The international outcry over the recent Blackwater shootings forced the world to closely examine and appreciate the complex reality of the United States government’s overdependence on private military contractors operating in Iraq. The foremost expert and most cited authority on the subject is Peter Warren Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, co-founder of “The U.S. Policy towards the Islamic World” program and author of the seminal work on private military contractors, “Corporate Warriors.” In this interview, his most recent, Singer examines the most current repercussions caused by the Blackwater scandal and private military firms within an overall context of the Iraq War, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and America’s public relations with the Muslim world.
Ok, the first question is an easy one – a fastball right down the middle regarding Blackwater [the American private military firm contracted by the U.S. government to provide security in Iraq]. On September 16, Blackwater was involved in a catastrophic shooting incident in Iraq’s Nisoor Square leaving nearly 20 Iraqi civilians dead. Are you at all shocked or surprised by this?
No. Short answer, no. Long answer is that – look, I’ve been researching and writing on private military firms for over a decade now. My book, Corporate Warriors, dealt with this issue even before the Iraq War. Since the war started the outsourcing of military functions has been put on steroids not only in terms of the growth of it, but also in terms of the negative aspects coming out of that growth. The incident in question regarding Blackwater needs to be put in a proper context. It’s just one company out of 181 other private military companies operating in that space in Iraq. The incidents involving abuses of private military contractors go back to the starting of the war. This includes the incidents at Abu Ghraib and the private contractor Aegis Trophy’s infamous video of 2005 (a video posted online by Aegis employees showing them shooting at Iraqi civilians). You also had the Triple Canopy shootings lawsuit in ’06. Blackwater is just one of the companies in the game.
Within Blackwater itself there have been multiple incidents well before this most recent one. An example is The Christmas Eve shooting where a Blackwater contractor allegedly got drunk, got into an argument inside the Green Zone with one of the Iraqi Vice President’s security guards, and then shot him and killed him. It’s been over 10 months since that happened. Weeks before the Nisoor Square shooting, there were multiple incidents involving the Iraqi Interior Ministry. There was one such incident where an Interior Ministry employee was killed, one where there was an armed standoff between Blackwater contractors and the Iraqi police in which the U.S. military actually had to intervene. One of the U.S. government officials, embedded in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, described this as a “powder keg of anger.” That powder keg exploded several weeks later (Nisoor Square). To answer your question, no, I wasn’t surprised. Absolutely not.
The Iraqi government had some harsh words recently for Blackwater, publicly saying, “Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in the country.” Could this statement also describe the conduct of the U.S. forces and other American private firms operating in Iraq?
The Iraqi government understands that Blackwater is only one player within a much larger industry – the Iraqis understand that also. [Blackwater] has become some sort of a symbol. If you ask most contractors, I am dubious that they would see themselves as “guests of the Iraqi government.” Most see themselves carrying out a contract, and the client in that contract is not the Iraqi government. It usually is the United States government or United States subcontractors. They view Iraqi governments with a great deal of suspicion. Remember, we are talking about an Iraqi Interior Ministry that just couple of weeks ago an investigation board found to be completely corrupt. The Ministry acted basically as a cover for a number of sectarian militias operating in Iraq, and the recommendation of the investigation board was that the best thing one can do for Iraq was to shut the Ministry down and start over again. So there are a lot of fingers that can be pointed in lot of directions.
At the end of the day, Iraq is starting to act like sovereign state. Sovereign states want to control the forces within their borders – that’s what makes them sovereign. That holds equally true for sectarian militia as it does for private military firms operating out there. They are outside the control of the government, or at least what should be the control of government. The point is if Iraq is to be a sovereign state, it needs to be resting control over this, and to be honest, this is how you get the U.S. out of there – you let Iraq have institutions that are able to carry out their jobs as a government.
Has the global microscope on the Blackwater scandal caused an overall strain between the Iraqi and US governments? If so, what are the repercussions in the “Muslim world” and also on the ground when dealing with the Iraqi insurgency?
The United States government aspect of it is – that the unfortunate truth is while contractors are carrying out a number of critical and important missions, the overall effect of their use has actually been undermining rather than assisting U.S. operations and goals. It extends all the way to tactical levels on the field to the grand strategic world.
To the question of the relationship between the Iraqi and U.S. government, it’s very interesting. Remember, you need to put this into context. One week before the shootings in Nisoor Square, General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker (the U.S. envoy to Iraq) testified to Congress about the “surge strategy.” Now, there was huge debate whether the military aspects of the surge strategy were being met or not. They really went back and forth on that. Now, one thing they did talk about was the 43 Iraqi citizens who were shot in Baghdad alone by private contractors that same week. When we talk about what President Bush refers to as a “return to normalcy” in Iraq – this doesn’t feel all that normal, does it? There was no debate at all about the political aspects. Everyone on both sides of the aisle (in Congress) universally agreed that in the year ahead we would have to press the Iraqi government to finally take some action on the political benchmarks. The key to the “surge strategy” success was dependant on this.
