Thursday, October 04, 2007

Blackwater and Dark Days

The talk about ending the war in Iraq largely focuses on troop levels. Has the surge failed given that virtually none of the benchmarks for success originally set out have been met? How quickly is it logistically possible to draw down? Is it redeployment or withdrawal? Is it a failure to "support the troops" if one calls for their being brought home? Left and right speak about nothing but "the troops" when they talk about the war.

Sadly, this is yet another example of the "cage and frame" strategy that the left seems to fall for every single time. For those who are not regulars here, the idea behind cage and frame is to take a set of related issues that you don't want discussed and place them in a rhetorical cage, allowing only one -- the one that is most easily framed in your favor -- to be placed front and center in public discussion. Like a magician's misdirection in which he calls attention to his right hand with a flourish while sticking something in his pocket with his now unnoticed left hand, the passionate, divisive, and most of all LOUD debate that surrounds the issue allowed out of the cage will give the impression to the general public that free and open debate is occurring -- after all we see people yelling at each other over a controversial issue -- all the while the actual collective deliberations that are needed for a functioning democracy have been stifled.

The laser focus on "the troops" has shaped the structure of the debate. The left wants to "bring the troops home," the right wants to "support the troops" and "not let the troops' ultimate sacrifice have been in vain." But on the ground in the minds of Iraqis when you talk about Americans and the occupation, the troops are only a part of what worries them. The bigger threat to them is the troops who aren't troops, the "private security contractors" (nice linguistic frame job there, huh?), the mercenaries from companies like Blackwater.

The hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on this war have gone somewhere. Yes, several billions just disappeared somehowand we haven't a clue where, but most of them have gone into the pockets of corporations that provide "ancillary services" for the military.

The image many have of those in uniform who aren't in combat is doing the menial work needed to keep things moving -- peeling potatoes on KP, digging latrines, the dirty grunt work. That has all been farmed out, private companies like KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton) are paid millions upon millions of tax dollars to perform those functions that the military used to do for itself. The line goes that it frees up personnel to focus on the core mission. But it also is part of the conservative notion that all things are better done in the private sector. The idea is to take away as many functions as possible from all government agencies and turn them over to for-profit companies who do them better and cheaper because of the invisible hand of the marketplace. Yes, that's an empirical claim that is false. It is something we knew from World War I when the Armour meat company took large contracts from the government and gave our troops tainted, maggot infested meat and it is just as true now with companies like Custer Battles.

I remember back in the 90s (when we had a Democratic President and Congress -- mere coincidence, I'm sure), there were nightly features on the network news programs about "the fleecing of America" documenting the wasting of tax dollars and whipping up outrage. Strange how a few millions have turned into hundreds of billions and yet that line has seemed to go dark now. We place all trust in a segment of our culture in which the values are monetary and not moral and the result is corruption, surely, a challenge to the "truism" that privatization is an inherently and universally good policy. Such a challenge would seem to undermine a central plank of contemporary conservative thought, yet we see little discussion of this point in our current media conversations.

But, of course, the real problems run much deeper. Corruption and the theft of billions of tax dollars is bad, but murder and torture surely are worse. Of all of these private contractors brought in to perform tasks in the war zone, the most worrisome are those brought in to perform actual military tasks. When the government of Iraq was overthrown and the American Iraqi Provisional Authority was set up, an interesting situation occurred. There was a country with no government, no government means no laws, no laws means that those not bound by the uniform code of military justice could do anything they wanted with complete impunity. You can't break the law if there is no law to break. When the Iraqi government was formed, it was insisted that these hired guns remain in legal limbo. the result is that they operate unchecked and uncontrolled.

It certainly is not a good thing to have a bunch of trained military types with advanced weapons utterly free of command. The bad apple cases surely will pop up. And so they have. Remember those four bodies charred and dragged through the streets of Fallujah a few years back. Private contractors from Blackwater, not troops. Why would they be the focus of such hatred? Who are they and what are they doing? From a post by Naomi Wolf,

“What is Blackwater?” According to reporter Jeremy Scahill, the firm has 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, and maintains a database of an additional 21,000 to call upon at any time. Blackwater has over “$500 million in government contracts — and that does not include its secret ‘black’ budget…” One congressman pointed out that in terms of its manpower, Blackwater can overthrow “many of the world’s governments.” Recruiters for the company seek out former military from countries that have horrific human rights abuses and use secret police and paramilitary forces to terrify their own populations: Chileans, Peruvians, Nigerians, and Salvadorans.
Having these folks run amok is a bit problematic, to say the least.

