In September 2007, armed guards assigned to protect U.S. diplomats and employed by the private security company Blackwater USA opened fire in crowded Nisour Square in central Baghdad. The incident wounded 24 and left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, including an infant. In the wake of the shooting, the press erupted with stories about how dependent the U.S. military had become on “mercenaries”, particularly in Iraq. Some of the coverage focused on the contractors’ aggressive tactics and how they threaten to undermine the campaign to win “hearts and minds” in Iraq. Other articles concentrated on the lack of effective oversight and legal accountability of private security forces. Still others focused on Blackwater’s political connections and practices. But very few examined the larger question of what hired guns might do to democratic governance in the United States.
In recent years, scholars and policymakers have converged on the view that democracy is a key variable for predicting both the internal and external behavior of states. Many argue that political norms favoring non-violent solutions and citizen participation in governance make it harder for leaders in democracies to steer the ship of state into war. Others claim that democracies, once engaged in a fight, are more likely to win since they more carefully calculate the benefits and costs of military action. Perhaps most prominently, democratic peace theory is taken virtually as a “law” throughout both government and the academy.
These arguments all assume that states fight with militaries made up of their own citizenry. The past two decades, however, have seen the rise of a robust market for private security forces, which can now provide virtually any military or security service. Contract personnel make up at least half of those deployed to Iraq on behalf of the United States—about 190,000 people as of an August 2008 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. These contractors provide everything from logistics support to training for the Iraqi army and police, from guarding buildings and people to conducting interrogations and providing translation, and on and on—all duties formerly provided by uniformed soldiers. The number of contractors performing duties once provided by the U.S. military is greater than the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The vast majority of these contractors (or private soldiers) are retired military or police personnel. Roughly 10 percent are Americans; the United Kingdom, South Africa, Fiji, El Salvador and Nepal account for 20 percent, and Iraq itself for roughly 70 percent. They are employed by some 632 private security companies (PSCs) from many different countries that bid on contracts and hire from databases or through recruiting to fill them. When the contract ends, the personnel move on to work for different PSCs fulfilling other contracts. PSCs are more like body shops than private armies. They have no standing force but recruit once they acquire contracts, acting as matchmakers between personnel with particular skills and contracting governments, corporations, non-governmental groups or other organizations.
Before European states toyed with ideas of democracy, mercenary armies were common. But Enlightenment ideas about the social contract, so fundamental to democratic principles, fostered the idea that citizenship should be connected with military service. Even though different countries have adopted different levels of obligation, the principle that military service should be performed by citizens has been almost universal among democratic nations. Indeed, this principle upholds such key features of democracy as constitutional checks and balances, policy transparency and public sensitivity to the human costs of war. When conscription was a feature of U.S. wartime mobilization, constituents were more likely to pressure their Congressmen to justify wars. The public demanded accountability as the human costs—lives of friends and family members interrupted or lost—were more widely distributed.
By contrast, PSCs recruit people to “do a job” rather than “provide military service.” Those deployed this way can walk away at any time. As noted, they need not be U.S. citizens. They are not organized within congressional constituencies and, given that they are often not even American citizens or residents, they may have little connection to individual Americans. So, in theory at least, this arrangement weakens congressional incentives to check the Executive Branch and masks the human costs of war.
This conclusion applies equally to those who provide logistics, training, guard duty or any other service that would otherwise be provided by the military. When a soldier dies, we do not ask whether he was a supply sergeant or an infantryman. Both are crucial to the war effort, both have died in service to the country’s goals, and both exact costs from the public treasury. Though we might agree that an armed guard faces greater risks than a cook, there is no reason why privatizing one job rather than the other matters to these democratic processes in a wartime setting. Insofar as privatization limits congressional input and reduces the information available to the public, it diminishes democratic controls over foreign policy.
That’s the theory. But how does the use of private security contractors undermine government checks and balances in practice? As expected, it empowers the Executive Branch and significantly erodes the power of the Congress. Though Congress must authorize the deployment of uniformed troops, it need not authorize—or even know about—the deployment of private contractors, no matter what kind of service they provide. Congressional involvement is important. Think of the debate about President George W. Bush’s 20,000-troop surge in early 2007. Contrast that with the politically invisible mobilization of a much larger surge of private soldiers as the insurgency heated up in the spring of 2004. That the number of contractors deployed by the United States in Iraq rivals the number of troops has come to pass without any congressional authorization or input.
