Sunday, May 21, 2006

Ted Goes Mercenary

Ted Koppel's op ed in today's NY Times should set off alarm bells in the hearts of those who prefer a culture of peace over one of war. I for one, am tired of talk of war, warriors, military strength, weapons, rent-a-forces, and the kind of myopic thinking that obsesses non-stop about all of them.

The Military-Industrial complex is alive and growing strong in Ted Koppel's brain.

And to think, way back when, I assumed Ted was a liberal Democrat.

These Guns for Hire
By Ted Koppel
The New York Times
THERE is something terribly seductive about the notion of a mercenary army. Perhaps it is the inevitable response of a market economy to a host of seemingly intractable public policy and security problems.

Consider only a partial list of factors that would make a force of latter-day Hessians seem attractive. Among them are these:

• Growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq;

• The prospect of an endless campaign against global terrorism;

• An over-extended military backed by an exhausted, even depleted force of reservists and National Guardsmen;

• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideous, large-scale atrocities (see Darfur and Congo);

• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious and potentially hostile settings.

Just as the all-volunteer military relieved the government of much of the political pressure that had accompanied the draft, so a rent-a-force, harnessing the privilege of every putative warrior to hire himself out for more than he could ever make in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve us of an array of current political pressures.

In the areas of logistics and support, this proposition is already more than theoretical. In addition to the roughly 130,000 American troops now serving in Iraq, private contractors have their own army of approximately 50,000 employees performing functions that used to be the province of the military. The army used to cook its own meals, do its own laundry, drive its own trucks. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon reduced American armed forces by some 36 percent, anticipating a peace dividend that was never fully realized.

So, if there are personnel shortages in the military (and with units in their second and third rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan, there are), then what's wrong with having civilian contractors? Expense is a possible issue; but a resumption of the draft would be significantly more controversial.

Moreover, contractors provide the bodyguards (most of them veterans of the American, British, Australian, Nepalese or South African military) and, in some cases, the armored vehicles and even helicopters that have become so necessary for the conduct of business by foreign civilians in Iraq. Such protective services are employed by practically every American news agency and, indeed, are responsible for the security of the American ambassador himself.

So, what about the inevitable next step — a defensive military force paid for directly by the corporations that would most benefit from its protection? If, for example, an insurrection in Nigeria threatens that nation's ability to export oil (and it does), why not have Chevron or Exxon Mobil underwrite the dispatch of a battalion or two of mercenaries?

Chris Taylor, the vice president for strategic initiatives and corporate strategy for Blackwater USA, wanted to be sure I understood that such a thing could only happen with the approval of the Nigerian government and at least the tacit understanding of Washington. But could Blackwater provide a couple of battalions under those circumstances? "600 people in a battalion," he answered. "I could source 1,200 people, yes. There are people all over the world who have honorably served in their military or police organizations. I can go find honorable, vetted people, recruit them, train them to the standard we require."

It could have the merit of stabilizing oil prices, thereby serving the American national interest, without even tapping into the federal budget. Meanwhile, oil companies could protect some of their more vulnerable overseas interests without the need to embroil Congress in the tiresome question of whether Americans should be militarily engaged in a sovereign third world nation.

There are limits, of course. None of these security companies is likely to undertake the full-scale military burden presented by an Iran or a North Korea. But their horizons are expanding. Cofer Black, formerly a high-ranking C.I.A. officer and now a senior executive with Blackwater USA, has publicly said that his company would be prepared to take on the Darfur account.

At whose expense and to what ultimate end is not altogether clear. But Blackwater and other leading security companies are seriously proposing to officials at very high levels of the government that their private forces could relieve a number of the burdens now being shouldered (or not) by American troops. The underlying theory seems to be that where a host government is unable to protect American business interests overseas and where the American government may be reluctant or unable to intervene, there is another option conveniently available.

The Pentagon, which is anything but enamored of the prospect of private armies operating outside its chain of command, is nonetheless struggling to come to terms with what it now calls "the long war." There is every expectation that the fight against global terrorism and the most extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism will last for many years. This is a war that will not necessarily require aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, fighter jets or heavily armored tanks. It will certainly not enable the United States to exploit its advantages in nuclear weapons.

It is a war, indeed, that favors the highly mobile and adaptive fighting skills of the former Special Forces soldiers and other ex-commandos who have already taken early retirement from the military in order to serve their country less directly, if more profitably.

The United States may not be about to subcontract out the actual fighting in the war on terrorism, but the growing role of security companies on behalf of a wide range of corporate interests is a harbinger of things to come. Is what's good for companies like Exxon Mobil, Freeport-McMoRan (the mining company that has paid the Indonesian military to maintain security) or even General Motors necessarily good for the United States?

The other morning on NBC's "Today" program, Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon, was asked by Matt Lauer if his company would consider lowering profits to help consumers this summer. Mr. Tillerson had the good manners not to laugh. "We work for the shareholder," he said, adding, "Our job is to go out and make the most money for ... those people."

What then if the commercial interests of a company or foreign government hiring one of these security contractors comes into conflict with the interests of the United States government? Mr. Taylor of Blackwater doesn't even concede the possibility. "At the end of the day," he said, "we consider ourselves responsible to be strategic partners of the U.S. government." To which he then added, perhaps a little more convincingly: "If we went against U.S. government interests we would never get another contract."

