American Mercenaries of Public Diplomacy

The United States increasingly relies private military companies to carry out its foreign policy. This is a statement of fact and yet it is a bit dodgy to say. In "contested" spaces such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (inside Pakistan actually), Philippines, Colombia (don't forget the American contractors still held there), Africa (West, East, you name it), the Balkans, etc., private military companies and their contractors carry out the will of the President. Perhaps more importantly and clearly less recognized is the direct and lasting impact these contractor have on the local populations they interact with. From training military forces in the Balkans to compelling warring parties to meet at Dayton, to providing personal security to Hamid Karzai, Haitian dictators, and more, these companies extend the foreign policy options of the United States in ways too few care to see or appreciate. In March 2004, a most public example of their utility in shaping the image of America happened in Fallujah when contractors were ambushed, burned, dragged through the streets, and ultimately hung from a bridge. The attack on these men was not motivated by their higher pay. These men were attacked as agents of the United States Government (specifically the CIA). The fallout from this ambush was arguably a milestone in the Iraq War as the war of images, perceptions, actions, and words heated up against the United States.

Other examples of contractors representing the United States on the ground include the infamous Aegis video. However, perhaps more long-lasting are the impressions made by our non-security contractors. Failures to build schools, bridges, and other facilities will stand as demonstrations of how the Americans did not truly want to better Iraq. We don't have to look to KBR and other firms and allegations of running empty trucks on dangerous routes in order to bill the US Government more money. No, we can look at companies that performed like Custer Battles that through greed did their own part to sabotage our efforts at peace and stability in Iraq. The same can be said of the sadistic contractors in Abu Gharib who got little actionable intel from their inhumane treatment (it is hard to argue they didn't create more enemies globally than they tried to learn about through their actions).

This isn't to say all contractors or their companies are corrupt. There are good men with good intentions working hard and giving their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, contractors, whether they are the "bad apples" or good guys doing good, shape the perceptions of America and our mission in troubled areas of the world. The reasons the Executive Branch turns to contractors in lieu of US Government resources varies from a lack of political or economic capital or expediency or political favoritism. Whatever the reason, private contractors are agents of the United States.

The private military industry in general has a direct and immediate impact on foreign populations which American policymakers and the media do not see or accept overall. Although the media has been increasingly critical, it has thus far largely relegated project failures and shortcomings to the company and barely connected the company back to the US and local populations now altered perception of America and its power.

In the case of Iraq, the private military industry is frequently in the “last three feet” of contact with the Iraqi public. Waving guns, driving the wrong way and ready to pop a round into a radiator of a "deserving" vehicle in a (appropriately) paranoid environment (see the US Army view of this activity in Afghanistan), they operate with immunity (relative or actual) and radically and substantially alter Iraqi public opinion of Americans and America by their behavior. These contractors do not wear the uniform of the US military and yet this "Coalition of the Billing" directly represents the US and the "Coalition" whether we like it or not.

In the war on terror, when “hearts and minds” are needing to be won, or at least not pissed off, how are these de facto agents of the US, which the US does not acknowledge as extensions of the US Government, contribute to shaping the perception of the US?

Do they contribute to the American image at all?

At the University of Southern California, on October 17th, 2006, I will be hosting discussions that will look at the private security industry in Iraq, looking beyond the Haliburtons and Custer Battles and into the realm of the armed contractors who frequently are in the ‘last three feet’  of contact with the local population. At 6p, there will be a screening of the movie Shadow Company (http://shadowcompanythemovie.com/), followed by a question & answer session with a panel of experts:

  • Nick Bicanic, the movie’s producer / director (confirmed)
  • Robert Young Pelton, author / adventurer; his latest book is Licensed to Kill (confirmed)
  • Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch, http://corpwatch.org, author of Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation (confirmed)
  • Dr. Robert English, USC Professor of International Relations (confirmed)
  • A Former Blackwater contractor with 6 tours in Iraq (confirmed)

Sponsored by the Center for International Studies, with support from the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, this event aims to increase awareness about the impact of the private military industry, notably the private security contractors. Some of the questions to be explored: If war is ‘not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument’, what is the impact of outsourcing war on foreign and domestic policy? Does the state cede ownership and responsibility of this violence in a way that is different than traditional notions of ‘plausible deniability’? To what degree do the armed contractors represent the contracting state in the eyes of the local population and to what effect?

Private military companies, as employed by the United States, impact international relations, domestic politics, public diplomacy, and even the vocabulary of reporting on war. Please join as they ask these and other questions after the screening of Shadow Company.

Date: Tuesday, October 17, 2006 Time: 6p – 9p Location: ASC Auditorium Theater (G26) Cost: Free DETAILS, DIRECTIONS, and RSVP HERE: http://ascweb.usc.edu/asc.php?pageID=110&story=773

A video of the of the Q&A will be available online after the screening.

(It is noteworthy that the USC Center for Public Diplomacy does not support this event and refused to include it in its regular email newsletter. This is even more interesting as I am a grad student in the public diplomacy program at USC and had to find sponsors and supporters outside of CPD to put on this event. The discussants, whom I knew previously due to my work on private military companies, agreed to come for the price of a hotel, for the cost of gas, or for free.)