Private Contractors and the Iraq War
Bill Long 4/1/07
Jeremy Scahill's Recent Book--Blackwater
Ever since the Iraq War moved into high gear in 2003, one of the most uttered but least understood two-word phrases in the mouth of journalists, news reporters and politicians was "private contractors." We knew that there had to be contracts to "rebuild" Iraq, whatever that meant, and we knew also that some of the contractors were "military-type" people who provided security to top US officials as well as others in Iraq. But we never really knew who these "private contractors" were, what their jobs were, to whom they were accountable and how they were chosen to do the jobs they were doing. Jeremy Scahill has done a valuable public service in clarifying these issues by writing his recently-released (mid-February) book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books; 464 pages). In it he tells the story of the rise of Blackwater USA, a NC-based private security firm which was founded in 1996 by Erik Prince.
Though Blackwater isn't the biggest of the private firms providing security in Iraq, its story is emblematic for our times. It has cashed in powerfully on the twin mantras that have been mindlessly uttered by Americans over the past decade: the need to "downsize" government and the consequent importance of "privatizing" the traditional work of government. When this philosophy was given a jump-start by 9/11, a security focus was added to the mix. Thus, a dangerous three-ingredient cocktail was brewed, and we are currently living with the results. The results, in a nutshell, are the capacity for private firms to run their own wars, without the authorization of Congress or the American people, to be paid very well for doing this and to have little if any legal accountability for whatever they do "on the ground" in the war zone. Scahill estimates that at the end of 2006 there were approximately 100,000 private contractors of all sorts in Iraq--who were almost fully unaccounted-for in everything military, including the body count.
Let me back up a minute, however, to tell you how we got into this siutation.
It All Begins--With Philosophy
When Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency in 1981, he stated the approach which conservatives had been debating among themselves for years: that government was too bloated and inefficient and that its growth needed to stop. In his first Inaugural Address he stated the philosophy succintly: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." This quip packed quite a wallop, and even a dozen years later with Bill Clinton in the White House, the Democrats were tripping all over themselves trying to "reinvent government" (i.e., "downsize" it). Bill Clinton gave Al Gore credit for reducing the size of the federal workforce in the hundreds of thousands of jobs. Thus, both parties agreed that government was the problem and had to become "leaner and meaner" in our day.
But anyone who has worked for an organization knows that when you eliminate jobs, the work either is piled on the remaining people in the department or is not done. Enter the philosophy of "outsourcing" or "privatization." Those who provided services to the government put together quite a pitch to argue that the 'private sector' could perform the traditional government services much more effectively and efficiently. Of course this was a covert attack on unions, because government employees were and are the most highly unionized sector in our economy. But it also allowed all kinds of private sector people to develop everything from private prisons to data centers to enable government to "outsource" its work. Thus, by the end of the 1990s, the clear trend was for outsourcing of everything that was not "core" government business--whatever that meant.
And Then Came 9/11
When the Twin Towers went up in flames and then came down in a heap on 9/11/01, the latest, most far-reaching and controversial dimension to the privatization/outsourcing debate occurred. Why not privatize the functions of the military? Since Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense from 2001-06, was a long-time believer in a smaller Pentagon, a leaner and meaner army, now was the time when the private contractors could "morph" into the really big money--providing all kinds of nebulous "security services" that were beyond the military's capability or interest in providing. Thus, the door to their entry into the heart of America's effort in the Middle East was flung wide open. Because of the "urgency" of providing training to all kinds of military and civilian personnel, no-bid contracts were awarded. Little if any oversight of the contractors was forthcoming. They were many of the shadowy and wispy figures behind the despicable conditions and treatment of prisoners at Abu-Ghraib; they were present in many of Iraq's hottest spots since the war began in 2003. When four of Blackwater's contractors were executed in Fallujah in 2004, people, including Scahill, began to pay attention.
Now, to come full circle, he has tried to expose the workings of one of the fast-growing and influential companies in this "private contracting world" and, though I haven't read the book, I can conclude thus far that he has stated the problem with documentation and clarity that will certainly demand an answer.
Just In Time
And Scahill's book has really come out "just in time." The Democrats will be devoting the next 19 months to hearings about the War, trying to learn about and expose the way that the War has been fought and how people have profitted by that War over the past four or so years. But the larger philosophical issue presented by Scahill's work, and articles that will continue to flow from his book, is to what extent we as a nation will want to bring these private contractors to book; to what extent their ways will be exposed and they will be required to play by rules that at least are rules of engagement adopted by the United States Military; to what extent we want to be funders of "private wars" when we might not be able to "sell" a war to the American public.
I can envision that in the next 19 months the last vestiges of the "nobility" of the Iraq War will fade under the light of this kind of exposure. But it is good that it does. The American people and the world have been very ill-served by the present Administration in Washington. Iraq's physical rebuilding will need to be mirrored in our own philosophical and spiritual rebuilding in the wake of what we have wrought in the Cradle of Civilization.