Now, let’s move forward just one week – within the span of that 20 minute Blackwater gun fight (Nisoor Square) – that whole strategy falls by the wayside. A couple hours later, Secretary Condoleeza Rice calls up Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki – which is extraordinary because she normally doesn’t call him. When she calls to speak with him personally, she doesn’t press him on the really important issues, such as, “We need you to pass the oil law,” or “We need you to deal with the amnesty issues” – both critical political benchmarks. Instead, she calls to express her sympathies and to apologize for this Blackwater incident. Over the next week, she and Ambassador Crocker have to keep going back to the Iraqis, and they are almost actually begging them to let Blackwater get back into business [resuming their routine operations in Iraq], because if Blackwater can’t operate, then the United States embassy is effectively shut down. This is the complete vulnerability that the United States has created for our operations there in Iraq by depending on private contractors.
One week later, Bush meets with Prime Minister Maliki face to face. They were already scheduled to have this meeting, but now the whole point of the meeting changes. Top of the agenda is no longer, “Prime Minister Maliki, we really need you to get serious about these sectarian killings, because if they don’t end, we don’t end this war, and I don’t get my troops home.” Instead, top of the agenda is Blackwater. So, basically this a manner in which private contractor action completely skews the relationship between two governments and undermines the overall strategy.
Now, the second question asks what does this do to the broader, as some people like to say “war of ideas,” or however you want to phrase it, regarding the broader Muslim world. And here, too, this is a complete hammer to our image; a hammer to our public diplomacy. Some U.S. military officers on the scene described this as “bad as Abu Ghraib.” I personally disagree with that, but it points to the level of negativity. While private contractors are seen as convenient, temporary manpower shift, it’s a way of dis-involving your public (American citizens), and it doesn’t play that way “outside” [Iraq]. When incidents happen, the Iraqis don’t just focus on the private companies, instead they blame the U.S. government.
The Blackwater Nisoor Square shooting incident resonated negatively not only inside Iraq but throughout the Muslim world. A variety of major media out there in the Middle East, like Al Jazeera, reported on the Blackwater contractors as “an army that seeks fame, fortune and thrills away from all considerations and ethics of military honor. The employees are known for their roughness, they are known for shooting indiscriminately at vehicles or pedestrians.” Even the Daily Star, the regional English language newspaper which is probably one of the most moderate voices in the region, compared the uses of the company to the Mahdi army (the militant Shiite insurgency in Iraq) and put the Mahdi army in a positive light saying “at least they can plausibly claim to be defending their community. No foreign mercenary can plead similar motivations. So, all of them should go.”
These are all really major quotes, but the timing of it happens at the very same moment that Secretary Rice is in the region trying to save her historic legacy by jump starting the Arab-Israel peace process. Most people would agree the Arab-Israel situation is the real key in sucking the poison out of Muslim-U.S. relations. And instead of her efforts being positive for any kind of U.S. public diplomacy, every commentator [in Iraq] called the conference she was attending “The Blackwater-Black Heart Conference.” It is just a hammer blow to our public diplomacy. The second thing which is fascinating to me is the reaction by Blackwater. While the Arab press is roiling, and it’s being covered in other parts of the Muslim world like Indonesia and Pakistan negatively, how did the company react?
That’s a great lead in to a question I have regarding Erick Prince, the chairman and owner of Blackwater, who recently testified on Capitol Hill and predictably defended his company’s actions.I was there for all 5 hours of it.
Were you just steaming in the back, fuming the whole time?
Yes (Laughs). To be completely honest.
If you were on the panel, what questions would you have asked? Some key questions you thought were on point and went unasked by the panel?
Well the event played out two ways. One side was craven and the other side was clueless. One side kept going, “Mr. Prince tell us how great you are, tell us how wonderful you are, tell us how special you are.” The other side asked questions that were scatterbrained, all over the place, and didn’t deal with the issue at hand. So, I have here a couple of questions that would have been interesting if answered. I would have asked him bout the series of incidents involving his company that date back to 2004. They range from sending out men on a mission to Fallujah without proper equipment, vehicles, training, or even good directions that led to their death, as well helping the Iraqi insurgency.
A simple yes or no question would have been, “Has your firm, based on these patterns of incidents, faced any legal or disciplinary actions from the U.S. government? Have they (the guilty contractors) ever been prosecuted, or lost a contract, or been fined for anything based on this?” Because it seems, as far as the record shows, that the only people to take action, to create consequences when there has been negative effect, has not been the folks paying these contractors (the U.S. Government). It’s been three groups only: the four mothers of the Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah, the parents of the men who were killed in the Blackwater plane crash that resulted from their firm’s actions in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi government that just got fed up waiting for our government to do something.
