Friday, July 18, 2003

I privatize you
The New York Times has this interesting story on the Pentagon's consideration of a plan to establish a private force which would be made responsible for guarding pipelines, government buildings and hundreds of other Iraqi sites. Reportedly, a U.S. company, Kroll Inc., would be responsible for setting up the force.

The rationale is twofold: that the members of the force would be former soldiers, who could therefore be provided with employment; and that the force’s Iraqi makeup "could help ease tensions created by the atmosphere of foreign military occupation."

As a Kroll Europe executive put it: "Our sense is that the military has too much on their plate right now, and that these are issues that need to be addressed, and the way to do that is through the private sector."

I'm not one to oppose privatization, and there are aspects of the plan that are quite worthwhile. However, a few things come to mind: first, that the plan is a way to avoid too much interaction between American forces and Iraqis; second, that it's the Pentagon's way of avoiding sending new troops to Iraq, while also allowing disgruntled soldiers already there to be redeployed home; and third, that the Bush administration is looking for ways to avoid rising casualties.

So what's wrong? A few things, most importantly that the decision is based largely on a negative reading of what the U.S. should be doing in Iraq. The catchword is "avoidance." Rather than engage the Iraqis, the Pentagon is disengaging, which is at least partly an admission of failure of America's ability to win Iraqi hearts and minds. Some might argue that it's not up to soldiers to do that, anyway. If so, then why hasn't the occupation administration worked on setting up more effective liaisons with Iraqi citizens? Why is it that an invisible wall continues to divide the coalition and the Iraqi people?

Unlike Niall Ferguson, I don't think the U.S. should embrace an imperial destiny. However, at this point the question is moot: the Americans are in Iraq, and the only way to make the situation there better is to show the Iraqis that they have made a long-term national (not private sector) commitment to Iraqi stability, democracy and prosperity--something that has been sorely lacking since the war ended.

A privatized force really doesn't do that. It can solve some problems, but unless the Americans rebuild a non-Baathist army and use it as an instrument to help bring about national integration, there seems little point asking Americans to foot the bill--as they will be doing for this supposedly private force.

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