Democracy Arsenal

« O'Hanlon and the Op-Ed Pages | Main | Fallon Resigns »

March 11, 2008

Mercenaries or Peacekeepers?
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been meaning for a few days to respond to Michael Walzer's recent article in the New Republic about Blackwater and private military contractors, but Matt Yglesias has beaten me to the punch . . . sort of. Walzer's piece is not perfect but he is right in arguing that sending private security contractors is an option worth considering - for somewhat obvious reasons:

Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur. If the Comintern could field an army and stop the killing, that would be all right with me, too.

Yglesias though is not impressed:

I highly doubt that introducing a bunch of heavily armed unaccountable mercenaries into the situation would actually make things better.

I do think it's worth asking if we can come up with mechanisms of control and accountability that would make dispatching mercenaries into situations where troops are needed but nation-states are unwilling to send their national militaries into an attractive option. It's clear, however, that we do not in fact have any such mechanisms in place. Under the circumstances, you don't just unleash a plague of mercenaries somewhere in order to demonstrate your good intentions.

This is simply incorrect. Ignoring for a moment the pejorative use of the word mercenaries, which doesn't even come close to describing modern private contractors, there are in fact such mechanisms in place. Private military contractors already work with the UN in battle-scarred regions around the world - including Darfur.

In Kenya, ArmorGroup guards protect UNHCR refugee camps; PAE and AYR Aviation are working with the UN and African Union in Sudan; in Liberia, Dyncorp is training that country's new military. Moreover, no one, including the contractors themselves, are advocating that Blackwater or any other private group should go into Darfur with guns blazing. I have yet to come across any serious player in the industry who is advocating a combat role for private contractors. In fact, quite the opposite.

Indeed, in last week's WSJ, Peter Charles Choharis, a former UNICEF relief worker called for the use of private contractors in Darfur, operating under the following criteria:

The Security Council should consider employing contract armed forces to protect civilians and relief workers. These forces would have a very limited mandate to create safe havens for civilians, and would operate only until traditional U.N. peacekeepers can takeover. Because they would be authorized by the Security Council, would not directly take part in hostilities, and would use force only when necessary to protect innocent civilians and relief workers, they would not be mercenaries, which are prohibited by international law.

Private forces could also act as a humanitarian force-multiplier. Protected by these forces, NGOs will be able to provide food, water, medical treatment and shelter much more quickly, thereby saving countless more lives. Beyond supplies, providing security to vulnerable civilians can help avert traumas like rape and mutilation that can scar entire societies and make national reconciliation more difficult.

Granted this isn't as sexy as force protection or combat, but it's a mission that many private contractors are well prepared to provide - and most would leap at the opportunity, if only to erase the terrible pall that Blackwater has cast over the the entire industry.  Surely it would be better if national armies could be recruited for this effort, but as we've seen for years now the international community seems to have little interest in expending even the slightest political will to end the suffering in Darfur.

Yet, the reality of the situation in Darfur almost seems an abstraction to those who criticize even the thought of using contractors to stop the killing there. Here is Crooked Timber's response to the idea that contractors should not be sent to Darfur:

One of Walzer’s commenters sums up the view of those paragraphs eminently well, saying:'doing something is better than doing nothing' here’s an idea to engage with; no it’s not.

Really? As many as 400,000 Darfuris have been killed, often in a brutal manner; more than 2.5 million have been displaced; the UN peacekeeping effort there is badly underfunded and undermanned. Yet, apparently, the idea of sending private contractors to assist the peacekeepers is so abhorrent it's not even an idea worth engaging with.  That's a level of moral obtuseness that I find difficult to fathom. Private contractors are not a panacea, but if they are able to work constructively to stop the killing in Darfur shouldn’t the notion at least be entertained? Our ultimate focus should be saving lives and ending the genocidal slaughter in Darfur. If contractors are capable of doing the job then it’s an idea that the United Nations must consider.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Mercenaries or Peacekeepers?:


One may note that Executive Outcomes was quite successful in stabilizing Angola and Sierra Leone during the mid 1990's. When the UN ran eventually took over their mission, the situation turned once again to chaos. Executive Outcomes operated with less than 500 men. The UN fielded tens of thousands. The difference is that Executive Outcomes fielded a professional force, and the UN fielded reluctant amateurs with little stomach for danger.

