Interested in serving your country after you graduate? Uncle Sam says … don’t join the U.S. Army! Instead, you can become a private contractor in Iraq. Better pay (up to $19,500 per month), immunity from local laws, plus fewer of those pesky incident reports to file if civilians wind up dead or if your weapons end up in the hands of terrorist groups.
On Sept. 16, independent contractors working for the security firm Blackwater USA killed eight Iraqi civilians (including a baby). After an investigation revealed that the Americans fired without provocation, the Iraqi government made plans to deal with the incident in court. The Interior Ministry began work on a law that would give the Iraqi government more control over the contractors and eliminate their current exemption from local law. Seems like a perfectly reasonable response from a sovereign government to the deaths of its own citizens.
Apparently not. Defying the will of what George W. Bush called on May 24 “a free and self-governing Iraq,” the United States announced recently that Blackwater contractors are back on the streets. Meanwhile, the State Department is refusing to cooperate fully in a congressional investigation of Blackwater’s conduct in Iraq.
This is democracy? Our executive branch gives $900 million to a company that an American intelligence officer has called “essentially mercenary forces” and refuses to let those forces be subject to local laws. Bush harps about Iraqi sovereignty while his State Department undermines it on the ground. He spouts platitudes about democracy while Condoleezza Rice dodges legislative oversight. And we wonder incredulously about charges of hypocrisy from our enemies in the Middle East?
According to an article in the Washington Post, several high-ranking military and intelligence officers believe that the “recklessness” and “quick trigger fingers” of independent contractors harms the American position in Iraq. It has cost the American government about $900,000 per contractor to keep Blackwater on the ground. Compare that to the $15,282 yearly salary for a newly enlisted soldier, and — logistics and deployment costs notwithstanding — you wonder why we need these trigger-happy mercenaries at all. Then you follow the money.
Erik Prince, the CEO of Blackwater USA, has a distinguished record of supporting Republican causes. Less than two months ago, he gave $20,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. He gave $25,000 to the same group in 2005. He has also made four-figure donations to Tom Delay, Rick Santorum and George Allen. If you took away his personal donations, various Republican causes would lose more than $60,000 in the last three years. All three of these men were in office when Blackwater received its first contracts in Iraq.
Is there anything innately wrong with turning political donations into government contracts? Not if the contracts are rewarded fairly — but Blackwater has received no-bid contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not if the contractor does its job well — but Blackwater’s conduct in the last couple weeks, along with allegations that its employees smuggled guns to terrorist groups, have discharged any illusions of competence.
Stories of violence and sheer idiocy come out of Iraq every day. The cost in dollars, in civilian lives, in American blood rises every moment to a new level of grotesqueness. And now our government’s defense of its mercenary contractors makes us question the cost of this war to American democracy (if Abu Ghraib didn’t already). Are we going to sacrifice our principles of open government, the authority of the law and legislative oversight at the altar of a security company with a wealthy Republican CEO?
Government foolishness stops being funny when people start dying. It stops being funny when mercenaries can tarnish America’s image with a few dozen well-sprayed bullets on a Baghdad street. It stops being funny when our State Department would rather follow its wallet than its principles.
Blackwater’s mission is “to support national and international security policies that protect those who are defenseless … with a dedication to providing ethical, efficient, and effective turnkey solutions that positively impact the lives of those still caught in desperate times.” Want to fulfill that mission, Blackwater? Return America’s money. Apologize to the American people, to the people of Iraq, to the families of those your contractors killed. Or, if that’s too much, you can just “protect those that are defenseless” by not shooting them.
Xan White is a junior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.