Here’s another question I would’ve asked: “We understand that you fired the person that got into a drunken argument on Christmas Eve and killed the Iraqi Vice President’s security guard. Our question is who flew him out of the country? Which entity made the decision to get that individual out of the country 36 hours after they potentially committed a murder, which in effect assured prosecution would be difficult and impede the investigation? Was Blackwater operating under its own discretion? Or, were they ordered to do so by its clients and the State Department? Who was it?”
Another one is “why do your helicopters in Iraq not carry any identifying insignia, such as the numbers painted on U.S. Army vehicles? Is there something that sets the company aside from standard U.S. tactics?” It would have been very interesting to ask him, “Isn’t it interesting that the same government individual, who has been reported by one investigative committee to have made the initial decision for Blackwater to get its first contract, is the brother of the current State Department Inspector General, who was found, by the same committee, to have intervened in preventing an investigation into Blackwater’s illegal activity?”
These are some examples of the actual questions we could’ve asked. Instead, one side wanted to talk about everything from Moveon.org to diabetes medication. And the other side oddly kept asking Eric Prince why he didn’t prosecute his employees, but conceded ultimately that he couldn’t because he was just a C.E.O. of a company. However, what’s good is that no one can claim they don’t know about this anymore. Now, when there are negative consequences, [the U.S.] has to deal with them. But they couldn’t claim that before. For example, in 2006 in a public setting right across the street from me, President Bush was asked about the legal status and accountability of private military contractors in Iraq. One student questioned him, and Bush answered with a giggle – you can see this on the web, just Google it – Bush ultimately said, “I’m gonna ask Rumsfeld about it when I get back.” If that question had been answered a year ago, we wouldn’t be in this problem today, but, it wasn’t.
Your research has borne many egregious example of private contractors’ reckless conduct in Iraq – including the Blackwater shootings, CACI and Titan firms responsible for the notorious Abu Ghraib interrogations, and Aegis Company’s “trophy video” in which they posted a video of them shooting at civilians to an Elvis song on the net. What I and others want to know is what legal repercussions do they face, if any, under international law and U.S. law?
What could happen, or what will happen? I mean there are multiple laws that could be applied. Iraqis are claiming that since Blackwater didn’t have a license to operate in Iraq, they didn’t fall under the immunity laws protecting other private military contractors (initiated under Paul Bremer in 2003 as head of the CPA). They also say they want Blackwater to pay over $100 million dollars to the families of the shooting victims. So, instead of sounding like they were trying to ensure rule of law, it actually sounded like an extortion attempt. They undermined their stance.
Now, there’s also application of U.S. civilian law. There is a law in the books called Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA). Basically, it says if you are working for the U.S. government abroad in a military setting, and you commit a felony, then we can potentially prosecute you back home. It has only been utilized twice in Iraq. One time when a contractor came back and was found with child porn on his computer, and another time when there was an attempted rape of a U.S. reservist by a contractor. The challenge of this law is that it gets difficult when you add a non-U.S. victim and a “battlefield environment” like we have in Iraq. So, it’ll be hard to ask a civilian jury sitting in the U.S. that we want you, the jury, to not only decide whether a law was broken, but whether the “rules of engagement” in a “battlefield environment” were broken as well. It is very difficult.
Another method is the Uniform Code of Military Justice – the court martial system. In October 2006, the law was changed to allow private contractors to fall under it, and it is probably the most apt one in finding these Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisoor Square shooting liable. They were involved in a combat zone, an operational setting, and the question is did they violate the rules of engagement or not? The problem of that is that the law was passed in October, but the Pentagon never issued a procedure to its JAG officers on how to actually use it.
So, is there some semblance of hope that there could be legal accountability?
Could be, but again, it’s political will that matters most. With Blackwater, it’s like one of those things when projecting the stock market, do you look at past behavior and past facts? Or, do you try and project forward? Using past facts, you shouldn’t expect anything to happen. Projecting forward? There’s enough attention around this now that you might seem some action along the side – but not major action. We’ve woken up to the fact that the emperor has no clothes, but right now all we’re willing to do is to ask him to please put a scarf on.
In your article “America, Islam, and the 9-11 War” you state, “The erosion of American credibility in Muslim world not only reinforces recruiting efforts of its foes, but denies Americans ideas and policies a fair hearing.” How does this play out in Iraq?
