How to outsource foreign policy

Many assume that private military companies, or PMCs, are a product of the modern age. Indeed, they experienced a boom under the Bush administration, which saw them as the perfect vehicle to privatize services that the military would otherwise handle. In turn, the process of military “transformation” and downsizing could accelerate, freeing up funds for more high-tech weapons and fewer boots on the ground.

In fact, history — both ancient and modern — tells a different story. The tradition of private armies goes back to the Roman Empire and had something of a heyday in the Middle Ages, when soldiers-for-hire fought on behalf of any baron or bishop who would pay them. It was only during the emergence of the modern nation-state, which depended on control over the military for its existence, that mercenary armies fell out of favor. Now that PMCs have staged a comeback, they pose a new tangle of legal and political issues that lawmakers are only beginning to grasp.

Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater is a sprawling but useful account of the PMC best-known to Americans. The firm gained notoriety when four of its employees — Scott S. Helvenston, Jerko Geraldo Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona and Mike R. Teague — were murdered, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. They were carrying kitchen supplies to a U.S. Army base but lacked an armored vehicle or adequate weapons or personnel to counter an ambush. Blackwater argued that the men were aware of the risks, while their families claimed that the firm was in breach of its contract and sent the men out with scant protection to save money. A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the families is pending.

Scahill’s story goes far beyond this incident, delving into the North Carolina-based firm’s origins in the 1990s as a lucrative second home for former Special Forces soldiers and its transformation into the biggest private security providers in the U.S. (It claims one of the world’s largest private stocks of weapons, as well as its own helicopter gunships.) He repeatedly emphasizes its close ideological, personal and business ties to the Bush administration and details its explosive growth after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — Blackwater went into Afghanistan to guard the CIA’s Kabul station — as well as the contracting bonanza in Iraq. According to some estimates, Blackwater’s non-classified contracts alone now total $500 million. Among other things, it provided the security detail to both L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte when the two officials served in Baghdad.

The book is thorough, if at times redundant, and makes no bones about its leftist slant. Ideological overlay aside, Scahill makes some important points that begin to scrape away at this complex and timely issue. First is the matter of accountability. PMCs profit from taxpayer money but effectively lie beyond the purview of congressional or Pentagon oversight. And unlike U.S. soldiers charged with crimes, U.S. private contractors in Iraq have been immune from prosecution since the start of the war; it was only a new provision in the 2007 defense authorization bill that reversed Bremer’s 2004 order granting immunity to contractors in Iraq.

Finally, Blackwater and other firms have strenuously resisted attempts to make themselves accountable for their employees’ safety, as the Fallujah case made clear. They argue that litigation will harm their operations, which they see as essential to national security. But the families involved say that some system of accountability must be put in place. Federal courts are currently reviewing other, similar cases, but in the meantime, nearly 800 civilians working under Pentagon contacts have been killed in Iraq.

The broader question, on which Scahill only touches, is the implication of PMCs for U.S. foreign policy — or indeed, the foreign policy of any democracy with a volunteer army. A government can use a PMC as a non-bureaucratic shortcut to achieve certain goals; under President Clinton, a PMC advised the Croatian Army in 1994 and 1995 while Congress stalled on further engagement in the Balkans. But that option leaves no room for effective oversight or genuine legitimacy among voters. This administration and its successor, as it forges a post-Iraq foreign policy, will have to decide just how much it can privatize national-security operations while maintaining global engagement.