Obama’s Questionable Embrace of Mercenary Armies And Where It Might Lead

by Paul Rosenberg

Hat tip: Open Left

In a discussion with Bill Moyers, Jeremy Scahill gives credit to Obama for recognizing the existence of a problem.

In “Why Not A Progressive Foreign Policy? Part 1: The Military”, I wrote about a better way of combating terrorism than bringing war to Afghanistan, and continuing to kill innocent civilians–a way much more consistent with the main thrust of Obama’s speech in Cairo. In the transition between laying out the problem, and presenting that better way, I wrote:

But before we turn to what that better way is, I just want to take note of former Democracy Now producer Jeremy Scahill on Bill Moyers Journal last night, sketching out some of what’s going wrong right now. I’ll be looking at what he talked about more closely in a follow-up diary, which will serve to underscore just how much is at stake if we don’t get serious about crafting a progressive alternative. Scahill discusses the continuation of military privatization under Obama, and the dangerous direction it threatens to lead us

It’s now time to take a closer look at what’s at stake, at what we risk if we do not adopt a more progressive military policy. The future is never certain, of course. But closing our eyes to foreseeable risks only makes it more uncertain, more threatening, more potentially dangerous.

In the discussion with Bill Moyers, Jeremy Scahill gives credit to Obama for recognizing the existence of a problem, if not really grasping its essential nature:

BILL MOYERS: How do explain this spike in private contractors in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think what we’re seeing, under President Barack Obama, is sort of old wine in a new bottle. Obama is sending one message to the world, but the reality on the ground, particularly when it comes to private military contractors, is that the status quo remains from the Bush era. Right now there are 250 thousand contractors fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s about 50 percent of the total US fighting force. Which is very similar to what it was under Bush. In Iraq, President Obama has 130 thousand contractors. And we just saw a 23 percent increase in the number of armed contractors in Iraq. In Afghanistan there’s been a 29 percent increase in armed contractors. So the radical privatization of war continues unabated under Barack Obama.

Having said that, when Barack Obama was in the Senate he was one of the only people that was willing to take up this issue. And he put forward what became the leading legislation on the part of the Democrats to reform the contracting industry. And I give him credit for doing that. Because he saw this as an important issue before a lot of other political figures. And spoke up at a time when a lot of people were deafeningly silent on this issue. I’ve been critical of Obama’s position on this because I think that he accepts what I think is a fundamental lie. That we should have a system where corporations are allowed to benefit off of warfare. And President Obama has carried on a policy where he has tried to implement greater accountability structures. We now know, in a much clearer way than we did under Bush, how many contractors we have on the battlefield. He’s attempted to implement some form of rules governing contractors. And it has suggested that there should be greater accountability when they do commit crimes.

All of these things are a step in the right direction. But, ultimately, I think that we have to look to what Jan Schakowsky, the congresswoman from Illinois, says. We can no longer allow these individuals to perform what are inherently governmental functions. And that includes carrying a weapon on U.S. battlefields. And that’s certainly not where President Obama is right now.

Here’s the big picture on this: America was founded as a republic–a form of government without a king. Hatred and fear of tyranny was one of the main concerns driving the American revolution in the first place, and the formation of the United States in the second. This is why separation of powers is so important. It’s also why America intentionally limited the power of its military (the Second Amendment was part of this structure, intended to ensure that there would be strong state militias, thus obviating the need for a large standing army.) This arrangement worked well–thanks largely to the protection afforded by the worlds two largest oceans–until WWII, and the quick transition to the Cold War, which finally delivered us the large standing army the Founders had feared.

It was not accidental that the general-turned President who grew up in the pre-WWII army was quite uncomfortable with the new military structure and the threat it posed to the traditional political order, as well as to domestic prosperity. Nothing came of his worries, however.

The advent of mass privatization–planned for by Cheney under Bush I, and executed with a vengeance under Bush/Cheney, represented the further step of shifting to the private mercenary model, which had long been a characteristic feature of tyrant’s standing armies. This had never even been imagined previously, and has now been accepted virtually without question, even though our Founding Fathers would have opposed it violently.

