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A PMC Caucus: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Print

by David Isenberg - May 22nd, 2006

Part of the problem in restoring bipartisanship to discussions of national security and foreign policy is that so many issues have been fought over for decades and thus Republicans and Democrats have well defined, if not always well thought out, positions on them. Military budgets, nuclear weapons, NSA wiretapping, preventive wars, arms control; you are either for or against. And woe betides the brave senator and representative who dares to against the party grain and actually tries to think thoughtfully.

But once in a very great while there does appear a new issue on the international security horizon which cries out for both serious sustained debate and action. I suggest that such an issue is now here; namely, the role of private military and security contractors (PMC).

As one who has followed the evolving role of such contractors since the early nineties one thing (see, for example this past paper) is very clear to me; the use of such contractors, whether in a logistical support role for regular military forces as Kellog Brown and Root does for the U.S. Army, or acting as private security guards in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous other countries, or actually acting miniature military for hire to fight against rebel groups in civil wars, which is rare but not unheard of, as the examples of the old South African based Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 19990s showed, they are not going away.

My own somewhat pessimistic view of the world is such that the international order will continue to be roiled and disrupted for some time to come. The ability of states to intervene and defeat various warlords, brigands, and various criminal groups, whether due to lack of will, or actually lack of capacity, will continue to diminish. Thus, there will be a void in international politics. And just like nature abhorring a vacuum, private contractors will step in to fill it.

Having just returned from a conference in Illinois mid-May, cosponsored by the American Bar Association and the McCormick Tribune Foundation, I personally think the outsourcing of military capabilities left the station decades ago. It has taken this long for public perception to catch up and they still only see the caboose.  What makes this issue somewhat different is that in throws into stark relief the tension between strong commercial interests, as in contractors making a profit and national interest, which is also linked to issues of patriotism and rule of law.More...

One thing is certain, reconciling profit and interest is critical. To do so one step MUST be for Congress to approach the issue in a sustained nonpolemical, nonpartisan way.

As one conference participant noted, the way to ensure more nearly that the use of contractors produces real cost savings and greater efficiency, and to make it more likely that commitments to their use will not be counterproductive, is to adopt a much more public decision-making process, with a far larger active role for Congress, together with robust oversight and accounting for both expenditures and performance.  This means closer regulation, mandatory audit trails, regular reporting, and greater public access to non-sensitive records.  And this will require a much more nearly coherent body of laws and regulations than we now have.

To date much of the discussion of contractors on the battlefield and war zones has been sensationalistic and not particularly helpful. Either contractors are just patriots helping out their former comrades, as most of them are former military themselves or they are just war profiteering moneygrubbers, who trample on human rights. Neither view is correct.

Over the past several years various members of Congress have weighed in on the PMC debate, such as Rep Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Reed. Various piece of relevant legislation have been introduced by Rep. David E. Price, Rep. Christopher Shays, and Rep.  Meehan. More of these have been Democrats than Republicans, which is unfortunate, as it threatens to turn it into just another partisan football.

That would be most unfortunate as the potential role of private military, and particularly, security contractors, is too great to be the subject of polemical posturing. If a firm like Blackwater or SOC-SMG could be used to protect innocent civilians from being massacred in Darfur or in the Congo then we ought to figure out how to let them, in a way consistent with international law.

So I would like to suggest that the time is right for Congress to take one modest step by forming its own caucus on the issue. Surely, if we can have causes devoted to Alzheimer’s, textiles, and alcohol fuels we can have one devoted to an industry deals with an enduring reality of international affairs, namely who gets to use force and under what circumstances. 

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