Monday, March 3, 2008

Contracting Obama

For years, Blackwater USA, a private security company based in North Carolina, has been the target of wide-ranging criticism and a source of contention surrounding the flailing US effort to stabilize Iraq. The September 2007 killing of 17 civilians in al Nisour square in Baghdad is but one of the more recent and well-publicized incidents, but there have been plenty of others. These include standoffs with Iraqi police and shootings of Interior Ministry employees.

Yet, for all of their stirring things up, Blackwater remains completely unimpeded by any law or the slightest regulation. In fact there are no official statistics on the number of contractors currently in Iraq, what companies are there, or even what the use of the contractors is costing the government. Deaths of these contractors are not included in the official war casualty statistics, either.

While members of the US military are bound by US law (as well as International law depending on the administration at the time), private contractors like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy are not. Amidst the furor surrounding Nisour, when the Iraqi government threatened to ban Blackwater permanently, the State Department even saw fit to grant immunity to guards involved in the shootings, though its authority to do so was dubious at best.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 — State Department investigators offered Blackwater USA security guards immunity during an inquiry into last month’s deadly shooting of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad — a potentially serious investigative misstep that could complicate efforts to prosecute the company’s employees involved in the episode, government officials said Monday.

The State Department investigators from the agency’s investigative arm, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, offered the immunity grants even though they did not have the authority to do so, the officials said. Prosecutors at the Justice Department, who do have such authority, had no advance knowledge of the arrangement, they added.

-The New York Times

Enter Barack Obama. Fanfare, celestial choirs and all. For all of his emphasis on his opposition to the war and promise of a quick withdrawal, there has been very little discussion in the primaries about the specifics of one of the most prominent planks in his platform. (Scrutiny of policy has been lacking in general, really.) That is, until Jeremy Scahill released this article and subsequently discussed it on DemocracyNow! last week.

Obama, it seems, will more than likely keep a contingent force of private contractors in Iraq to protect US diplomats and the new embassy, which is expected to sustain upwards of 1500 personnel and be the largest embassy in history. As Scahill indicates, Obama's promise to quickly bring US military personnel home from Iraq or transfer them to Afghanistan does not eradicate the need to protect the diplomats and other personnel left behind in the Green Zone, and the void will almost certainly be filled with Blackwater and other private contractors employed by the State Department.

(Note: In Scahill's analysis, Clinton would have a similar policy, but she has since come out and said she would ban the use of contractors, most likely in reaction to the article in question. Also, Obama has staked out a foreign policy position he proposes is a large diversion from Clinton's, making his use of contractors more of a focal point.)

From Scahill's conversation with Amy Goodman, as he discusses Clinton's and Obama's policies:
And both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have a three-pronged approach to what they see as a longer-term presence in Iraq. They say that US personnel are going to remain in the country to protect diplomats and other US officials in the country...Number two is that they want to keep trainers in place that will train the Iraqi military. At present, there’s 10,000 to 20,000 US trainers, all of whom will require security, so that’s a substantial force. And then the third is that they’re saying that they want to keep a force in place to, quote, “strike at al-Qaeda,” in the words of Barack Obama’s Iraq plan.

When the Institute for Policy Studies did an analysis of what this would mean, they said it’s 20,000 to 60,000 troops, not including contractors. And right now we have a one-to-one ratio with contractors and troops in the country. 20,000 to 60,000 troops indefinitely in Iraq, this is something that over the course of ten years the Congressional Budget Office says could cost half-a-trillion dollars. This doesn’t include the fact that you have to have troops bringing supplies in and out of Iraq. It doesn’t include the troops that Obama and Clinton are going to keep in Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere. I mean, this is actually a pretty sustained indefinite occupation that’s going to be on the table if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are in office and take power.

Is Barack, then, taking a private stance which differs from his public canon? While it seems that way on the surface, there is an important facet to the situation which Scahill explored. One senior advisor told him that while he "can't rule out, [sic] won't rule out, private security contractors," he "will rule out private security contractors that are not accountable to US law." Accountability is the crux, then.

On this point, Obama far exceeds Hillary. In February 2007, Obama introduced legislation that would hold private security contractors accountable under US law as Defense Department contractors are. That legislation has yet to pass, and most likely never will, as it is vehemently opposed by President Bush. In September 2007, he attached much of the same to a Defense Department Authorization bill accepted by the Senate that called for a reporting of statistics regarding contractors within a period of 90 days.

In all likelihood, this legislation will not be in effect in January of 2009, leaving Obama in a situation where he may have to eat his words on this issue. Given the choice between no contractors in Iraq or unaccountable contractors in Iraq, it seems that given the logistics spelled out by Scahill, he would have to choose the latter. In doing so, he would swiftly create a perception of violating one of his major campaign promises and likely fuel critics of his foreign policy inexperience. Although, one must figure that given the lack of attention paid to this topic thus far he may escape any flare up as most people will be concerned only with bringing the American military home.

It should be noted that after Scahill's article was published in The Nation, Clinton came out in favor of a ban on the use of private contractors overseas. This baldly-transparent parry is not nearly enough to gloss over the fact that while Obama has fought for accountability-however unsuccessfully-for over a year, Hillary has waited until a few days before what may be the deciding round of primaries before offering us a bit of rhetorical legislation. That disparity cannot be ignored.

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