Monday, September 24, 2007

The perils of privatizing the war

Let’s kick off the week with a fresh roundup of fact-challenged Bush administration assertions about Iraq.

President Bush, June 15, 2004: “I fully agree that it’s a sovereign country.”

Bush, Jan. 27, 2005: “This is a sovereign government, they’re on their feet.”

Donald Rumsfeld, April 26, 2006: “This is a sovereign country, they’re making impressive progress.”

Condoleezza Rice, April 26, 2006: “This is a sovereign government, a permanent government.”

Rice, May 4, 2007: “It’s a matter of respecting Iraq’s sovereignty, of non-interference in Iraq’s affairs….It is our goal to support the Maliki government…consistent with the fact that this is a sovereign government.”

Well, I know you may be shocked to hear this, but it turns out that this line about Iraqi “sovereignty” is just another Bush administration fiction.

Case in point: the Iraqi government is powerless to police or punish the gun-wielding private contractors who work for Blackwater USA – because of a 2004 regulation, written by the American occupation authorities, that shields all American security contractors from Iraqi prosecution. These private-sector soldiers are allowed to operate in Iraq without any legal constraints on their conduct. The “sovereign” Iraqis can’t lift a finger to hold these people accountable.

I realize, of course, that the Blackwater dispute isn’t nearly as important as the portentous struggle over a two-week-old newspaper ad; after all, the Blackwater story is merely about the deaths of at least 11 Iraqis and the wounding of 12 more, and we know that, in American politics, those faceless people matter a whole lot less than a few juvenile words aimed at an American military man. But, for the heck of it, consider this chronology:

Eight days ago, armed guards employed by Blackwater (one of the roughly 60 American firms that have profited from the Bush administration’s unprecedented war-fighting privatization program) were involved in a controversial gun battle in Baghdad. The Iraqi government contends that the Blackwater guards, while protecting a U.S. embassy convoy, got spooked by some mortar rounds that had landed nearby, and had then opened fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding the innocent civilians. Three Iraqi ministries have already determined that the Blackwater’s conduct constitutes “a terrorist action against civilians, just like any other terrorist operation.”

(When the Maliki government first tried to investigate further, the Americans reportedly refused to give the Iraqis access to the Blackwater guards in question – or to share any information with Iraqi investigators. Now all parties say that a joint probe is proceeding. Blackwater has issued a statement saying that it acted "lawfully and appropriately.")

Early last week, the Maliki government, which says that the Baghdad incident was the seventh violent episode involving Blackwater this year alone, was making noises about kicking the North Carolina-based firm out of Iraq. That threat didn’t last long. By Friday, a Maliki advisor was telling the press, “The reality of the matter is, we can’t do that.” One big reason: Order 17, signed in 2004 by American occupation chief Paul Bremer, who unilaterally decreed that all U.S. private contractors shall be exempt from Iraqi law.

In other words, “free Iraq” (as Bush likes to call it) shall be considered free as long as it doesn’t try to meddle with the Bush war-fighting privatization program. When it does try to meddle, it is deemed to be a hostage to U.S. interests; as Maliki said yesterday, the Blackwater case poses “serious challenges to the sovereignty of Iraq.” Meanwhile, Blackwater went back on the job last Friday, guarding U.S. convoys, after just a few days in the dog house.

Blackwater has a $750 million contract to guard State Department personnel, but they have plenty of competitors on the ground. By all accounts, the private military contractors (reportedly as many as 30,000 strong) have been involved in dozens of questionable incidents resulting in death and injury of innocent Iraqis. As U.S. Brigadier General Karl Horst reportedly complained to Jeremy Scahill (author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army), “These guys are loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There’s no authority over them, so you can’t come down on them hard when they escalate force….They shoot people, and somebody else has to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place.”

Actually, it’s not surprising that the Bush administration came up with an order that exempts Blackwater and the other firms from Iraqi law – considering the fact that the private military contractors are also exempt from American laws. Unlike the official soldiers (the ones who wear uniforms), the contractors are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

There has been talk for years that perhaps Congress might want to address this issue – indeed, in 2006 there was even a bipartisan attempt to make the contractors more legally accountable – but, naturally, the supine Republican majority never showed much inclination to question Bush’s bid to fight the war with the aid of the profit motive. They kept cheerleading even after the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal embarrassed America worldwide; many of the abusers at the prison had turned out to be private contractors. U.S. Army investigators had even reported that "approximately 35 percent of the contract interrogators lacked formal military training as interrogators."

Nor can one expect the minority Republicans to help police these military privateers, or even to hold Bush accountable for his claims about “Iraqi sovereignty.” They'd prefer to mask their performance failures by changing the subject, by inveighing anew against the ad (yesterday, the Republican National Committee invoked it again), and trying to frame that incident as some sort of national crisis.

A case can be made that the military contractors deserve more scrutiny, particularly since the outsourcing of war seems to be in vogue (as Blackwater CEO Erik Prince has said, “We’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service”). Perhaps the majority Democrats might want to take the lead on scrutinizing this issue of outsourcing our national security to unaccountable privateers.

Don’t hold your breath. They will probably shy away, lest they be tagged by the Republicans as “not supporting the mercenaries.”


Hillary Clinton appeared on all the Sunday shows yesterday - an act now known as The Full Ginsberg, in honor of William Ginsberg, Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, who was famous in 1998 for saturating the Sunday airwaves. I was struck by one particular exchange, with Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

Russert brought up the Norman Hsu fundraising scandal - the former "bundler" of campaign cash is now wearing prison garb - and said: "Money has been an issue that is of grave concern to the American people....You talk about the politics of change. Is this (reliance on fundraising bundlers) changing the way Washington does business?"

Hillary, who recently returned $850,000 collected by Hsu, replied at great length: "Well, I’m very much in favor of public financing, which is the only way to really change a lot of the problems that we have in our campaign finance system. You know, as soon as my campaign found out what I and dozens of other campaigns did not know, that he was a fugitive from justice, we took action. And out of an abundance of caution, we did return any contribution that we could in any way, no matter how indirect, link to him. And I believe that we’ve done what we needed to do based on the information as soon as it came to our attention...But again, the real answer is we’re spending an enormous amount of time, money and effort raising money, mostly to be, you know, clear to go on television. And we have got to solve this. It is not good for our political system. It is certainly not the way that most people I know who run for office and want to try to do something good for their constituents and their country want to be spending all of their time. And we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to address it, and there has to be a way that public financing becomes the law of the land."

Two problems with that answer: First, Hillary's campaign was actually sluggish in its response to the Hsu affair, at every stage (as I documented here). And second, Hillary may claim today that she is "very much in favor" of public financing as the antidote to sleazy bundlers, but there is scant evidence that she has expended much time or energy on that issue.

I don't recall her ever crusading for that kind of reform; on the contrary, she chose to "opt out" of the public financing rules and instead privatize all her primary season and general election fundraising (the first candidate to opt out of both phases since the rules were introduced in 1976).

Pragmatically, her decision made sense, since she thought she could scare away potential rivals by racking up prodigious amounts of private money. But, given her track record, it is disingenuous for her to now claim that she is "very much in favor" of public financing. That's just her way of trying to spin herself free of the Hsu embarrassment.


Speaking of Hillary, she is being endorsed today by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. This is noteworthy. Bayh is a centrist Democrat with a long history of red-state electoral success; several years ago, he also served as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and, in that job, he frequently jousted with the party's liberal base. By endorsing Hillary so early, he is trying to tell independent voters that Hillary is not a flaming liberal - and he is probably trying to put himself on the short list as a running mate, if she does win the nomination. I've long thought (as have others) that he would make the list anyway.