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The business of war

Blackwater shows the perils of applying the corporate model to managing national security.

September 30, 2007

On Sept. 10, 2001, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave a speech at the Pentagon on the need to combat "an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America." The enemy wasn't Russia, China or Al Qaeda. It was the Pentagon bureaucracy. Rumsfeld declared a crusade not merely to attack waste but to transform the military into a technologically superior fighting force that would achieve what no modern military ever had: corporate-style efficiency.

Alas, the dream of managing the government more like a business is central to some of the Bush administration's most disastrous mistakes. It was at the heart of the decision to browbeat the generals into agreeing to invade Iraq with a "light footprint," which allowed the insurgency to flourish. Contempt for the bureaucratic process doomed serious postwar planning -- after all, governmental decision-making is political, collaborative and agonizingly slow, and the result is almost always a compromise that may avoid disaster but stifles innovation. To run the occupation of Iraq, President Bush chose a man who promised to make decisions like a CEO, which is why L. Paul Bremer III made the fatal mistake of disbanding the Iraqi army without consulting the cumbersome Washington bureaucracy. And corporate thinking about efficiency led to vastly expanding the outsourcing of functions traditionally performed by the military. The biggest beneficiary has been Blackwater USA, a private security firm with powerful political and personnel ties to an administration that has awarded it more than $1 billion in contracts since 2002.

A handful of prescient Democratic lawmakers trying to review the scope and nature of security outsourcing were ignored until Sept. 16, when Blackwater personnel killed at least 11 Iraqis. Now Congress is finally turning its attention to bringing corporate-style accountability and management to contracting. Particularly worthy of support are a "sunshine" bill sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has long been thwarted in her attempts to review taxpayer-funded contracts; a transparency and accountability bill by Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.); and a bill by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that incorporates many of the House proposals. Congress also must answer an essential question that the Congressional Research Service, in a July report, said it couldn't: For which functions is the use of private contractors cost-effective? It's a bad sign that the Pentagon doesn't have ready answers.

But Congress should also debate the overarching issue: Which military and security functions should be outsourced in the first place? And which pose the potential to harm the national interest if delegated to the private sector? The traditional standard was that "mission critical" functions -- jobs that would lose the war if botched -- shouldn't be outsourced. What little is known about the Pentagon's use of security contractors indicates that standard is obsolete. But what should the new criteria be?

The Blackwater debacle suggests that at the very least, outsourcing the protection of U.S. diplomats operating in war zones -- a national security imperative -- is a bad idea. Military officers complain that Blackwater's cowboy tactics reflect its mission, which isn't to win Iraqi hearts and Iraq but to protect the diplomats in their care, no matter how many Iraqis are terrorized or harmed in the process. The State Department admits that without Blackwater, it can't safely escort its diplomats even around Baghdad. So it's disturbing that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists on relying on the firm instead of asking Congress to expand funding for the experts at protecting diplomats without antagonizing the local population, the professionals who are trained to used deadly force with restraint and who understand the standards and mission of the U.S. After all, they work for her -- in the department's own Diplomatic Security unit.

If the U.S. is to calm volatile Iraq, it should start by requiring that those permitted to wield deadly force in America's name at least work for the U.S. government. Critics who fear the cost might consider instead the consequences of the "hollowing out" of the government's capacity to protect its own, and of losing to the private sector the security know-how that is essential in a world ever more dangerous for Americans.

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