Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW The privatization of US foreign policy
Reviewed by David Isenberg
I could not have written the following 20 years ago, when the number of books
on the modern private military and security contracting sector could be counted
on one's fingers with digits left over, but there are now so many books that it
constitutes a veritable library; some much better than others.
The latest entry is by Laura Dickinson, a law professor at Arizona State
University who has been writing on the legal aspects of contracting for years.
Happily, her book is one of those that is clearly better than others.
Professor Dickinson's focus is on the legal and public policy
reforms that might increase accountability of private military contractors
(PMC). By accountability she also explicitly includes the public values of
human dignity, public participation, and transparency
One of her first points, which seems at first arguable given the now voluminous
legal literature on private military contractors, is that international law
scholars have not addressed outsourcing in a comprehensive way. By that she
means that while scholars have applied international legal norms to non-state
actors in general the category is too broad because a private contractor is far
different from a guerrilla soldier.
book surveys four broad mechanisms of accountability: pursuing litigation under
international and US domestic law; reforming both the contracts themselves and
the entire contract oversight and enforcement regime; fostering public
participation; and addressing organization structure and culture.
It is the second mechanism, in her view, which shows the most promise, although
the last one, in which she outlines ways in which the organizational structure
and culture of private firms might be reformed, similar to the ways in which
military lawyers in the Judge Advocate Corps (JAG) strengthen the development
of organizational constraints, is exceptionally insightful, drawing as it does
on extensive interviews with JAG members. Indeed, she believes that drawing on
organizational theory private entities can develop internal norms of behavior.
But there are also a number of other points, mentioned casually, that bear
emphasis. Notably that for the US, even though their numbers were officially
small, private contractors were an important part of the Vietnam War. Back
then, "outsourcing of military operations appears to have been a way for
government officials to try to evade accountability by decreasing outside
oversight of military and intelligence operations".
In actuality the numbers were far larger than appreciated. Tens of thousands of
Vietnamese and other nationals, organized in units like the Civilian Irregular
Defense Group, were essentially hired by the US government to fight the
Vietcong. At the very least they could be considered "quasi-contractors".
Although the program was initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency it was
turned over to Army Special Forces to run who, ironically, gave it much more
oversight than you see in contemporary military contracting. Yet the rational
for their use matches up almost exactly with what one hears today. Dickinson
Colonel Harold R Aaron, the commander of all Special Forces in
South Vietnam in 1968, reported that "we put them in the field for six bucks a
day. It costs a lot more than that to put a South Vietnamese soldier in the
field. And they figure about $30 a day for an American soldier."
Another example of what could be characterized as private military contractor
use was Operation Phoenix, through which the US government trained and paid a
cadre of Vietnamese nationals to engage in counterinsurgency tactics to
"neutralize" the South Vietnamese Vietcong political infrastructure.
Another point, especially relevant as it runs counter to one of the standard
arguments for private contractor use, is that when the privatization took hold
in the US back in the Ronald Reagan administration is that it did not decrease
the government workforce:
As the work of Paul Light and others has
shown, the massive privatization trend in this period did not in fact shrink
government; instead it expanded it. Whether mentioned by number of workers or
amount of money expended, the downsizing and outsourcing movement in fact led
to a larger governmental workforce. And while studies suggest real efficiency
gains and innovations in some areas, and in many cases actual cost savings from
outsourcing remains elusive. Moreover, the market has not always functioned
well. Indeed, a case could be made there is no really competitive market for
many government contracts.
However, through the 1980s the
privatization of government was largely confined to domestic affairs. Contrary
to popular wisdom it was not until the Democratic administration of Bill
Clinton that privatization began to seep into the Pentagon and other parts of
the national security and foreign policy bureaucracy.
Tellingly, privatization did not advance during this time because of a grand
political design or high-level process. Instead it happened one position at a
time for a variety of reasons; cheaper politically to use contract labor, more
readily available funding, less rules in place to impede hiring someone
quickly, contractors perceived as having greater expertise in servicing complex
weapons systems, and congressional acquiescence.
Meanwhile contractors themselves were creating niche services, making
themselves indispensable, ie, KBR in logistics, Vinnell and Bechtel on military
infrastructure, DynCorp in police training et cetera. Regardless of the reason
though the bottom line was that once a position was turned over to the private
sector it was difficult to bring it back into the bureaucracy.
After this historical section Dickinson moves on, in chapter three, to the
current international and domestic legal frameworks governing private
contractors. In language similar to that one hears in the gun control debate
she argues that "we cannot solve the accountability problem simply by enacting
more federal statutes to allow for criminal prosecution of contractors ...
there are some jurisdictional holes in the law, and Congress could, and should,
address these deficiencies. But the real problem is that neither civilian nor
military prosecutors have thus far done much to enforce these statutes."
Echoing the same point, albeit more pointedly, that private military contractor
advocates frequently make, she asks, "Why have so few contractors faced
punishment for serious abuses? Part of the problem is that the same executive
branch that may have authorized actions leading to abuse in the first place is
then responsible for pursuing prosecutions." In other words, lack of political
But more importantly, lack of political will does not explain the
difference in the way uniformed soldiers and contractors are treated. The way a
handful of low level enlisted men and women were punished for the human-rights
violations at Abu Ghraib