Can’t Win with ‘Em, Can’t Go to War Without ‘Em: Six Questions for P.W. Singer

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 30, 2007

Excerpt of an interview with Peter Singer.

1. One of your first conclusions is that by using military contractors, policymakers “dodge key decisions that carry political costs, thus leading to operational choices that might not reflect the public interest.” Moving away from the operations in Iraq which are more immediately topical, security contractors have been advocated as surrogates for uniformed military as peacekeepers in Darfur, Liberia, Sierra Leone and a variety of other circumstances. A Marine general recently told me that he was concerned that the heavy reliance on contractors might allow policymakers to ease into a foreign conflict in a way that avoided Congressional scrutiny and oversight. Do you agree that this is a realistic concern?

Yes, and I wouldn’t use the word “might,” as if it were a future scenario. Contractors have already been used in all sorts of operations, in both an overt (Iraq, Balkans) and covert (Colombia, Sudan), manner to get around certain political consequences or congressional restrictions.

When the U.S. military shifted to an all-volunteer, professional force in the wake of the Vietnam War, military leaders set up a series of organization “tripwires” to preserve the tie between the nation’s foreign policy decisions and local communities. Led by then Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams (1972-74), they wanted to ensure that the military would not go to war without the sufficient backing and involvement of the nation. Much like a call-center moved to India, this “Abrams Doctrine” has been outsourced.

Instead, contractors offer the means for the choices to be dodged at the onset, as well as the scrutiny and public concern to be lessened after deployment. Your homefront (and their representatives) does not get as involved when its contractors being called up and deployed, nor ask key questions when contractors are lost (over 1000 have been killed in Iraq and 13000 wounded, but they are not counted on official DoD reports. In turn, if you want to go to a non-Iraq example, where is the concern over the 3 American contractors still held captive by the FARC in Colombia today? Imagine if we had 3 soldiers as POWs instead.). In addition, your media also becomes less likely to cover the story with contractors (one quarter of one percent of all news stories out of Iraq mention contractors). This new option is obviously greatly appealing to executive branch policymakers, but the underlying premise of the Abrams Doctrine was that, if a military operation could not garner public support of the level needed to involve the full nation, then maybe it shouldn’t happen in the first place.

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