I'm not sure I understand why this is not a moot point.

The primary obstacle to the deployment of an effective peacekeeping force in Darfur has been that the Sudanese government does not want one there. It has obstructed every effort to use outside forces for the protection of the civilian population for years now. Why would Khartoum respond differently to a UN-authorized force assigned to protect civilians just because that force's personnel were paid from private sources rather than by UN member governments?

OK, Michael, you have a point that the idea of sending private contractors to Darfur is an idea that is at least worth considering or "engaging with." So go ahead: consider it and engage with it.

So far, Walzer's article and the blogospheric discussion of it have tended to skip past the vaunted and promised engagement, and leaped into a weird meta-debate, which you are now continuing. I can't even determine precisely what Walzer is supporting or arguing against. As far as I can tell, he is (i) regretfully opposed to using private contractors in Darfur, and opposed to mercenaries in general, but (ii) angrily put out by ignoramuses of the left who oppose mercenaries, but apparently not for reasons sufficiently philosophical, high-minded and theoretical to satisfy Walzer.

Yet most of the left-wing worries about, and criticism of, private contractors that I have read tend to reflect the very same concern Walzer has: the existence of private armies is a threat to the power of states and governments, and permitting and encouraging their existence is a very risky policy that asks for deep trouble in the end, even if there are useful jobs they could accomplish in the short term. What happens on the day when some government, nominally in control of some private army with which they have contracted, gives that army a directive and the army says "no"? What happens when the US government says "cease your activity" and Blackwater says "make us"? What happens when one of the transnational corporations you work for hires a private army abroad, and that armed corporate entity then crosses some Rubicon to act contrary to the wishes of the American government and the American people?

I'm an old time left-wing supporter of rigorous gun control. Private armies strike me as gun freedom run amok, and a symptom of the anarchic degeneration of government and its gradual replacement by global corporatocracy.

Michael Walzer is occupying an increasingly absurd intellectual role in our society, and seems determined to hold out and become the very last convert to neoconservatism, at just about the time it becomes irrelevant. He is apparently deeply attracted to the thinking of people like Max Boot, Alan Dershowitz and Martin Peretz, and deeply ashamed of his leftist roots and repulsed by contemporary left-wing thinking. But he has not yet mustered the courage to make a clean break and go over to the other side once and for all. Why doesn't he just go for it, join the neocons and be done with it, instead of treating us to all of his anguished, tortured struggles with the ghosts of his former self?

Dan, your use of the phrase "private armies" just rings hollow. These guys are not engaged in pro-active combat operations. They provide security services (and yes that includes Blackwater). I'm sorry, but no one in the industry would even contemplate doing what you are suggesting. Let's remember, these guys are business; they're not crazed mercenaries running around the world making trouble.

We can agree on one thing - Walzer's piece is terrible (and really badly written) although I'm not sure we agree as to why.

Michael, I fear you might be ensnared in your own public relations euphemisms. Our best and brightest have apparently decided not to call these outfits "armies" or "soldiers", because that would increase their legal exposure as unlawful combatant mercenaries, illegal under the Geneva Conventions. But Blackwater and others train for both offensive and defensive combat operations, and have engaged in combat in Iraq and elsewhere. If it makes you happier, I will call them "private military companies".

I was reading a bit more about these outfits this afternoon on a website for professionals working in this field. It's called Oops. I guess they didn't get the memo from the lawyers.

I'm confused about exactly what kind of role you are imagining for PMCs in the Sudan. You say they would not be engaged in "pro-active combat operations". So what does that mean? They'll just be involved in reactive combat operations? You say that no one is considering a combat role for Blackwater or other PMCs in Darfur, but they would only be assigned the task of protecting relief workers and certain civilian safe havens. But didn't Cofer Black offer to "stop the killing in Darfur" when he spoke in Amman? He said, "We've war-gamed this with professionals ... We can do this."