Indeed, after one of the latest incidents in which Blackwater employees fired into a crowd of civilians killing twenty people, the Iraqi interior ministry had had enough of their rampages and ordered them out of the country. In a move that shows how committed we are to Iraqi sovereignty, the US extended its middle finger by conducting an "investigation" that cleared them of wrong-doing and decided that Blackwater's activities would proceed as usual.

But this way of addressing the issue, however, is problematic because it paints these guys as a rogue army, loose cannons roaming the war zone. The problem is that's not quite true. These folks not only work in concert with the military, they have at times been given control over the military.
These companies claim to offer "private security," not soldiers of fortune. Allegedly, the difference between a mercenary and a private security contractor is that mercenaries engage in active combat. Blackwater has engaged in combat operations and even given orders to active-duty US troops in battle, according to Jermy Scahill's new book, Blackwater.
And the results are horrifying.

Clearly the emblem of excess in the Iraq war is what happened at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. We know that at least some of what happened there was committed, overseen, and ordered by private contractors,
"He tried to complain and that he was told by superior officers to follow instructions from civilians, contract workers interrogating the Iraqi prisoners. They said go back down there. Do what the civilian contractors tell you to do and don't interfere with them and loosen these soldiers up for interrogation."
These armed thugs are not merely a gang loosely affiliated with the US roaming the streets, they are a force that can be used by the government to do things they do not want the military associated with. The name for such a force, of course, is a paramilitary.

Naomi Wolf's canary in the coal mine of a book, The End of America, she lays out the ten steps that are generally followed in converting a Democracy to a fascist state. Number three? Yup, establishing a paramilitary.
Without a paramilitary force that is not answerable to the people’s representatives, democracy cannot be closed down; however, with such a force available to would-be despots, democracy can be drastically and quickly weakened.

Every effective despot — from Mussolini to Hitler, Stalin, the members of the Chinese Politburo, General Augusto Pinochet and the many Latin American dictators who learned from these models of controlling citizens — has used this essential means to pressure civilians and intimidate dissent. Mussolini was the innovator in the use of thugs to intimidate what was a democracy, if a fragile one, before he actually marched on Rome; he developed the strategic deployment of blackshirts to beat up communists and opposition leaders, trash newspapers and turn on civilians, forcing ordinary Italians, for instance, to ingest emetics. Hitler studied Mussolini; he deployed thugs — in the form of brownshirts — in similar ways before he came formally to power.
So, you've got a group for hire with right-wing sympathies being more and more used as a wing of the military that is unaccountable for its actions. Oh yeah, they were deployed in New Orleans.

The Bush administration learned two lessons from the last couple of Republican Presidencies. From Reagan, they learned that if you want to violate the law like they did in the Iran/Contra scandal, you don't want to run it out of the Pentagon. They learned from Nixon, the power of establishing a parallel government, having off-the-books versions of those organizations that do the government's work so that someone will be there to do the stuff you don't want tagged on the actual agencies. Make sure you have a parallel intelligence group to get the information you want cherry-picked. Make sure you establish fundamentalist church-based groups to do the social welfare work. Using phrases like "unvarnished advice," they protect the influence and secrecy of these invisible agencies. what we have with Blackwater, DynCorp, and others is the beginning of an off-the-books military. Indeed, there are deep, deep ties between Blackwater and the Bush administration and Blackwater employees have recently been accused of illegally trafficking weapons to a group on the official list of terrorist organizations and thereby a group to which weapons cannot be legally sold. Iran/Contra II anybody?

Ought we be worried about American democracy at this point? I don't think alarm bells are warranted. But, at the same time, this bit of advice seems prudent:
Blackwater’s actions in Iraq should be a wake-up call to us here at home — to restore the constitution and the rule of law before we are too intimidated to do so.
If we are going to wake up, we need to take this issue out of the cage and put it on the table where it belongs. The debate about the war is bigger than "the troops," it needs to shine a bright light on the question of private security contractors, mercenaries, and paramilitary organizations.