Was Blackwater just following orders?

Was Blackwater just following orders? November 29, 2007

The established stereotype is of diplomats as cautious and conflict-averse negotiators that struggle to rein in gung-ho generals and grunts, but as the Christian Science Monitor piece below shows in the Blackwater case it appears that it’s the American diplomats who’ve been the trigger-happy buckaroos, violating even the modest safety protocols employed by soldiers in wartime. To the extent that an internal State review panel needed to remind them of that they need to make sure their guards look where they’re shooting.

Not that I make any excuses whatsoever for the homicidal rampages of trigger-happy yahoos.  If you take a life wrongfully in my book you should hang (in some cases literally), in wartime as well as peace and with foreigners as well as your compatriots.  Still, it seems that a fair amount of this blood is on the hands of State Department officials, and not for simply for being "lax" in oversight of its guards.

It appears that at least some of these tragedies were predictable consequences of the State Department’s homicidally lax policies, its excessive zeal in protecting its staff even at the cost of innocent life. Judging by this article, State had as a matter of policy given its security details carte blanche to wax civilians almost at the drop of a hat.

Don’t blame Blackwater | csmonitor.com

But the issue isn’t an overly aggressive contractor. It’s the State Department’s zero tolerance for casualties of its employees in Iraq. Such an approach makes tragedies such as the September episode more common – and it marginalizes the lives of innocent Iraqis who just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Placing so many diplomats and civil servants on nation-building assignments in the middle of a civil war has a high price – perhaps too high, as officials at State have finally started to acknowledge.

The US government appears to tolerate a certain number of casualties from the all-volunteer military. But civilian employees are a different story. Images of dead diplomats being dragged through Iraqi streets or videotaped beheadings of civil servants, it’s assumed, would undermine already tenuous public support of the war.

The very branch of the US government charged with fostering relations with the Iraqi government and people is responsible for the behavior that has helped erode support from the Iraqi populace. The State Department Diplomatic Security Service set up aggressive rules for the use of force for its contractors in what’s called the Mission Firearms Policy. These rules are more aggressive than those used by the military for its contracted forces. In fact, the Secretary of State’s Panel on Personal Protective Services in Iraq recommended last month that these guidelines be amended to require basic assurances: "due regard for safety of innocent bystanders," "every effort to avoid civilian casualties," and only aimed shots – a nod to the fact that pointing and spraying rounds isn’t explicitly banned.

That stance may have a certain gut appeal at first blush. It makes for good patriotic posturing to declare you’ll do "whatever it takes" to protect American civilians in harm’s way, but foreign civilians manage to function in wars around the globe without such draconian methods. And what about when the approach is so heavy handed and irresponsible in practice that it guarantees regular killings of  civilians guilty of nothing more than going about their daily lives in their own communities?  When the operational protocols of an organization representing an ostensibly democratic and law-abiding nation treat the safety of the local populations as so trivial that security forces are free to riddle bystanders’ cars with bullets for accidentally driving too close to a foreign convoy in  what they perhaps naively assume to be their country, you have a real breakdown in civilization itself, and on the part of its self-proclaimed bearers.

Obviously, State must and should do its utmost to protect its staff, but permitting indiscriminate bursts of gunfire at civilians in the absence of a serious demonstrated threat is reprehensible. And probably a war crime, when you really get down to it.

Now, if that’s what they have to do to "get the job done" safely then that’s probably an indication that they’re in the wrong place doing the wrong job. If Iraq is so aboil that foreign officials and aid workers can’t move about the country
without feeling compelled to preemptively gun down women and children,
then the situation’s completely out of control and civilians shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But I doubt such tactics are necessary, or that these problems are primarily driven by security. A more likely explanation, I think, is neo-colonial attitudes towards "natives", general ignorance, and the blinders imposed by MSM sensationalism and Islamophobic popular culture that make Muslims seem so inherently menacing to the average person that rational analysis of risk becomes impossible for all but the most hard-nosed and analytical. (Speaking of which, see John Mueller’s sober and eye-opening–and thus heretically out of sync with most of what has passed for analysis in the Beltway —assessment of terror threats.)

Rather, it sounds to me like some decision-makers at State were thinking of Iraq like yuppie suburbanites who wet their pants at the thought of setting foot even momentarily in a majority-black neighborhood, deeming all interactions with the "natives" perilous. It’s probably not conscious racism, but that doesn’t make the root attitudes any less irresponsible or intellectually disreputable.

As in the case of the proverbial average white senior who thanks to racially-tinged media sensationalism about crime grips her handbag tightly when a black man joins her in the elevator, that reaction is perhaps psychologically understandable on the part of the average person caught in the crossfire of war–say, a caterer, delivering supplies to a base–but for an official on the ground it seems a damning mark of incompetence to me. If the repertoire of an official when faced with a mission as complex, multi-faceted and shifting as that of bringing peace and stability to Iraq consists only of sending a  message to the naives by allowing them to be periodically indiscriminately waxed, he or she should be pushing papers in Washington, if not serving time. Anything but calling the shots on the ground in a conflict they clearly misunderstand.

Iraq’s a war zone and one with an increasingly active and menacing insurgency–a fact that hardly makes it unique in the annals of military history, it must be noted–not a graveyard in a B horror movie. I’ve never been there (though I have live across the water in the Gulf), but I doubt creatures inexplicably rise out of the muck at every turn and all but beg to be gunned down.

If I’m wrong about that, then our salvation in this conflict probably lies in deploying the current occupants of the White House and the coterie of pundits, lobbyists, religious zealots and ideologues  who cheerled for this farcical crusade from the beginning. Judging by their management of post-9/11 American foreign policy and their continuing obliviousness to the enormity of their catastrophic blunders, they’ll have little to fear from zombies hungering for brains, anyway.

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