Friday, August 03, 2007

Support our mercenaries?

Earlier this summer, I attended a Barack Obama campaign stop in Boone, Iowa with a friend of mine who is working on the campaign. Sharing in his enthusiasm, a feeling of excitement came over me as the man and his entourage stepped out of their black SUV and into the bright sun. With a big smile on his face, Obama slowly made his way up the gravel driveway, taking plenty of time to chat, pose for pictures and sign autographs. Upon reaching the porch of the idyllic farmhouse, the senator launched into a short speech that touched on everything from Illinois grassroots organizing to national security. The latter came to dominate the remainder of the speech and the subsequent question-and-answer session (much as it has today’s national dialogue), and this came as no surprise. What was surprising, though, was that an important and much lesser-known subtopic was brought to the forefront.

A man posed the question: “If elected president, what will you do with regard to Blackwater?” The Iowan was referring of course to the multinational private security firm that has over 48,000 “contractors” in Iraq. I am compelled to define it here because its name and mission have escaped the mainstream media, and its influence has largely gone under the radar. Senator Obama responded flatly that, under his command, only regular United States troops would be employed to fight the “war on terror,” as it were.

The questioner should be commended for simply asking, because most Americans think Blackwater is just a Doobie Brothers song. Unfortunately, it is also the name of what is perhaps the largest embodiment of reckless Bush-era privatization yet seen. According to Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, this entity (and its smaller competitors) consumes 70% of our entire intelligence budget (42 billion American tax dollars yearly) doing what we already pay our army to do: fight our wars and protect powerful individuals in dangerous areas. It thus seems as though, because the introduction of a military draft would have meant the end of the Iraq war, Bush simply circumvented the entire democratic process and let his dollars, er, our dollars, buy some time. Scahill goes on, though, noting that an unprecedented number of Blackwater “contractors” accompanied our troops in the initial invasion of Iraq, a scenario which he argues was Bush’s compensating for the lack of ever having a true coalition in the first place. Blackwater operatives’ deaths are not counted in the official death toll, so they could continue fighting for Mr. Bush (or whomever is in office) indefinitely without the knowledge or consent of Americans, citizen and policymaker alike.

In a recent discussion, a coworker of mine likened the paradigm to medieval feudalism, in which private armies were hired by kings and powerful individuals to fight their enemies. Much like Blackwater, a soldier had allegiance only to the man who paid him, and no one else. That’s all well and good, but isn’t America a democracy?

Although the election is over fifteen months away, each candidate has been talking seriously about terrorism, national security and foreign policy as if he (or she) was going to be elected tomorrow. Obama himself made headlines recently with his surprisingly aggressive stance toward Pakistan and the disorder that has come to characterize its southern tribal region. The statement sparked a debate amongst his Democratic competitors. And why shouldn’t it? After all, nothing but bad news has come out of Iraq and everything this administration has attempted to do has been a failure. The very thought of invading another Middle Eastern, Muslim nation is enough to induce a strong feeling of nausea.

Whoever is elected in November 2008 is charged not only with the task of cleaning up the mess in Iraq (to put it generously), but reevaluating the makeup of this nation’s fighting forces. Blackwater does not represent the will of the American people. Just picture it: unidentified Westerners with guns and helicopters running around shooting and killing with impunity. Meanwhile, polls are interested in finding out “Why do they hate us?” America has gotten in far over its head, and job one is getting out.


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