It is, however, an evolving relationship that requires far greater scrutiny. There is, in the final analysis, no direct chain of command from the government to units of Blackwater or other security companies that have been hired by private corporations or foreign governments. Chris Taylor insists: "We are accountable. We are transparent." That's debatable. But, he adds: "Given the global war on terror, this is a way that a lot of these retirees (from the military) can contribute. We want to have a discussion into how we fit into the total solution set."

By all means. Let the discussion begin.


Anonymous said...

I think Koppel meant it to be partly sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, and to "raise difficult questions." But you're right, that he "doesn't get it": he's playing old-school, nicey-nice politics, deferential to the Administration, not rocking the boat, not having the courage to alienate Beltway insiders, not taking a stance, not defending it, largely allowing the framing set by others, not realizing that he's already lost the battle if he does so. It's kind of nostalgic, harkening back to the old days of Nightline, when reasoned, lengthy, rationale debate took place on tough issues. But, that was before his son-in-law, Kenneth "The Case For Invading Iraq Now" Pollack, helped fuel US jingoism.

Ken Pollack appeared on the Oprah Winfrew Show *twice* in the crucial election month of October 2002 and trumpeted the "need" to invade. This was the month when the vote to grant Bush authority for war was before Congress, and when the RNC was successfully using fear as a political wedge. Who did Pollack appear with? None other than Judith "Lie about WMD" Miller of the NYT, Mr. Intifadah Kanbar (of Ahmed Chalabi's sham and disgraceful "Iraqi National Congress" -- which was created by the US Rendon Group), and Ellie "Six Million Jews Were Killed, Therefore Invade Iraq" Weisel. A member of the audience asked Pollack: "Why don't we get Osama bin Laden first, and only THEN deal with Saddam?" Pollack sat there like a f*****g frozen fish, was silent, until Kanbar piped up with some salacious tale about Iraqi women being raped. (Terrible, if true, but not grounds for war.)

Oh, but I guess Koppel never felt a need to explain on air that his son-in-law (of the Joe Lieberman DINO school) was a Bush apologist.

Anonymous said...

Typo: "winfrew" --> Winfrey! (Of course. :-) )

Anonymous said...


Justin Cox said...

For a rundown of the problems created by a mercenary army, check out ""

S2S said...

Ted Koppel, long-time close friend of Henry Kissinger, in a context as described by Norman Solomon, Media Beat, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting:

Ted Koppel
“Natural Fit” at NPR News and Longtime Booster of Henry Kissinger
Media Beat (1/16/06)
By Norman Solomon

My own conclusion: Koppel is on the take, like Woodward, Miller, Novak, as are innumerable other reporters, and part of the Mighty Wurlitzer, which for all intents and purposes has become the entire media.

The Unknown Candidate said...

I don't buy the "sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek" analysis.
Personally, I tend to think s2s' comments are pretty much on the money.

S2S said...

I would refine my previous post to say that Koppel pushes whichever agenda is current for whichever of the behind-the-scenes factions he's a mouthpiece for (think State Department, CIA or what remains of it, Pentagon or what remains of the original, and God knows whatall other subsets, and then there's--eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!--the Neo con artists). He might change sides periodically, but I haven't paid enough attention to him to determine that; however if he's talking mercenaries now, he's doing the PNAC, getting ready to eventually comment on the unpleasant necessity of identity cards.

Anonymous said...

To think that somehow this form of providing security escapes the requirement of payment by the ordinary tax paying citizen is yet another example of obfuscation now such commmon practice that it passes for fact. That the mind numbing caluminous conduct of these corporate minions are able to continue and advance under the rubric of relieving the United States of responsibility ethically, monitarily, morally, and any other way you might wish to add is plainly abborrent, self-deceitful thinking. It allows for three card monty of the worst sort, making the practitioners worthy of reprobation in it's most virulent form. Kopel has just staked himself to that burning antpile.

Anonymous said...

If corporations can be allowed to kill in place of a government, then corporations are inherently allowed to decide who the targets will be. In other words, if every fortune 500 company in the country had 15,000 mercenaries, they would have a combined force of 7,500,000, and would be a definite threat to this, our own beloved democracy.

Therefore, I see no reason why right wingers shouldn't support this idea full-on in hopes of finally obtaining a true dictatorship with the financial resources to do just about any damned thing they please.

Anonymous said...

I don't thing the scary factor of this idea has been emphasiesed enough here. So, has the fear campaign of this administration gone so far and been so effective that we are all creating the new fear propoganda for them or is this just another clever lever in their campaign. The fact is they have set the stage for the greatest forms of terror, and a military dictatorship with a thin veil of democracy is all we heave left.

Conspiratorily this is easily dismissed but I think the idea of a mercenary army is already entrenched and this can only make the world less stable. Mercinary armies would have only their reputation at stake in the considerations of competing bidders for control of their forces, or rather application of force.

However I would like to put forth the possibility that governments without land or populations is a strong possibility and who knows? It may be better. If I can be part of a country that gives me the guarentees I want, why does it matter where I live?