Sunday, 24 August 2008
Obama, contractors, and private force
On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama offered an insight into his conceptual understanding of security contractors and their relationship with the state. Although to people new to private military affairs he scored well, to a more advanced audience he sounded amateurish.
Senator Obama was asked by the editorial board of Military Times about his thoughts on economic efficiency of security contractors compared to the military. [The question was actually formulated with Blackwater Worldwide in mind] Obama’s answer was, “I am not arguing that there are never going to be uses for private contractors in some circumstances. What I am saying is if you start building a military premised on the use of private contractors and you start making decisions on armed engagement based on the availability of private contractors to fill holes and gaps that over time you are, I believe, eroding the core of our military’s relationship to the nation and how accountability is structured. I think you are privatizing something that is what essentially sets a nation-state apart, which is a monopoly on violence. And to set those kinds of precedents, I think, will lead us over the long term into some troubled waters.”
Firstly, “a military premised on the use of private contractors” has been the forward trend since the early 1990s. He is a senator and should know it. If he was keen on history, he would further discuss current policies in the context that civilian support has accompanied the military ever since the United States became an independent country. The practice has enhanced US military standing rather than undermine it. For instance, deployment logistics under the LOGCAP contract is the envy of the military world. Therefore, for Obama to note casually that there might be “uses for private contractors” in the future is just another sign of his unwarranted magnanimity.
Secondly, Obama reminded us the monopoly of violence is a distinctive feature of the state (broadly, not just the “nation-state” senator). To certain blogger, Obama came across as very clever because he appeared to corroborate what he/she learned while on “Political Science 101”. Yet dear blogger, when one moves from Political Science 101 to 202, one discovers the 101 notion was simply an introduction to a broader and more complex problem: the monopoly is an evolving principle based upon the control of the means of coercion and not necessarily their ownership. In this light, Obama approaches security contractors, besides ahistorically, through a narrow 101 understanding of the monopoly. We sincerely hope this blogger progresses to the 202 grade. Obama, on the other hand, should be on 505 already and discussing policy.
Thirdly, Obama’s view of the monopoly of violence leads to an equally problematic understanding of privatization. With the aim of building a leaner and more specialised military for the 21st century, non-essential functions (e.g. clerical, logistical, and protection services) have been indeed outsourced to the private sector. However, these “holes and gaps”, using his terminology, have been actually engineered by successive Democrat and Republican administrations and remain under governmental jurisdiction. The challenge is to enact flexible modes of control that evolve alongside military renewal. Obama does not seem to offer a way forward by simply qualifying it as the erosion of “how accountability is structured”.
Obama’s role as presidential contender has long ceased to be about simply pointing out what he sees the wrongs of the military and defense are. On the other hand, it is not possible to discuss his policy proposals with respect to the use of private contractors in areas of defense and homeland security because so far the record is empty. For a start, maybe talking to “small town folk who get bitter and cling to guns” could assist him to understand that force can be controlled without owning the gun or firing the trigger.
Obama picks Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as running mate
Senator Biden believes in “a larger military, better equipped, and trained for the fight.” To build it, he stresses making “sure that we do not contract out our security.” However, his defense doctrine implicitly embeds the need of contractors, e.g. for the deployment of the larger force, the supply and maintenance of military hardware, and specialized training. Analysts agree these areas require robust private sector input. It is therefore ambiguous to discern how he would get around expanding the military without contracting with the private sector. Nevertheless, his solid understanding of international affairs is likely to add substance to Obama’s rhetoric.