Monday, December 14, 2009

Reaction To The Scahill Piece On Blackwater Part III: Dangerous Overstretch

This is the third and final post in a series of reactions to the Jeremy Scahill's investigative piece on Blackwater in Pakistan. In the first post, I dealt with the fact that Scahill's story was exclusively based on anonymous sources, and how that fact impacts its credibility. In the second post, I tackled the Pakistani angle, and talked about Pakistani security, politics and sovereignty. In this post, I write on the American angle, and the concerns the Scahill piece represents.
Last week, the New York Times carried another investigative news article on the role of Blackwater. The article's contents were important but unsurprising, especially given all we have discovered in recent weeks. Essentially, Blackwater employees took part in raids with the CIA in both Iraq and Afghanistan, not just blurring the line between state and non state actors in war, but wholly obliterating it.

I want to make a few points. First, the rise of Blackwater's operational role speaks loudly to the overreach of executive power in the Bush White House. The Scahill piece makes clear that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the one who pushed hard for JSOC (under the stewardship of Stanley McChrystal) taking a greater burdens on the ground in America's numerous wars. Why did he do this? Because when approaching the commander of Special Forces, Rumsfeld (and Dick Cheney, no doubt) did not like what they heard in terms of the extent to which their dictates would be followed. So they simply bypassed Special Ops, and built a parallel relationship with JSOC -- outside the purview of Special Ops. As usual, when it came to Rummie and Cheney, if there wasn't a way to do what they wanted legally and through the proper channels, they created their own law and modus operandi.

Second, both the NYT and the Scahill piece speak to a disturbing example of the old revolving door problem. Usually, the revolving door speaks to people working in the private sector and then switching to a government job overseeing that sector (or vice versa). So for example, we can consider Dick Cheney hopping from Halliburton to the Vice Presidency. For obvious reasons to do with conflicts of interest, the revolving door is not very popular. But what the NYT and Scahill pieces show that it is very applicable to the military world too, an area in which you would expect the lines between government and private sectors to be most stark. For instance, we are told that Blackwater's operational staff is essentially populated by ex-CIA and ex-JSOC people who simply wanted more money. Indeed, this is why Blackwater proved to be the agency of choice for the respective government agencies; they were essentially hiring their erstwhile colleagues in different uniforms.

Third, at a macro level, the widespread use of Blackwater says something about how thin the U.S. is stretched. It is clear that the U.S.'s goals and means are simply not aligned; it wants to do more than it can. It is now in three theaters of conflict -- Iraq, Afghanistan, and yes, Pakistan. With its enormous budget deficit, a military that is continually lowering its recruitment standards to meet requirements, and burgeoning problems on the domestic front (healthcare, education), the government is forced to rely on private sector agents to do its dirty work on the ground. That should tell the U.S. something: either do less country-hopping around the world, or make more money and tax your citizens more. You can't have it both ways.

My apologies for taking so long to get the third post out; I've just been insanely busy. I know it wasn't exactly worth the wait -- some priceless insights are contained above, I know -- but I did want to get my thoughts out there. Suffice it to say, I think this is one of the more dangerous developments to take place in war as practice in recent times. Conversely, as a student of international relations and war, the ever-expanding role of private contractors presents a number of questions for theorists of war and security studies. I actually have a friend here at Chicago who has done research on private militaries, and I would ask him to write a guest post for us, but he recently became a dad, so I doubt he'll oblige.


Brett said...

t is clear that the U.S.'s goals and means are simply not aligned; it wants to do more than it can.

That's basically been the case since the early Clinton years. There are tons of goals that the US wants to do with its military, ranging from the mundane to the major, but they don't actually want to have the armed forces in numbers enough to do it. So instead, they hire mercenaries to cover the gap, of which Blackwater is only part.

Anonymous said...

"some priceless insights are contained above"

2 kilo modesty kharidoge bhai?

Anonymous said...

There's an additional dimension of recent government tactics represented by the now public data on the use of Blackwater. When those in charge want to do things barred by law, they've discovered the option of using private contractors. This started with "data mining" companies that are able to gather every detail of personal information on citizens. The federal government is barred from doing this. Under Bush-Cheney, data mining comopanies went form a few million dollar a year concern to several billion dollars a year.

Blackwater represents the military verion on this tactic. They're dispatched to hot spots to augment U.S. troops and also to provide "flexibility" in case it is needed.

U.S. citizens are getting very good at findindg out all sorts of things but when a private concern is assigned, there's a much harder road to discovery ... and the private firm can always threaten to sue those releasing information.

The Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, terminated Blackwater's contract to load Drones in response to the recent publicity. There are more contracts in place and no order was given to terminate the entire relationship.

The priorities here are 1) maintaining the fragile financial system (with the executives who caused the problems remaining in place); 2) maintaining a presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and avoiding a serious examination of what's behind that; and 3) retaining power, across the board. The needs of the people are further down the list.

Michael Collins