Just imagine that Vice President Dick Cheney went on a visit to a foreign country - Great Britain, let's say - and that one of his Secret Service agents was shot several times and killed by a drunken bodyguard hired by the Brits. Let's say the British government quickly hushed up the crime and spirited the bodyguard out of the country, leaving him free to go about his life.
Americans would, of course, be outraged - and rightly so. They would demand justice for the slain Secret Service agent. The ensuing controversy would preoccupy the White House and damage relations between the two countries.
So what happened when a Blackwater USA security guard fatally shot a bodyguard of Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi? The Blackwater man, who had been drinking heavily, had left a Christmas party in the Green Zone last year when he was confronted by the Iraqi guards. According to reports, he opened fire, killing a 32-year-old Iraqi. The Blackwater employee was spirited out of the country, with the help of the U.S. State Department. He has so far faced no criminal proceedings. He was not subject to any Iraqi laws or to U.S. military jurisdiction.
If Americans are still puzzled by the hostility with which so many Iraqis - indeed, so many Muslims - view the U.S. occupation, this one episode ought to go a long way toward explaining the resentment. While the Bush administration continues to justify its invasion by pretending to a deep concern for the Iraqi people, the lives of average Iraqis haven't counted for much. Blackwater paid the family of the slain Iraqi bodyguard $20,000 in compensation.
Last week, the House voted to hold private contractors accountable in U.S. courts for any misdeeds abroad; the Senate is likely to follow suit. Even if the law passes, the damage is done. A heavy-handed occupation has alienated much of the Middle East.
In what seems another lifetime, President Bush promised a "humble" foreign policy. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he followed a swaggering and belligerent course, fueled by cowboy rhetoric and a stubborn, even messianic, insistence that he knew what was right. His policies were supported by a scared-silly American public desperate to believe that our military might still guarantee our continued dominance of the world.
Many of us, however, didn't want to send our own sons and daughters to supplement that military power. So we relied heavily on mercenaries from companies such as Blackwater and DynCorp and Triple Canopy to do dirty jobs in dangerous places.
In testimony before Congress last week, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, vigorously defended his company as "Americans, working for Americans, protecting Americans." Of the drunken bodyguard, he said, "We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department." He also noted that the bodyguard was forced to forfeit his Christmas bonus and pay his own way back to the United States.
For all the credit the White House takes for establishing a democratically elected government in Iraq, it is hardly a sovereign nation. If it were, it would be able to prosecute Blackwater's bodyguards under its own laws and eject them from the country. But because the State Department depends so heavily on contractors, it's unlikely they'll be leaving even if the Iraqi government wants them out. That makes our presence a foreign occupation, not benign assistance.
Not so long ago, the United States was a master in the use of soft power and the light touch: food for famine victims, medicine for sick children, visas for foreign students, radio broadcasts about the wonders of our country, diplomatic missions to beg, cajole and threaten wayward countries back into line. As Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli has noted, the U.S. Agency for International Development employed about 15,000 people during the Vietnam era. Today, it has about 3,000. Now we use our billions to hire mercenaries.
It's no wonder the rest of the world doesn't hold us in such high regard anymore.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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