Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blackwater Editorial

[posted by Callimachus]

OK, so assigned to write a newspaper editorial on "the Blackwater thing," here's what I came up with. Remember, the tone is the voice of the editorial page (but I like to toss in a few flourishes), the opinion expressed is conformable to what my co-workers would accept, and the range and depth is strictly bound by the space on the page.

I may agree with all of it, or none of it, or parts of it but not others, or parts of it more strongly than others. The last, obviously, is true, which means it's probably useless as a final statement of what I would be willing to uphold or defend here.

The United Kingdom — the second-ranking power in the coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein's tyranny —made moves this month to withdraw the last of its 5,000 troops from Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military effort in Iraq, thanked them for their help.

But when the Iraqi Interior Ministry vowed this week [Sept. 16] to ban security contractor Blackwater USA from operating in the country, a shudder shot through the U.S. government. Within a day, a cobbled compromise kept Blackwater in Baghdad.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 private contractors — the rough equivalent of six U.S. Army brigades —work for the U.S. military in Iraq. They far outnumber the Queen's Owns. Whose own they are is anyone's guess, and everyone's concern. It is remarkable that Iraqis, not Americans, finally moved this issue to the front burner.

Blackwater is a poster child for the trend of military outsourcing — hiring private companies to do jobs that used to be done by troops. The trend in the U.S. dates to the end of the draft in 1973 and the rise of an all-volunteer military. It accelerated with the military cuts at the end of the Cold War.

It began snowballing in the Clinton Administration, where large-scale operations in Bosnia and Kosovo were run entirely by private firms. Under the current administration, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pulled out all the stops on outsourcing.

At some point in this process, the list of tasks being outsourced grew from washing dishes and building airstrips to interrogating prisoners and piloting armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships.

"This is a sea change in the way we prosecute warfare," said Peter Singer, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution. "There are historical parallels, but we haven't seen them for 250 years."

And it has happened largely without public debate or legislative action. It has crept so slowly and so far that no one, even the Pentagon, now can answer for sure what are the status, rights, and responsibilities of private military contractors, who supervises them and what nation’s laws and codes of justice they are accountable to.

The Constitution says little about the military, but that little is clear. The president is commander-in-chief, but Congress administers the armed forces. It has the power to declare war. It has the responsibility to fund the armed forces — or not, and thus cut off presidential adventurism.

Declarations of war are out of fashion now. That kicked one prop out from under the constitutional check. Now, with the increasing use of private contractors to do military jobs, the executive branch has begun to shake free of the other one.

Blackwater describes itself as "a turnkey solution provider for 4th generation warfare." On such a matter it may feel quaint to cite a Constitution written in the age of sail and black powder, but the Founders knew well what follows from the untrammeled temptations of kings, and they knew the long, bloody history of Europe that testified to it. Battlefield technology has changed a great deal since then; human nature less so.