The name Blackwater first seriously entered the popular consciousness on September 17th 2007 when 17 Iraqi civilians were shot dead by Blackwater employees, working as ‘security contractors’, in an affluent neighbourhood of Baghdad. The Iraqi government’s investigation found that, contrary to the claims of the Blackwater corporation, the security contractors had not been attacked. A parallel US congressional investigation, presumably quite well disposed towards the corporation given that it was the US government who had contracted out defence work to Blackwater, found that their use of force had been “excessive” and “pre-emptive”. Quite reasonably the Iraqi government asked that Blackwater and their men be held to account. Yet this was impossible because the US occupying forces had granted government contractors immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. However as subcontractors, rather than US government employees, they’re not subject to military discipline. In effect they operate in a complete legal vacuum.
It might not be surprising that the growth of corporations like Blackwater, in effect private mercenary organisation contracted to fulfil roles which were previously considered the sacrosanct realm of the nation-state, was a gift of the Bush presidency. On September 10th then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld addressed a gathering of the Pentagon officials responsible for the over-seeing of defence contracting. The topic of the address was a matter that, in Rumsfeld’s mind, was “a matter of life and death, ultimately every American’s”. He went on to argue that the Pentagon’s bureaucracy was stifling initiative and efficiency in the defence of the nation. As he put it, “government’s can’t die, so we need to find other incentives for bureaucracy to adapt and improve”.
In many ways this was a logical step in the privatisation mania that afflicted the American government since the days of Ronald Reagan. As the argument goes: corporations must drive up standards and push down costs in order to survive in competitive markets, in contrast to inert government bureaucracies which (barring revolution) have their continued existence assured. The problems with privatisation stem from the fact that many of the state assets sold off, often in a opaque way and at much less than their real value, don’t operate in a competitive market. By contracting out previously public functions to private companies which then operate without sufficient competition, nothing is achieved beyond making possible costs public, privatising possible gains and destroying any public service ethos. Blackwater is a particularly worrying example of this trend. 90% of its revenue comes from government contracts and two thirds of those were awarded without competing bids. From 2000 to 2006 the corporation received $505 million in publicly identifiable federal contracts. Far from providing a dynamic, reliable and efficient alternative to the public sector, Blackwater has received at least half a billion dollars in contracts, the vast majority of which were awarded without any competition whatsoever.
In many ways Blackwater, with its outright mercenary function, is just the tip of the iceberg. By the end of Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Department of Defence, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors working in Iraq, almost the same number as there were on duty US soldiers. The private sector has had more people on the ground in Iraq then all the national partners in the ‘coalition of the willing’ combined. All of these contractors enjoyed immunity under Iraqi law. The privatisation of functions previously filled exclusively by nation-states offers an overwhelming benefit to a United States struggling to retain its dominant grip on world power: it makes wars easier to fight. Not only are private contractors much more easily able to operate without public scrutiny but they enable the US government to engage in military operations without necessitating the widespread support of a public tired of watching its troops die in a war for which they no longer accept the government’s justification. Perhaps even more worrying is the prospect of private armies in the employ of other corporations or private individuals. There’s precedent for this. The South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes, shut down in 1998, has worked for diamond company DeBeers. Likewise in post-Katrina New Orleans Blackwater were quickly on the scene, alongside other mercenary groups, in the employ of wealthy individuals concerned about looters.
As well as their size and ignominious time in Iraq what marks Blackwater out is the degree of political entwinement between their management and the Bush administration. Its radical right wing founder and sole owner Erik Prince comes from a family with a long history of political involvement with the American religious right. His father was a former vice-president of the Council for National Policy, an extremely secretive and influential networking group for right-wing political activists, frequented by the most powerful conservatives in the United States. Prince himself has been heavily involved with right-wing causes in both a financial and political capacity. He’s a former Navy SEAL and was also an intern at the Whitehouse of Bush senior . While the extent to which this close involvement is responsible for the exponential growth enjoyed by Blackwater remains an open question, it would be deeply naïve, particularly given the torrent of revelations concerning the Bush’s administrations questionable relationships with lobbyists and contractors, to conclude there’s no problem here. Another more worrying question is the extent to which this political entwinement has, or could, influence government policy in military matters.
This was an accusation frequently made against the Bush administration as one of the main architects in the war on Iraq, vice president Dick Cheney, had been a long term senior figure in Halliburton and still held stock options in the company which was a huge financial beneficiary of the invasion. The possibility remains that the growth of an open door between Blackwater, staffed by former elite military officers and with a whole series of political entwinements, and the military establishment could present a serious conflict of interest. This is not a new dilemma. Former President Dwight Eisenhower called attention to the growth of the Military Industrial Complex nearly fifty years ago. What’s new is that the relevant corporation is a private army exclusively owned by a man whose political views would put him at the far-right on the spectrum in European politics.