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Outsourcing Foreign Policy

The latest Blackwater controversy exposes a larger effort to auction off key government roles to the highest bidder.

by Rosa Brooks

War For Sale - Cheap! Somewhat tarnished but still offers significant profit-making opportunities for the entrepreneurial. Inquire at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. Additional components of U.S. foreign policy also for sale (including, but not limited to, intelligence gathering, humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism).

You probably haven't seen that ad on Craigslist or in the classified section of your local paper. But believe me, that ad, or something very much like it, has been circulating quietly in certain corporate circles for several years.

Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater USA (which describes itself as "the most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping and stability operations company in the world") has seen the ad. So have Jerry Hoffman, CEO of ArmorGroup, and Herb Lanese, CEO of DynCorp. The ad has also made its way to CACI, Haliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, and the rest of the corporations that make money doing the things we used to assume only the U.S. government did -- such as fight our wars, protect our diplomats, interrogate suspected terrorists and engage in nation-building.

This week's fatal Baghdad shooting involving Blackwater employees drew fresh attention to U.S. reliance on private security contractors. (The incident, which sparked angry protests from the Iraqi government, left 11 Iraqis dead.) But despite the renewed controversy, most media coverage of the role of private contractors has focused on relatively mundane issues -- the legal vacuum in which contractors operate in Iraq, for instance -- and missed the true blockbuster story: the wholesale privatization of war and U.S. foreign policy.

When I say that the legal vacuum in which contractors operate is a relatively mundane issue, I don't mean that it's unimportant. It's not. In the absence of clear rules and accountability mechanisms for contractors, abuses -- from waste and fraud to assault, torture and murder -- are inevitable. As an editorial in this paper noted on Wednesday: "The massive, poorly regulated, poorly controlled and even downright secretive outsourcing of key military and security jobs to private contractors has gone too far. Congress is overdue for some oversight." That's right -- but it's a major understatement.

What's been happening in Iraq -- and in Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia and the Pentagon and the State Department -- goes far beyond the "outsourcing of key military and security jobs." For years, the administration has been quietly auctioning off U.S. foreign policy to the highest corporate bidder -- and it may be too late for us to buy it back.

Think I'm exaggerating? Look at Blackwater. Its $750-million contract with the U.S. State Department employees in Iraq is just one of many lucrative U.S. (and foreign) government contracts it has enjoyed (and it's a safe bet that Sunday's episode will be only a minor PR setback for Blackwater).

Blackwater increasingly promises to do everything the U.S. government can do, but better. Blackwater's facility in North Carolina is the world's largest private military facility -- it's so good that the U.S. military uses it for training. Since its founding, it has trained 50,000 "consultants" who can be deployed anywhere in the world. With no geographical limits, the company is eager to prove its value. Blackwater has trained police in Afghanistan and naval commandos in Azerbaijan, and it sent heavily armed employees to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They started off offering their services as volunteers -- or vigilantes, some critics said. FEMA, playing catch-up, followed with contracts, as did a number of other agencies.

Increasingly, Blackwater looks like a miniature government. It has people, infrastructure and hardware. For instance, it is buying Brazilian-made fighter bombers -- great in combat but not really necessary if you're merely providing civilian bodyguards.

Blackwater is unusual, but it's not entirely unique. Other corporations -- some vast, some niche players -- are also eagerly filling the vacuum as the U.S. government retreats worldwide from the business of governing.

The White House's motives are obvious. Why fight another war, with all the bother of convincing Congress, if you can quietly hire a private military company to fight it for you? Why interrogate suspected insurgents if you can outsource the whole messy business? Why go through the tedious process of training Afghan judges if DynCorp will handle it instead -- as long as you're not too picky about the results?

As for the corporations so eagerly lapping up the contracting dollars, there's no conspiracy -- it's just the good old profit motive. If the White House wants to sell off U.S. foreign policy, someone's going to buy it. Prince, the former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater, is straightforward about his company's goal: "We're trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service."

Since FedEx rendered the post office irrelevant for all but the most trivial forms of mail, this means you can kiss our national security apparatus goodbye. rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

© 2007 The Los Angeles Times

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