"Stop the killing in Darfur". Hmmm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that strikes me as a rather large job, requiring a substantial combat component. Exactly how is it that Blackwater et al. are supposed to stop the killing without using a lot of firepower themselves? Is a mere show of desert fatigues, SUV's and aome professional-looking sunglasses supposed to make all those impressionable and untutored Africans say "We call off da killing now, Massah"? This sounds suspiciously like another one of those cakewalks.

Maybe Blackwater won't go in "with guns blazing". But they will go in with a lot of guns. What happens when the other guys with guns start shooting at them? They start shooting back, don't they? What if their opponents aren't interested in helping Blackwater maintain a limited professional engagement, but actually decide to go to war with the private contractors to chase them out of the country? Do they go to war back? And if not, what's the point? If they are not willing to go all the way with this thing, they should never go to Sudan begin with. It would only be embarrassing when they are either forced to leave or are rendered ineffectual.

During my web research, I came across this story in the Wikipedia entry about these oh-so-professional "private contractors":

On January 2008 Marshall Adame, a Democrat running for Congress in North Carolina's 3rd District, took part in a live question-and-answer forum where he was asked a question about Blackwater. Adame who had served as a State Department official in Iraq recounted; "I saw them shoot people, I saw them crash into cars while I was their passenger. There was absolutely no reason, no provocation whatsoever." He then stated "There is no place in the American force structure, or in American culture for mercenaries, they are guns for hire; No more, no less." This led to Blackwater executive vice president Bill Mathews sending an internal corporate email to staff:

There is a man named Marshall Adame who is running for congress in our district. He just put a quote online which says he wants this company and all of us to cease to exist. Do you like your jobs? Are you sick and tired of the slanderous bullshit going on in DC? If so, would you all mind joining me in reminding Mr. Adame that he is running for office in our backyard. Tell all your friends and family too. We welcome their assistance in making this point very clear to Mr. Adame.

Anyone who wants to send a letter may do so at the following address…....

His email is ....

He was too cowardly to put a phone number on the web. I ask that you keep your comments to Mr. Adame professional (well, mostly professional). We help him if our comments get threatening or too crass. Let’s run this goof out of Dodge….!

Maybe the prospect of a gang of armed war-fighting professionals running around North Carolina bent on intimidating a candidate for the US Congress, and chasing him out of town, doesn't give you the willies. But count me spooked. This is how people lose what's left of their liberty.

These outfits also seem to have a history of involvement in gun-running, drug-running, whore-mongering, forgery, contract killing and off-the-reservation violent mayhem. They sound like good old-fashioned soldiers of fortune to me. Giving a mercenary thug and paid killer a corporate ID or a seat on a stock exchange doesn't automatically turn him into a respectable member of society.

You say,

"I have yet to come across any serious player in the industry who is advocating a combat role for private contractors. In fact, quite the opposite."

How many of these serious players do you know? Do you work for some of them?

Dan, when I say combat operation I am referring to offensive operations - you have to make a clear distinction between offensively attacking the enemy and defending oneself or those they are paid to protect. What BW and other contractors provide is security protection - obviously if they are attacked they have a right to defend themselves, but contractors have not been used (at least by the US military) in combat operations and I cant think of any who would do so willingly.

Just for the record, even UN peacekeeopers in Darfur would not be engaged in combat operations - that would be peace enforcement, which no oneis suggesting. Contractors in Darfur would have to be limited to logistics, security protection, air support etc. Indeed, they would support UN peacekeepers, because again I dont think many folks in the industry would want to put on blue hats (although frankly I happen to think it's a good idea).

Oh and see if you can draft at least one response that doesn't intimate I am a corporate stooge. I know it's hard for you but see if you can do it.

Dan, when I say combat operation I am referring to offensive operations - you have to make a clear distinction between offensively attacking the enemy and defending oneself or those they are paid to protect.