If Congress puts a ceiling on the number of troops, the Executive Branch can use contractors to exceed it. When Congress caps the number of contractors, PSCs can use more third-party nationals—just as they did to skirt congressional restrictions on the number of military advisers and military contractors authorized under Plan Colombia in 2001. PSCs can also facilitate “foreign policy by proxy”, in which the United States merely licenses a commercial exchange between a foreign country and a private security company, providing for military training without official U.S. involvement. Over the past 15 years, such contracts have become common. Private trainers have gone to Croatia, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Poland and Uzbekistan, among many other countries.
Once contractors are deployed, it is harder for Congress to monitor what they actually do. Many reporting mechanisms to Congress provide no data about individual contracts, individual companies or even whether a particular mission involves troops alongside contractors. Without this information, it is very difficult, sometimes impossible, for Congress to assess the performance of different companies or the policy ends they serve.
Congress may be reluctant to assume control over contractors in any event. With little constituent knowledge about the role of PSCs in Iraq, many in Congress have felt little need to address the issue. Note that no one in the debate over bringing “our troops” home has mentioned a word about what to do with the nearly equal number of private security contractors. The budgetary and policy implications of “getting our troops out of Iraq”, however, will depend on whether private security forces employed by the United States remain. A decrease in military force levels might actually mean a greater need for private contractors.
Congress has taken some steps to gain greater control over contractors in Iraq in response to the outcry over several egregious events. For instance, after four Blackwater personnel were killed and mutilated in Fallujah in March 2004, and after the contractors CACI and Titan were implicated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, Congress required that the Pentagon find a way to keep count of the number of private personnel in Iraq, plugged one obvious legal loophole that prevented the prosecution of contractors alleged to have committed abuses at the prison, and issued several other instructions to bring contractors under tighter control. Thus far, however, these reforms have fallen short of their goal—as we saw in the aftermath of the Nisour Square incident. Individual members of Congress—such as then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), and Representatives David E. Price (D-NC), Jan Schakowski (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA)—have responded with proposals for additional legislation aimed to increase the transparency and accountability of contractors. But even if each of these bills were passed, congressional control over private security would still be minimal relative to its control over U.S. military forces.
Private security operations are much less transparent than the use of U.S. troops not only for Congress, but also for the public. The Nisour Square incident prompted a flood of articles on Blackwater and other contractors, but absent high profile events, such coverage is rare. Even in the immediate days after the shooting, the intense media spotlight on Blackwater paled in comparison to the more intense, ongoing focus on U.S. troops. From the beginning of the war through the first quarter of 2007, for every one article that mentions private security forces, a private security firm or any other reference to contractors or mercenaries in the New York Times, there are 47 that mention U.S. soldiers or troops.1
This discrepancy is due in large part to the dearth of information available to the public and the press. There is no central source for facts about the activities of private contractors in Iraq or anywhere else. Indeed, the Pentagon does not even keep track of private security deaths. It is only through insurance claims that we even know that more than 1,200 contractors have been killed in Iraq. We do not know their names, and they are not memorialized in media coverage like the “honor roll” segments on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Finally, access to information on contracts between the U.S. government and private security firms is limited. Freedom of Information Act requests are frequently denied on the grounds that the contracts are with private companies and thus contain proprietary information.
In a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation this author found that Americans also view the motivations of soldiers and private security personnel differently. Soldiers are generally believed to be motivated primarily by patriotism, while private soldiers are seen as motivated primarily by monetary gain. This doesn’t mean people think that private soldiers are greedy; on the contrary, most people assume their need must be dire to volunteer to fight an unpopular American war—especially in the case of non-American private soldiers. This might be why many participants in the study expressed just as much anger or sadness at the deaths of private soldiers as they did at those of U.S. military personnel. If Americans knew more about the use of private security contractors in American wars, they would likely demand greater accountability from the President and Congress regarding their use.
