Blackwater Madness: How NOT to Win Hearts and Minds in the Middle East

Last week's Blackwater hearings provided yet another instance of how the Bush presidency has forced us to examine what kind of nation we are. Already on the table are questions like: Are we a nation that tortures people? Are we a nation of laws? Are we a nation where the judgment of the chief executive is beyond the reach of the law? And now another: are we okay with a bunch of lawless mercenaries being the public face of the U.S.?

The events of September 16th, in which, according to a military report, Blackwater guards opened fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad, killing 17, were just the latest in a long line of incidents that have been enraging the Iraqi people -- and the Iraqi government since Blackwater first landed in Iraq.

As one unnamed military official put it in the Washington Post: "They tend to overreact to a lot of things... when it comes to shooting and firing, they tend to shoot quicker than others."

Strange that we're not winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, isn't it?

Blackwater may be keeping the State Department individuals they guard in Iraq safe, but every day they're representing America in the Middle East, they're endangering the other 300 million of us.

But, hey, Blackwater is just another GOP crony company, right? When the Democrats retake the White House in 2008 all that will change, no?

Maybe. Or maybe not. After all, we learned on Friday that Burson-Marsteller, the P.R. firm whose CEO, Mark Penn, is Hillary Clinton's top strategist, had been advising Blackwater.

When the mess hit the press, Penn started spinning, claiming "it was a temporary assignment," and that it was the work of a GOP-friendly subsidiary. And Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson assured us that "Mark Penn did no work on the Blackwater account." And that "Burson has cut its ties to Blackwater and that was the right thing to do."

So many questions. Like: was it the "right thing to do" to take Blackwater on as a client in the first place? Anyone with an Internet connection could easily find out that the September 16th shooting was different from previous Blackwater actions only in its body count.

And doesn't Mark Penn, as Burson's CEO and worldwide president, have any decision-making power in taking on clients?

And: even if Penn recused himself from the Blackwater account, as he claimed to have done with Burson's anti-union work, doesn't he share in the profits of the firm? Or does he refuse to take a percentage of the profits equal to the amount added to the company coffers by anti-union and mercenary companies?

Given that Clinton has thus far refused to make Penn choose between working for his clients or working for her campaign, as George Bush did when Karl Rove had to sell his political consulting firm in 2000, she forces us to conclude that these questions don't seem to trouble her very much. And that's very troubling for the rest of us.

Of course, Clinton is saying all the right things. According to Wolfson "Sen. Clinton believes Blackwater must be held accountable for its actions." But is she planning to hold Mark Penn - and her own campaign - to the same standard?

Penn and Clinton aside, how is it that the private contracting force in Iraq came to outnumber the actual soldiers?

Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, blogged about the Blackwater hearings and had this to say:

The hearing revealed a fascinating, but also disturbing, lack of awareness in Congress about the private military industry. Members on both sides repeatedly struggled with the most basic facts and issues that surround the over 160,000-person contractor force in Iraq: Everything from the number and roles of contractors to their status and accountability, or lack thereof.

What I found especially telling, given the consistently weak grasp of the issues, was that multiple representatives opened their remarks by talking about how Blackwater contractors protected them while on visits to Iraq. They often meant this as a compliment to the firm, and also a way of establishing their credentials on the issue. But it usually backfired, revealing a lack of simple curiosity. It showed that they've known about the massive use of contractors for years - they just didn't bother to ask any questions, even when the issue was in their faces.

Sounds familiar. At this point, we might as well call this war Operation Not Bothering To Ask Any Questions.

Thankfully, a few are finally being asked.

Congressman Henry Waxman, for instance, just fired off a letter to Condoleezza Rice asking why a Blackwater guard who, while drunk, shot and killed one of the Iraqi Vice President's bodyguards, was allowed to go back to the region.

Rice and the White House are hoping that new rules they issued on Friday will stop the questions. Apparently their version of a get tough oversight policy is the installation of video cameras on Blackwater vehicles and assigning State Department monitors to Blackwater patrols. Monitors that, of course, will have to be guarded by even more Blackwater guards. Great, another fat government contract!

And though it's promising that a bill that would close legal loopholes that have allowed Blackwater guards to kill innocent civilians with impunity just passed the House, it's still not enough. As critics of the bill note, prosecution would depend on the executive branch, which, so far, has shown little interest in investigating Blackwater.

One of the sponsors of the bill, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), has also introduced a measure that would phase out private contractors altogether, over the next five years.

In the Senate, Barack Obama has introduced a bill similar to the one the House approved. As Obama says, "We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors."

Very true. So why is one of Hillary Clinton's senior advisors still running a firm that "temporarily" thought otherwise?

Of course, Blackwater's defenders will say that they're just filling a need, because the military doesn't have the personnel to do what Blackwater is doing. Well, if the military could afford to pay its soldiers six figures, I imagine recruiting might be a bit easier.

But at the end of the day, it's not really about money. It's about what kind of country we are. Do we really want to contract out one of the primary functions of government?

It's time to put an end to the Blackwaters of the world. And Democratic primary voters should ask themselves: which candidate is most likely to pull the plug on the rent-an-Army debacle?