Peter Singer of the Brookings' Foreign Policy institute wrote to ask us at BlackFive for a review of his new paper, "Can't Win With 'Em, Can't Go To War Without 'Em: Private Military Contractors." We're happy to oblige.
Singer has collected an impressive number of citations of Iraqi opinions on PMCs, and especially Blackwater. The general impression of the Iraqis cited is deeply negative; Singer himself feels that the effect of Blackwater and company on COIN operations is so negative that the entire COIN strategy is broken by it. In addition, he thinks that the use of PMCs allows the US government to enter into wars without sufficient popular support, as would be required were they (say) to have to call up some majority of the National Guard. This violates a key understanding of the volunteer military, the Abrams' Doctrine. Singer describes it using a drug-addiction metaphor (sections are titled "the enablers," "the pushers").
I have a few minor complaints with it, but they fade away beside the overarching one. Every single complaint directed at Blackwater and company takes this form:
1) Blackwater offers the government a power that can be misused;
2) The government has misused it;
3) Therefore, Blackwater should be banned.
To use Singers' own preferred drug-addiction metaphor, this places the blame for drunk driving squarely on the existence of beer. The blame really belongs to the man who chose to drive drunk.
The government of the United States of America is entrusted with far greater powers than Blackwater -- nuclear weapons, for example. The responsibility is on them to use those powers properly, to insist on proper safeguards, and to be the authority that ensures that all aspects of American power are brought to bear in a coherent fashion. Blackwater was not hired to win the COIN. Blackwater was hired to guard convoys. They've done so with remarkable success. Most of their members are US military veterans, who are both capable of understanding the UCMJ and American ROE, and willing to participate in an overarching American strategy. The fact that they haven't been so engaged is in no way the fault of Blackwater as corporation. It is wholly the fault of the American government.
It is, for example, the fault of those parts of the American government who want to maintain a force protection capacity without being reliant on DOD. That's understandable, to a degree, although in my opinion the failure of Interagency to be willing to cooperate is right behind a clean majority of the problems we have had in Iraq. Nevertheless, the US government had the capability of braiding Blackwater into DOD's ROE and overall strategy. It chose to prefer to allow turf battles, whereby State and others can maintain autonomy from DOD's leadership -- at the cost of their actions not being part of the COIN strategy, and possibly working against it.
None of that is Blackwater's fault. It was hired to do a job, by lawful agencies in a proper fashion. They have fulfilled the points of their contracts with efficiency -- ruthless efficiency, by some reports, but that's what they were hired to do. If you want more ruth, put it in the contract. Specify that they have to abide by military commanders assessment of appropriate ROE. Blackwater can adjust their rates accordingly.
If the American government won't or can't use these powers properly, the right solution is not to punish Blackwater, any more than it is to dismantle our nukes or ban beer. The right response is at the ballot box. The right response is in electing a President who will force Interagency to work together, and fire whoever necessary to make them do so. The right response is to write your Congressmen, and vote them out if they don't listen.
The problem isn't Blackwater. Blackwater is just a collection of talent, which the government can use however it likes. The problem is the Federal government. Here as elsewhere, they have failed to live up to their duties. They have failed to use the powers they enjoy with the responsibility that those powers demand.