The latest casualty of the Iraq war is Erik Prince, the brash young CEO of the military contractor Blackwater USA. His firm guards dignitaries in Iraq, and on Oct. 2 he got to explain to some of those dignitaries why Blackwater security forces have been known to flee the scene after shooting Iraqis. "Our job is to get them off the X--the preplanned ambush site," Prince said.
It was odd to see Prince on the X, sitting in Washington, taking fire from a hostile House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. During the Bush Administration's first six years, the Republican Congress provided little oversight and less reform. Meanwhile, federal spending on private contractors nearly doubled, with military contractors being the biggest winners. The U.S. now has more private contractors than troops in Iraq. Blackwater's federal workload has grown from $204,000 to nearly $600 million since 2000. You could call it Halliburton with guns, except Halliburton has some guns too.
Now Democrats control Congress. They haven't ended or even slowed the war, but they did grill Prince: Are Blackwater employees bound by military codes of conduct? Why are they so much more expensive than troops? Why do they keep causing international incidents? "People make mistakes," Prince said. "They do stupid things sometimes."
So how can they be held accountable? If you've ever hired contractors to remodel your kitchen, you know their interests are not identical to yours. It's hard to know whether Blackwater's hired guns are trigger-happy, but it's easy to see how their limited mission of protecting individuals could conflict with a larger military goal that depends on convincing Iraqis we're not the enemy.
Then again, our military hasn't been persuasive on that point, either. And that's a reminder that the new debate over war profiteering and Blackwater is just a side battle in the war over the war. Privatization isn't the root problem. The root problem is that everyone we send to Iraq--soldier, dignitary, hired gun--is on the X.