American Mercenaries of Public Diplomacy: After Action Report

When we say we are “privatizing the means of war,” what do we mean by this? Are we aware of all the impacts of this privatization? This post is the post mortem of the event described earlier in “American Mercenaries of Public Diplomacy.”

The purpose of what was ultimately a series of discussions on Tuesday, 17 October 2006, at the University of Southern California, was to provide a forum to discuss the impact of the privatization of force on behalf of a state. From detaching means from goals to concepts of what democratic control of force means, we sought to peel back the multiple “onions” involved. We may question the $24 difference that lined pockets when a $27 / ton contract to clear debris in New Orleans is subbed out repeatedly until the guy did the work was paid $3 / ton, but we should be questioning the oversight and accountability of the government managers that allowed such a fiasco. For example, the Blackwater contractors strung up in Fallujah that created a tide changing incident in Iraq didn’t work for the US Government, they worked for a Kuwaiti-based company, subcontracted by a German company that was subcontracted by KBR, who held the original contract with the US Government.

Anchored by a screening of the movie Shadow Company, the day was a success by any measure. The screening and the subsequent Q&A session were preceded by two seminars, the first starting at 12:45p. The first two seminars included Robert Young Pelton, Pratap Chatterjee, and “Miyagi” (a former Blackwater contractor in three chapters of Rober Young Pelton’s newest book and making his movie debut in Shadow Company) answering questions and discussing the many facets of privatization. Questions ranged from the civil-military oversight of force, including de-democratization as decision makers are less accountable through obfuscation and corporate veils, to even public diplomacy. Foreign policy options and the trend toward increasing hints at empire through traditional tools of empire (hired guns, creating deniable accountability, etc.), came up.

Demonstrating the presence of the multiple “onions,” the downsized military invasion force, despite Pentagon recommendations, didn’t create a peaceful environment that ultimately required the infusion of private security personnel for reconstruction.

The need for security by the US outweighed the need for the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqis (see the US Army in Afghanistan and issues of “road rage”). Pratap cited Thomas Hammes, author of Sling and the Stone, who questioned the real value of heavy and aggressive tactics in protecting L. Paul Bremer.

“I was in an Iraqi army civilian vehicle at the time so we were treated as Iraqis” by the Blackwater contractors, Hammes said in an e-mail interview. “… The very act of guarding a principal – forcing his convoy through traffic, keeping all Iraqis away from the vehicle – irritated the Iraqis.”

Blackwater accomplished its mission: keeping Bremer alive. But, Hammes said, it did nothing to help further the larger U.S. goal of winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

“The Iraqis perceived the armed contractors as being above the law,” he said. “They felt if a U.S. soldier or Marine did something wrong, he might eventually be held accountable for it. They believed contractors would simply fly out of the country…. They don’t seem to be held responsible by any authority.”

From the permanent bases in Iraq (and elsewhere) and even the US Embassy in Baghdad, students questioned the appropriateness of entrenching perceptions of intrusion, such as “crusader castles” and medieval fortresses. One student commented on the US embassy in Baghdad reminded her of similar fortifications, er, diplomatic posts in her native Bosnia.

As mentioned above, arguments against privatization that stem from individual accountability or costs miss the point. One must back the layers of more than one onion. There’s one onion for each of the following:

  • The foreign policy options available (again) to decision makers,
  • The multiple layers of public diplomacy, including counter-insurgency,
  • Civil-military relations and the basis of control of force in a democracy,
  • De-democratizing of force through firewalls of subcontracting and corporate secrets as shields to FOIA requests,
  • Preventing friendly-fire,
  • The reality of the ‘surge’ argument supporting PMCs,
  • and other layered elements on outsourcing strategic knowledge, skills, and relationship building opportunities.

These were some of the areas touched on in the first two seminars of the day. In all sessions, the audiences were generally graduate and doctoral students, with some undergraduates and non-university people thrown in.

Comments heard after the events included one from a former consular officer (now a graduate student at USC) who said she “learned more in 3hrs than [she] did in 3 semesters.” Interestingly, there were a few people who wanted to “do something” after seeing the movie. One person wanted to know how to select the “right” PMC, but two others seemed to want to become activists (but it wasn’t clear to what end… promotion of privatization perhaps?).

Mentioned in the post announcing the anchor event was a video of the Q&A would be available. It’s now unclear if this will indeed be the case. University politics require finding another host for the feed if the politics release the video at all.

Despite efforts, awareness of the event was somewhat limited, at least in the public diplomacy community. Some did not see a connection between privatized war and public diplomacy and therefore would not mention the event in its newsletter or calendar.

The purpose of the event was to explore what privatization means and the trickle through effects that result. The experts brought in to discuss are world-class and had a range of political views. However, it was remarkable on how much the panelists all agreed that more awareness, education, and discussion is required.

(It is noteworthy that the USC Center for Public Diplomacy did not support this event and refused to include it in its regular email newsletter. This is even more interesting as I am a grad student in the public diplomacy program at USC and had to find sponsors and supporters outside of CPD to put on this event. The discussants, whom I knew previously due to my work on private military companies, agreed to come for the price of a hotel, for the cost of gas, or for free.)