers who lack any real understanding of what the modern world economy is all about or how it actually functions," he said.

One lesson Mr. Cheney offered: "Investment and trade can oftentimes do more to open up a society and to create opportunity for a society's citizens than reams of diplomatic cables from our State Department," he said. "The drive of American firms to be involved in and shape and direct the global economy is a strategic asset that serves the national interest of the United States."

Faulting Clinton

Mr. Cheney faulted the Clinton administration and Congress for becoming "sanctions happy." He said they appeal to lawmakers because they do not involve spending money or sending troops into harm's way. He said most are imposed to satisfy domestic political considerations.

Among other things, he specifically criticized the 1996 law that strengthened the embargo against Cuba, calling it "self-defeating policy. It has done more damage to us than it has done to Castro." He said he would have voted against it.

Congress is currently wrestling with proposals from farm-state Republicans and Democrats to allow food sales to Cuba now barred under the act. Mr. Bush has opposed those efforts. It isn't known today whether Mr. Cheney would favor them.

One of Mr. Cheney's main appeals when he was picked as Halliburton CEO in 1995 was that he could put Halliburton at the right table with important people when there was a deal to be done, according to associates. "One of the main capabilities he had was to open doors for business opportunities outside of North America, where he was acquainted with high-level government people," said Dale P. Jones, a former Halliburton president and board member.

Balkans triumph

Among Halliburton's international successes under Mr. Cheney were lucrative engineering contracts to help rebuild the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that two joint ventures – since sold to partners – had sold spare parts to Iraq through European subsidiaries. The sales were legal as part of the United Nations' oil-for-food program.

Iraq has been commercially isolated in some ways under U.N. sanctions imposed after the end of the Persian Gulf War. As defense secretary, Mr. Cheney presided over the prosecution of the war by the United States and its allies.

Overall last year, Halliburton derived 68 percent of its revenues overseas, up from 45 percent in 1994, the year before Mr. Cheney arrived. Total revenues have grown 163 percent to $14.9 billion in 1999.

Under Mr. Cheney's guidance, Halliburton's long-term outlook has improved, along with his own portfolio.

In 1999, his total annual pay, including an estimate of the future value of stock options granted in that year, was $8.2 million.

Democrats take aim

Mr. Cheney's new stature in the oil industry has drawn fire from Democrats already. And Norm Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research – the conservative think tank where Mr. Cheney used to be a fellow – predicted that he would be criticized further because of his wealth.

But he doubts voters will worry that Mr. Cheney would promote Halliburton or the industry as vice president.

"It's hard for me to imagine what Halliburton would need. It's not like government makes a lot of decisions that directly affect their business," he said.

Fittingly perhaps, Mr. Cheney's swan-song appearance on behalf of Halliburton involved news of the company's latest successes. Speaking Wednesday to investment analysts in a conference call to explain Halliburton's surging quarterly profits, Mr. Cheney said leaving the corporate world would be difficult.

"I had not planned to do this. ... I fully planned to serve out my career at Halliburton," he said. "But I concluded after the governor had talked to me a number of times that I did have an obligation to return to public service if I were asked."

Staff writers Terry Maxon, Todd J. Gillman and Charlene Oldham contributed to this report.