Blackwater is bad news, currently quite literally. The firm, established in 1997, has evolved into one of the most prominent — and profitable — of a growing array of sizable corporations that provide military security services, including firepower.
The current rapidly escalating controversy results from allegations that Blackwater personnel opened fire and killed civilians in Iraq without defensible provocation. The Iraq government for the moment has banned the firm from further operations in the country.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has publicly apologized for the incident, but otherwise the administration is reacting with diplomatic doubletalk, stressing contractors don’t readily fall under U.S. or Iraqi laws. Early in the American occupation, a directive was issued insulating American personnel from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
The ranks of the company are populated with very experienced U.S. military veterans, many quite highly paid. Retired career officers and noncommissioned officers are to be found in large numbers. Contractors include former Army Green Berets and Navy SEALS, personnel highly trained in very specialized aspects of warfare.
Last spring, a Carthage College Heritage class included an impressive young U.S. Marine Corps reservist who had just returned from a tour in Iraq, including combat duty in Fallujah. His leadership qualities were self-evident, and he was kind enough to agree to lead two sessions of the class, which dealt with the cultural differences evident between Muslim and Western societies.
In the course of the class discussion, he volunteered that the military contractors create some of the biggest problems faced by the U.S. military on the ground in Iraq. The contractors often travel in heavily armed convoys, tend to be nervous in strange territory and very quick to open fire, to devastating effect. The Marine Iraq vet emphasized that he and his comrades had to deal with the carnage — and rage — left in the wake of these corporate killers passing through. Neither Iraqi security nor American foreign policy was furthered by the actions witnessed by this Marine.
The activities of the military contractors challenge U.S. foreign policy much more generally, in global terms reaching well beyond Iraq. Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), another large well-capitalized private security firm, since the 1990s has developed extensive involvement in Africa, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.
While the company’s involvement in Angola was generally regarded as helpful to efforts of our government to engage with the regime, in both Guinea and Nigeria MPRI assisted highly repressive regimes, contrary to U.S. policies and completely outside the review or control of American government representatives. In each case, profits came first, whether congruent with or contrary to U.S. national interests.
Little has been published about this important and very ominous phenomenon. Two notable exceptions are the books “Blackwater” by reporter Jeremy Scahill and “Corporate Warriors” by P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, already aggressively fencing with the Bush administration, has promised hearings will be held.
Be attentive to, and respect, presidential candidates who address this subject; so far, none has. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as candidate and president, constantly addressed national security challenges in a manner that married ethical concern with practical realism and common sense. As part of his farewell address to the American people, he warned about the long-term dangers to our democracy represented by the phenomenon of the “military-industrial complex.”
As citizens and voters, we should look for representatives worthy of Ike’s outlook on politics — and on life.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)