Commentary

Lions and Contractors and Robots. Oh my!

This is my final “Dogs of War” column. Since starting in January 2008, I have covered many different aspects of private military and security contracting, but they have been only a small portion of the total number of issues worth examining.

Like any other issue, there is good and bad news when it comes to contractors doing work that once upon a time people could only conceive of the government doing.

The good news is that despite the often-superficial coverage of the issue, people recognize that the use of contractors is not going away. So rather than wasting time complaining about it, people are dealing with it.

For example, the Obama administration has launched a campaign to change government contracting. In February it introduced a set of “reforms” designed to reduce state spending on private-sector providers of military security, intelligence and other critical services and return certain outsourced work back to government.

Note I wrote “return certain outsourced work back to government.” That is not mere semantics. The Obama administration seems to recognize that contractors are now the American Express card; one does not go to war or do “contingency operations,” to use the favored government euphemism, without them. And if it doesn’t, it will certainly realize it as it conducts its own surge of U.S. military forces to Afghanistan.

To that end, government efforts to keep track of contractors like the Synchronized Pre-deployment and Operational Tracker database, while still in need of improvement, are helping keep track of contractors and thus improving oversight and accountability.

The Obama administration has also pledged to improve the quality of the acquisition workforce — the government employees who are supposed to be supervising and auditing the billions of dollars spent monthly on the contracts. If there is one single thing that is needed to make contracting work, that is it.

For confirmation, one has only to read the recent USA Today article about how the top security official at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq refused to punish Blackwater security guards for making false statements about an unjustified 2005 shooting in Baghdad because he didn’t want to lower the morale of those contracted to work security.

Or consider the recent report from the Center for Public Integrity that found the number of defense-contracting fraud and corruption cases sent by government investigators to prosecutors dropped precipitously under the Bush administration, even as contracting by the Defense Department almost doubled.

Hopefully, the future recommendations of the congressionally created Commission on Wartime Contracting, which held its first public hearing in February, will also help improve the situation.

Another positive development is that there is increasing movement toward international regulation. The International Peace Institute recently released a study that identified five different frameworks — global watchdog, accreditation regime, arbitral tribunal, harmonization scheme and a global-security-industry club — that go beyond market mechanisms and national regulations that can be applied to what it calls the global security industry.

Although the world has yet to figure out just where and how private military and security contractors fit into international humanitarian law, far more thought and effort is being devoted to it.

On the other hand, the White House has also promised to decide what work should stay in government and what’s acceptable to outsource. The introduction to Obama’s budget for 2010 noted, “The administration also will clarify what is inherently a governmental function and what is a commercial one; critical government functions will not be performed by the private sector for purely ideological reasons.”

Good luck with that. Many others have tried and failed.

The bad news is that most people’s thinking on private contractors is far too limited. Thanks to their use in Desert Storm in 1991, then in the Balkans in the mid-1990s and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is assumed that this is an issue mainly for the Defense and State departments.

But the fact is that there is not a single department of the U.S. government that is not heavily dependent on the use of private contractors. The 16 agencies in the intelligence community, along with the departments of Homeland Security and Energy, are all heavily dependent on contractors.

How many there are, what they do and how much they cost are not known, at least not publicly. If the press is the fourth branch of government, then contractors are the fifth.

One does not have to be a lefty critic of the private sector to understand that without greater transparency of their actions and greater ability of the government to monitor them, problems are inevitable.

The problem, especially for the United States as the world’s leading user of private contractors, to return to the American Express card metaphor, is this: Right or wrong, the United States assumes the role of guarantor of global stability. This is not a polemical statement, just a dispassionate reality. The U.S. military is the only one in the world that has a Unified Command Plan, dividing up the world into military domains.

Yet the American public has made it clear that it is not willing to provide the commensurate resources, at least in terms of bodies, to allow the military and other departments and agencies to do their roles. Therefore, we have the use of private contractors to fill the gap between goals and means.

Putting aside all the arguments about presumed cost-effectiveness or organizational flexibility of the private sector, it seems likely that if a nation can’t summon public support for its policies, strategies and goals, it probably should not be doing them.

The fact that articles about U.S. fatalities in Iraq rarely mention that more than 1,000 contractors employed by the U.S. government have died there says something significant and unpleasant about the character of American society. It is also an indicator of the erosion of the military’s warrior code, which is built on the principles of self-sacrifice and mission accomplishment; troops are supposed to be willing to die so that civilians do not have to.

One might note that with regard to future battlefields the use of contractors is like the use of robots. They promise both greater cost-effectiveness and less loss of life of government soldiers. In that regard, Peter W. Singer, the academic whose 2003 book “Corporate Warriors” has been widely cited in discussion of private military contractors, came out with a new book in January, “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq