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My United States of Whatever: An Interview with P.W. Singer
On April Fool’s Day, a $100 million U.S. government contract will be awarded to a lucky corporation in the mercenary business. In return, that corporation will supply security forces armed on the ground in Baghdad’s Green Zone — the mission sensitive area that houses U.S. government employees and a gaggle of private contractors.

Hiring mercenaries is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians did it. Roman and Carthaginians did it. The USA does it. But there’s a disturbing difference about the latest wave of private operators in warfare. Today, fighting, training, advising, managing supply chains, and handling logistics in war can all be handle by corporations. Think of it this way: our military is being outsourced and our tax dollars diverted into the private sphere. With a growing corporatized distance between citizen and country, there may be no need for a national call to arms in the future. A corporate call to arms may be all that is needed.

This is the new face of war — a subject that P.W. Singer, National Security Fellow at the Brookings Institution, knows well. His book, Corporate Warriors, examines the proliferation of Privatized Military Firms (PMFs). According to Singer, privatization may increase capabilities and efficiencies, but the profit motive in warfare raises troubling questions for democracy, ethics, human rights, and national security (not to mention presidential campaigns). Mike Kaspar and I spoke with him on our KUCI radio show Weekly Signals.

“What we’re seeing in the 21st century is that the rules of the game have been changed,” Singer said. “Our image of warfare is outdated. We think of warfare as men in uniform fighting for their nation state and fighting for political causes. Well, guess what? Warfare in the 21st Century not only involves men as soldiers, it involves women and children soldiers around the globe. The causes they fight for are religious, social, political and economic. The organizations they fight in are everything from nation state armies to private companies to rebel groups to terrorist groups to ethnic groups to warlord groups to gangs.”

Why is the use of PMFs on the rise?

“The US military is about 35% smaller than it was during the Cold War,” Singer said, “but it’s much, much, much more burdened; much more greatly deployed. Unfortunately, the military has been called on to do so many things that it cannot fulfill, that it has to turn to these private companies.”

You can't say mercenary without thinking Dick Cheney. Cheney was CEO at the world's most famous PMF, Halliburton, until he stepped down (or sideways, if you prefer) to become George W. Bush's running mate. Conflict of interests aside, Cheney received a $1 million deferred compensation from Halliburton last year and still owns more than 433,000 stock options in the company. Meanwhile, thousands of Halliburton employees are working alongside US troops in Kuwait and Turkey under a PMF package deal worth close to a billion dollars. It’s the kind of arrangement that inspired Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry to declare, “Halliburton is guilty of shameful war-profiteering, and they need to be held accountable.”

When I asked Singer, if a presidential debate about PMFs would help sort these things out, he questioned the logic of politicizing the issue.

“This kind of debate is difficult to have in an election year,” he said, “particularly when you have companies that are linked to people in government. It has become a real partisan issue. Democrats are slamming Cheney’s connections. The Bush administration is lining up very tightly with Halliburton. In the long view, this could be unfortunate because we’re talking about something that’s far more important than Democrats versus Republicans. We’re talking about national security and soldiers’ lives and welfare at stake when they interface with PMFs. Halliburton and a number of other companies provide infantry roles that protect key installations, escort convoys, and protect the reconstruction teams in Iraq. They’re armed on the ground. That’s been a major concern of a lot of our forces there."

Why is that?

"Two things. First, PMF operators are not beholden to our chain of command. They’re making their own decisions — getting involved in their own situations. Second, local Iraqis are sometimes unable to make a distinction between who is an official US soldier and who is a private soldier. The cover of my book has a picture of PMF operators. They’re wearing US fatigues; the only thing different is that the insignia is gone."

Doesn’t the contracting of PMFs in these situations violate military code?

“The official doctrine of the US Military related to contractors and their use on the battlefield has two blanket rules. First, they’re not suppose be in mission critical areas — places where the success of the operation is hinging on. Second, they’re not supposed to be carrying weapons. They're not supposed to be taking over those roles where they might be confused with active-duty soldiers.”

What’s the justification used by the Bush administration for running contrary to code?

“PMFs are a real discomfort in our military right now,” Singer said. “But the military feels like it doesn’t have a choice. It’s deploying in so many countries that without PMFs we would have to reinstate the draft and call up more National Guard and reservists. This adds a political price to our operations and begs the question of whether or not we should have been involved in the operations in the first place.