Policy analysts often claim that the obscurity of private security forces reduces “political costs”, allowing the Executive Branch to respond more efficiently to security needs. It is true: The use of PSCs does make it easier to take action without public support. But reducing political costs for leaders can increase the general costs to Americans.
American leaders are more likely to respond to calls for action from a few when they do not need to win popular support for it. So it is not surprising that, despite the absence of a strong peer competitor, the U.S. defense budget—including the supplemental requests for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—is more than 25 percent larger in real terms than it was in 1968 at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. This amount is as much as the combined defense spending of all the rest of the world combined, according to Richard Betts.2 Betts attributes this, in part, to political leaders’ tendency to underestimate the costs of the interventions they champion. PSCs both make this possible and provide fallback options when plans fall short, as they did in Iraq.
Relying on PSCs may also affect U.S. foreign relations. Many of the benefits attributed to democratic governments—their restraint, military effectiveness and peacefulness—are tied to the difficulty of taking action. Less deliberation means more military action. Moreover, it arguably reduces the prudence of U.S. policymakers in picking the nation’s battles—the attribute that makes democratic polities more likely to win the wars that democracies fight. And using PSCs reduces transparency and constitutionalism, eroding two factors cited as enhancing the prospect for trust among democracies.
The demand for private security is unlikely to ebb. Though it grew exponentially during the Iraq war, it did not begin with the Bush Administration. The private military industry developed and matured in the 1990s, when it was used to meet humanitarian and peace-enforcement goals that the Clinton Administration worried the public would not support. The security challenges posed by a globalized world have led to the articulation of new goals on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum—some requiring the use of military force—that do not fit easily with the kind of national interest behind which the public is easily mobilized. Pursuit of such goals may generate “democracy deficits”, but ignoring them also creates problems—something the ineffectual international response to the Rwandan genocide made abundantly clear. If PSCs can play a role in humanitarian intervention, many would have no qualms justifying shortcuts in democratic niceties.
Sacrificing democratic procedures, however, is a losing proposition in the end. Political leaders would better serve the public interest by working to bring greater democratic control to the transnational private security industry within the United States and internationally. Initial steps by President Obama are promising. Overcoming the inevitable challenges, however, will require efforts by Congress, relevant agencies in the Executive Branch and cooperation with other countries (something the U.S. government has approached with far too much reluctance in recent years).
But action by states will not be enough. Interested parties should also cultivate new transnational tools. Industry organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom have proposed voluntary regulation for PSCs, but much more could be done to set standards, not just for companies but for personnel based on the kind of service they provide. At a minimum, anyone working in a war zone should be required to have training and be familiar with international humanitarian law. Why not develop international standards for the licensing of individuals who perform armed jobs or those who work in conflict zones more generally? The United States, as the largest consumer of private military services, would surely have a huge influence on the market were it to adopt a licensing system.
The newly established “Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights”, a unique multi-stakeholder initiative supported by the U.S. government, could also serve as a model for a transnational agreement on private security. The principles are designed to guide oil and mining companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations in developing countries while also fostering respect for human rights. The United States, along with other interested governments, should sponsor a similar agreement for private security companies, committing them to hire only licensed personnel and perhaps outlining systems by which affected stakeholders could register complaints. Watchdog organizations could help monitor and enforce these standards, and journalists could report on them.
Finally, publics in the United States and elsewhere should demand greater information about the work of PSCs, and the media should endeavor to provide it. Private security personnel should not be presumed evil any more than military forces are. But the public should demand information about them. Who are these people? How are they recruited? How are their lives affected by the wars they participate in? When are they killed or injured? When do they kill, and under whose orders? What are their numbers, and where are they deployed? When do they enhance security, and in what circumstances might they undermine it? How much do they cost?
At the very least, increased scrutiny will alert the public to the hidden political costs of using PSCs. At the most, it will educate the public about a new factor in the mix as it evaluates the competence of U.S. government leaders and the true costs, human and economic, of American foreign policy.
1 This includes the wave of coverage that followed the dramatic killings of Blackwater personnel in Fallujah in 2004 and the implication of CACI and Titan employees in the Abu Ghraib abuses. Data and archives are available from the author.
2 Betts, “A Disciplined Defense”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2007).