This is the new normal. We now look almost exactly like the British Empire we revolted against in 1776.

More from Jeremy Scahill last night:

BILL MOYERS: Some people have suggested that the increasing reliance on military contractors in Afghanistan underscores the fact that the military is actually stretched very thin. General McChrystal said, this week, he admitted that he doesn’t even know if we have enough troops there to deal with the situation as it is now. Does that surprise you?

JEREMY SCAHILL: No. It doesn’t surprise me. Because this is increasingly turning into a war of occupation. That’s why General McChrystal is making that statement. If this was about fighting terrorism, it would be viewed as a law enforcement operation where you are going to hunt down criminals responsible for these actions and bring them in front of a court of law. This is turning into a war of occupation.

That’s the most central, crucial fact here: our methods are simply incompatible with our stated aims. We are not being honest with ourselves, or with the rest of the world. Fighting terrorism by waging war is giving terrorists exactly what they want, it turns their crimes into acts of war. It actually legitimates them in ways they can never legitimate themselves. And that’s even without considering the innocent lives we have already taken in Afghanistan.

Scahill continues:

If I might add about General McChrystal, what message does it send to the Afghan people when President Obama chooses a man who is alleged to have been one of the key figures running secret detention facilities in Iraq, and working on these extra judicial killing squads. Hunting down, quote unquote, insurgents, and killing them on behalf of the U.S. military. This is a man who’s also alleged to have been at the center of the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death, who was killed by U.S. Army Rangers.

BILL MOYERS: But he apologized for that this week be before Congress.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it’s easy to apologize when your new job is on the line. It’s a different thing to take responsibility for it when you realize that the mistake was made, or that you were involved with what the family of Pat Tillman says was a cover-up.

And so, the erosion of responsibility and accountability that began under Bush and Cheney continues unabated under Obama. It is being completely normalized. And the wholesale use of mercenaries only further institutionalizes the divorce of war-making acts from Constitutional accountability.

BILL MOYERS: You know, you talk about military contractors. Do you think the American people have any idea how their tax dollars are being used in Afghanistan?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Absolutely no idea whatsoever. We’ve spent 190 million dollars. Excuse me, $190 billion on the war in Afghanistan. And some estimates say that, within a few short years, it could it could end up at a half a trillion dollars. The fact is that I think most Americans are not aware that their dollars being spent in Afghanistan are, in fact, going to for-profit corporations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These are companies that are simultaneously working for profit and for the U.S. government. That is the intricate linking of corporate profits to an escalation of war that President Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address. We live in amidst the most radical privatization agenda in the history of our country. And it cuts across every aspect of our society.

In short, patriotism and sedition have switched places. Bad as things are now, Scahill thinks they could much, much worse, returning us to a condition much like old-style feudalism:

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Well, I think that what we have seen happen, as a result of this incredible reliance on private military contractors, is that the United States has created a new system for waging war. Where you no longer have to depend exclusively on your own citizens to sign up for the military and say, “I believe in this war, so I’m willing to sign up and risk my life for it.” You turn the entire world into your recruiting ground. You intricately link corporate profits to an escalation of warfare and make it profitable for companies to participate in your wars. In the process of doing that you undermine U.S. democratic processes. And you also violate the sovereignty of other nations, ’cause you’re making their citizens in combatants in a war to which their country is not a party. I feel that the end game of all of this could well be the disintegration of the nation state apparatus in the world. And it could be replaced by a scenario where you have corporations with their own private armies. To me, that would be a devastating development. But it’s on. It’s happening on a micro level. And I fear it will start to happen on a much bigger scale.

This is the possible future that Obama’s current policy has us drifting towards, without really intending it–or anything else, for that matter. It’s Dick Cheney’s wet dream. There is no way that this should be Democrat’s foreign policy, and yet by default, that is just where we’re headed.

The past eight years were a nightmare as the product of a single demented administration. But Obama is now proposing to institutionalize key aspects of that policy as the consensus policy of the American government–taking on some of the most hated aspects of the British Empire at the time we fought for our independence.

How far back into the pre-modern darkness will this take us? Why in the world would we want to find out?

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