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Trump’s pardons complete the wrongs of ‘Blackwater’

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When one thinks about the nadir of the Iraq War, many recall Blackwater, the private military company that some consider to be a mercenary organization. In 2007, it committed perhaps the worst war crime of the conflict. At a traffic circle in Baghdad, four armed Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians, including women and children, and injured another 20, many seriously.  

Military experts widely condemned the killings. “A grossly excessive use of force,” said one retired army colonel. A later U.S. government memorandum concluded: “None of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat to the [Blackwater] Raven 23 convoy.”

Killing civilians in wartime is a grave human rights violation and un-American. Did the four Blackwater contractors get arrested immediately? No. Did Blackwater get fired from its $1 billion U.S. government contract? No. 

The impunity for an apparent American war crime sparked a firestorm at home and abroad. For Americans, it was a stain on their country’s moral character. Anti-American sentiment spread across the Middle East, undermining the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of “winning hearts and minds” in Iraq. It generated such international ill will that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to testify before Congress and launch an official investigation.

For Iraqis, Blackwater’s reckless behavior and callous disregard for Iraqi lives seemed emblematic of America’s handling of the war as a whole, and helped to hasten our initial exit. “It cannot be accepted by an American security company to carry out a killing. These are very serious challenges to the sovereignty of Iraq,” declared Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time.

For the world, “Blackwater” came to symbolize everything wrong with American foreign policy at the time: two “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and crumbling U.S. standing among the society of states. It also demonstrated the U.S.’s double-standard for protecting human rights. The UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries lamented that it “might lead to a situation where no one would be accountable for grave human rights violations.”

Fast-forward seven years. In 2014, a U.S. federal jury found four former Blackwater contractors — Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — guilty of various charges in the killings, and all were sentenced to long prison terms.

On Tuesday, President Trump pardoned all four — and the outrage was swift in coming. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted: “Pardoning these murderers is a disgrace. They shot women and kids who had their hands in the air.” Mohammed Kinani, a U.S.-Iraqi dual citizen whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was killed in the incident, told BBC News that President Trump’s decision “broke my life again … He broke the law. He broke everything. He broke the court. He broke the judge. Before [this] I felt that no one [was] above the law.”

The U.N. Human Rights Office said it was “deeply concerned” by the pardons. Spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said pardoning the Blackwater contractors “contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future.” 

I’m a U.S. Army veteran and a former private military contractor. There’s no legitimate excuse for murdering civilians — and no excuse for the disgraceful presidential pardon in this case. 

There may be at least two reasons behind Trump’s pardon of Blackwater. The first is scandal-magnet Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a big Trump supporter. His sister is Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, giving him access to the White House. In 2017, he promoted an absurd plan to replace all U.S. troops in Afghanistan with mercenaries led by a “Pro-Consul,” like the British East India Company that ruled India from the 1750s to the 1850s. He claimed he could turn Afghanistan around in six months for the bargain basement price of $5 billion a year. Even more crazily, when Prince was peddling this, he also reportedly was working for China, the U.S.’s main geopolitical competitor. 

The second possible reason would be more nefarious: Trump’s pardon of Blackwater’s contractors reopens deep wounds in the Middle East, thus helping to sabotage President-elect Biden’s foreign policy in that delicate region. It’s a wrecking-ball of innuendo. 

Trump’s pardon of war criminals is an epilogue to the story of Blackwater, which began as a police and military training facility in North Carolina and came to symbolize the country’s outsourcing of its wartime responsibilities. It sets a dangerous precedent of impunity that other nations and non-state actors will surely emulate. 

Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Tags Betsy DeVos Blackwater Chris Murphy Donald Trump Erik Prince Iraq War Mercenary Trump pardons

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