“The problem in Iraq right now is that we went in too small. We don’t have the proper number of troops on the ground. That’s been a major complaint coming out of army officers in the field and also back here in DC. The result is that you have about 15,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq and they’re handling everything from logistics’ tasks — helping to feed and supply our troops — to training the post-Saddam police, paramilitary forces and army. This training is a mission-critical role. If we don’t get these forces trained, then we don’t get out of there.”

Up to this point, Singer’s responses were deliberate, reserved and politically guarded. His employer, The Brookings Institution is "an independent, nonpartisan organization." It says so in their mission statement. Singer was playing by the nonpartisan rules. But when I asked him if there's any hope that the Bush administration would consider getting in line with military code and regulating PMFs, without a beat, Singer broke into laughter.

“No.” he said — trying to hold back another chuckle. “No. I don’t foresee that happening. We live in a world where we regulate everything. We even regulate what goes in to Oreo cookies. But there is minimal to no regulating of the private military industry. That’s stunning when you consider it does about $100 billion dollars a year globally, operates in 50 different countries and is at the very nature of national security. Lives are at stake. Yet, there are no international laws that have been found to be fully applicable to the industry — laws that control who the companies work for or who can work for them."

What needs to happen to make things right?

“There needs to be an effort to build international law to regulate and oversee these firms on an ongoing basis. That’s going to take a lot of political will. At the same time, individual nations need to update their laws to better control PMFs. As bad as the US laws are, we have some of the best out there. But we need to update those laws to close loopholes and expand their jurisdiction into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. We need to update our laws pertaining to who these firms can work for. And finally we need to ask if there are some roles that are too important to turn over to private companies.”

Those private companies would argue that PMFs save the government money. Those savings, like Wal-Mart discounts, are passed along to us, the taxpayers. I asked Singer, is there any truth to that argument?

“Actually, there’s never been a study that’s proven that PMFs save money,” Singer said. “This industry is different than any other because the client — the US taxpayer — is paying the corporation for the training that he, the client, paid for earlier. In other words, the human capital — the military personnel— was created by the client. The client – the US taxpayer — trains up the soldiers. When the soldiers retire, private companies hire them at two to ten times more than what they were paid when they were in the military. That gets passed along to the client.

It sounds like the old “socialize the payment, privatize the profit” routine. Are there any other economic fallacies in the pro-PMF argument?

"The government-contracting realm often has minimal to no competition between the firms," Singer said. "As a result, you don’t get the best deal on the market. That’s been one of the allegations about the Halliburton contracts. But also, the military often isn’t very well equipped to do oversight over these contracts. It doesn’t have the troops to protect the installations in Iraq, let alone to do the accounting and be the eyes and ears over these contracts. So something has to give, and often it’s the oversight.

“In Iraq you have about $18 billion worth of contracts right now. The last report is that we had 14 guys doing oversight. That 's about $1.3 billion worth of oversight per person. That’s just stunning. I work in a think tank that has a budget of about $20 million. We have about the same number of people doing oversight… and we’re not operating in the midst of warfare with all the difficulties that that entails.”

What will the US military look like in 2010?

“There’s a longer-term concern about PMFs and the trends they bring to bear. Right now the rough standard of the industry is that it pays somewhere between 2 and 10 times the amount that a soldier can make in his or her national military. That means US soldiers, depending on their specialty, can make around $100,000 a year. An ex-Green Beret can make $300,000 in Iraq. So when someone serving in the US military is questioning whether they’re going to re-up or not, these companies approach them and say ‘Look, you can do the exact same thing and make 2 to 10 times the amount with us.’ When this happens, it should be a major concern to the general public because recruiting is extremely important to the United States having a successful volunteer army.”

In a future, with war on the open market and contract soldiers working for the United States of whatever, we may have a CEO with his hand on the red button. Wait a second. Isn't that we have now?

“In the short term,” Singer says, “I don’t see the world becoming more stable. The supply of PMFs is small and the demand is great. But over time the public will wise up to this huge industry. That’s how we’re going to get regulations.”

— Nathan Callahan, March 25, 2004

For an overview of privatized military firms read War, Profits and the Vacuum of Law by P.W. Singer (here, in pdf format).


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