The U.S. was in a strong position during the Cold War with being internationally viewed as a “beacon on the hill.” It both had power, but also more importantly, popularity and respect. It wasn’t that we had the atom bomb, but it was also that we had McDonalds and Coca Cola. We had universities people wanted to come to. We had blue jeans. Now, we have power, but now it’s not as easy to apply it in the current conflict. Instead of being seen as that “beacon”, America, “the land of blue jeans”, has become internationally viewed as the “land of armed jumped suits.” And that is not a positive when you’re dealing with the problem at hand.
It is not that the U.S. is locked in some battle with the broader Muslim World. That is simply false. But you do have a really weird international change, where for the first time a state and a religion are looking at each other through a different lens – a lens of misperceptions. It is a lens of ignorance, but also a lens of anger. And it’s getting worse, and we have to recognize that. It’s actually fulfilling Bin Laden’s wishes, he wanted this kind of conflict, and it is creating it. It’s both on how we conduct ourselves, but also how we speak to the world.
Peter, you’re the co-founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World at the Saban Center at Brookings. In your experience and opinion, how do we convince the Muslim world that our actions, whether they are rooted in “regime change”, or “humanitarian” or “reform” efforts, are not mere tools of American imperialism?
Basically there was an era where the U.S. had it right, and Louis Armstrong sang about it during his jazz tours when he went around the world on behalf of the United States. Louis Armstrong wasn’t a stooge, but he spoke the truth and that compared very positively to what they, the people, were seeing from the Soviet Union. But the line that encapsulates what we need to do today is to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”
There are clearly things that are dragging us down and are not all that useful. Accentuate the positive. There are lot of things that the U.S. does like help local NGOs on the ground, and investment in education. We have an amazing spirit as a nation, in terms of not just with the government does, but what the broad base of American society does. We do that but we can do a lot more. For our generation, this is the equivalent of our cold war. This is our calling – to bridge this growing divide between the U.S. and the Muslim world. It’s incumbent on us whether we are in government or outside government. Whether we are a corporation or an NGO. Whether it’s faith based or not, it’s incumbent on us to bridge this divide.
The same thing goes for the clear negatives that are dragging us down. Those are easy to pick off, you know, most people universally recognize that while the Arab-Israeli peace will not be easy in any shape, way, or form, at least showing action on it is something we can do, instead of ignoring the problem. Same thing goes for Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay). We painted ourselves in a corner with that, and we need to find a way out.
Iraq. It’s very clear that not only now is it a half trillion dollar investment gone bad, but in terms of U.S. funds, that money could have been spent on lot more effective things. Like I’ve said, it has been hammer to our public diplomacy.
And finally, the problem with our relationship via authoritarian leaders in the Middle East region. It is clear we have struck a deal with the devils and we are not getting much out of that deal – and that is true. We can pick off the regimes where that is happening and not only does that not help our battles with the extremist groups, but it also undermines our broader effort to speak on behalf of democracy every time we cozy up to a dictator. Clearly, we have to start to disentangle ourselves and start to pressure them on some of the things they can do. An example, I’d say to a current ally, “Buddy, we love what you’re doing in giving us intelligence, although it’s sorta funny you only give us intelligence a day before one of our senior official visits. But, we don’t really like what you did to crack down on free media or that you jailed democracy activists. We are not going to turn aside from that anymore.” We have a record of doing that – that type of dialogue – and it worked in the transformation within South Korea during the Cold War, the transformation that happened within Philippines is another example. We can have a similar attitude towards our very ostensible authoritarian allies.
What of “Islamofascism”? [Is it] an accurate assessment of our enemy or a politically convenient and sexy, new term of choice by certain ideological pundits?
It’s not new, and no one likes it. It was a stupid, stupid phrase to use in the first place. It was completely politicized, and they very quickly realized that. Now, the flip side is there are certain people running with it these days to make it appear that the broader U.S. really does believe this term.
Can there honestly be a lasting peace between the United States and the Muslim world in our lifetime, or this just whimsical naiveté?
I think there can be, but it’s not going to come in a matter of years. It’s going to be generational and maybe even multigenerational if we are going to be honest about it. But the fact is there are all sorts of amazing transformation and changes that are going on in the world. This is only one part of it. In part, it’s because the world is changing so fast, but I think there are things that can happen. The problem for us on the U.S. side is that we’ve really wasted the first couple of years of this [post 9-11]. We could’ve done things more positively, and we did a lot negatively that we are going to be dealing with the consequences for at least a generation. But that doesn’t meant all is lost.
Look at the French and the Germans. They spent literally almost a millennium fighting each other. If you would’ve said in 1945, “The French and German would later be part of this grand consortium. They would have a fairly closely aligned foreign policy and domestic policy. They would be sharing laws, sharing economics, basically they are not going to be considering each other as enemies, but considering themselves as friends they can’t live without.” If you would’ve said that in 1945, someone would’ve sent you to the loony bin. So, we can take hope from those examples. There we are today.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at email@example.com.