Privatizing National Security: The Conservative Blind Spot

Its up to Americans who care about building a progressive alternative on national security to include this issue in their vision of true opposition leadership.
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It's not just the majority in Congress that is stifling open discussion. Word is that before yesterday's vote on the Iraq supplemental (which tipped the cost of war over $400 billion), Democrats were told during their party caucus that amendments were strongly discouraged. That's discouraging. Especially when we need to put all our national security policies on the table for scrutiny. With the budget train skidding along on sparking rims, this better happen fast or every opportunity for informed trade-offs will disappear (like defeating incoming missiles with ramped up port security instead of non-functional missile shields in Alaska).

Stifling debate also limits the kinds of questions that will lead liberals back to a governing philosophy based on convictions of progress and ideas about government problem-solving. Take the missed opportunity behind the now shelved Dubai port deal. The political point scoring didn't leave much time for much needed and ultimately more important questions: What is the essential role of government today? What are the limits of capitalism? Given the free-market cult that has dominated conservative circles for 30 years, taking responsibility for this discussion would liberate Democrats as an opposition party, and enable them to return to their roots when they have huge cover for boring old issues of government competence (As Pew points out, the word Americans now associate with the Bush Administration is "incompetence").

Case in point: We need some guidelines for the essential role of government for our activities in Iraq--where the privatization of national security is rampant. More than 60 private security companies and somewhere around 25,000 men are employed by profit making companies. Despite Representative Henry Waxman's valiant efforts to raise the issue, Congress refuses to conduct thorough oversight or even to probe the outsourcing of military public service. The irony of it all is that during the years of conservative ascendance, the one part of government shielded from scorn has been the US military. But today, even that sacred cow is being slaughtered in the "free market" of conservative fundamentalism.

Protesting the privatization of national security--as many in the military do-- has shared philosophical angles for liberals: The military, like liberals, believes in looking after the general welfare, shared risk, sacrifice for common goals, long term planning. The military is our largest public institution and Americans see it as an example of government that works. If the federal government operated in ways that demonstrated--like the military--an institutional valuing for collective responsibility-- New Orleans might not lie in ruins today. Lack of knowledge about the military and lack of confidence in the shared liberal values of the military institution has lost us many progressive counter arguments. The importance of international law and the value of collaboration (like peacekeeping) are just two examples.

Unregulated private actors wreak havoc on professional militaries. A glaring example is the Abu Ghraib abuses--where at least 37 interrogators from private contractors were operating. Between 16-22% of reconstruction budgets go to security--and private security salaries can be several times a year's salary for many soldiers. Its no wonder many quit the service and re-up as contractors--a public service hit that hurts us all.

Some great resources already exist that provide a measured and thorough discussion of military privatization. Without throwing around words like "mercenary" Deborah Avant is among the brightest thinkers on this issue. David Isenberg of the British American Security Information Council offers many initial regulatory steps for elected leaders to consider.

The United Kingdom is the furthest along in official discussions about regulating private militaries. And for an industry perspective, check out the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA).

Money likely impacts whether or not privatization is discussed in Congress. In 2001, the ten leading private military firms spent more than $32m on lobbying, while they invested more than $12m in political campaign donations. Among the leading donors were (surprise!) Halliburton, which gave more than $700,000 (during 1999-2002), 95 percent to Republicans, and DynCorp, which gave more than $500,000, 72 percent to Republicans.

That may well mean its up to Americans who care about building a progressive alternative on national security to include this issue in their vision of true opposition leadership.

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