That's only an academic difference in this case, isn't it Michael? There is a civil war in the Sudan. To defend one decimated group against its more powerful enemies, you have to attack those enemies. I don't think we should be under any illusions that one cannot stop the genocidal killing in Darfur without entering into a war against those doing the killing. We can't just lock up all the Darfurians behind some kind of security fence, or bundle them into refugee camps patrolled by a few thousand security professionals engaging in purely defensive actions. The Sudan is too big, too remote and too challenging an environment for that.

And if the mercenaries not going their to fight, then what's the point? What exactly is it that Blackwater can do that blue helmets can't, when it comes to mere security and peacekeeping? Wouldn't the Sudanese regard the mere insertion of Blackwater troops as an act of war? And what about the violence in Chad? Do we insert the PMCs there as well?

It will be pretty hard for me to drop my anti-corporate instincts, and my concerns about shilling. I can't help noticing that a large proportion of the writers at Democracy Arsenal are involved in the communications field: public relations, speech-writing, etc. Since such people are paid to produce useful messaging for their clients, one always has to wonder when they are speaking for themselves and when they are speaking for their clients. And it's hard for me to be complacent about the work these strategic consultancies and PR firms do abroad on behalf of America Inc. and its unquenchable cultural and economic expansionism. I'm even puzzled sometimes about the actual purpose of Democracy Arsenal and the sources of its funding.

I don't know if you still work for RLM. But one of the things they brag about on their website is helping corporations craft messages that put the best face on laying off thousands of people while justifying paying their executives colossal salaries. I'm sorry if this offends you, but I ind that morally questionable work, and it is not offset by railing against the moral obtuseness of people concerned about sending a bunch or corporatized professional killers into a foreign country.

You still haven't said whether some of these PMCs are your clients or not. How do I know, then, whether you really think mercenaries to Darfur is a good idea, or whether you just have some clients who think a make-work project in Darfur will be good in the long term for their bottom line? Can you promise us that you will always disclose when you have clients that have an interests in the issues you are writing about?

Yeah, they really are mercenaries:
2. A mercenary is any person who:

(a) Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;

(b) Does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;

(c) Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

(d) Is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

(e) Is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

(f) Has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

The point of these left wing comments against using mercenaries to settle conflict like Darfur is not to claim that the entire idea is beyond discussion; it's to claim that it's a really really bad idea. Adding private foreign troops to stop the fighting (it's not peacekeeping unless the sides within the conflict ask for outside help to act as a buffer) is an act of aggression and probably not a good idea for the general proposition of stabilizing the region.

If Sudan were requesting outside help to stop the fighting, and there was general agreement that there were no professional troops willing to act as peacekeepers, I would say that adding hired guns to act as the shield between two sides in a conflict might make sense. But that is not the situation in Sudan today. If the UN wanted to end the fighting, there would need to be general agreement among the members that Sudan has acted wrongly and there would need to be a formal action approved for an offensive operation to step into the conflict on one side (like Iraq in 1990).

What Mike here is talking about as only "defensive" operations is silly. If the Sudanese troops are being aggressive in prosecuting their genocide, why would they respect these unwanted outside mercenary forces protecting valuable targets (food, money, people)? Very quickly these mercenaries would be swept up into the conflict, and would either participate, which would mean combat operations against the Sudanese government and army, or they would be killed. And I doubt that Blackwater-type people would let themselves be killed.

Mike is trying to cloud the issue with cries about how terrible Darfur is and how many people are being killed, and shouldn't we do something. But it's a bad idea to claim that anything would be better than nothing. There are many proposals which would make the situation quite a bit worse; this is one of them. Unless you think a private army of mercenaries will get the go-ahead to take down the Sudanese government and actively combat the army in order to stop the genocide, then this proposal is worthless. The people of Darfur don't need peacekeepers, they need peace.

Unless you think a private army of mercenaries will get the go-ahead to take down the Sudanese government and actively combat the army in order to stop the genocide, then this proposal is worthless. The people of Darfur don't need peacekeepers, they need peace.

So, basically it's down to whether the rebels are defeated or the government collapses, then the conflict will end. I recall the John Pendergast of the Int'l Crisis Group saying that any peacekeeping may inadvertently prolong the conflict, as it props up the rebels.

Dan, please post here the place on RLM's website (where I no longer work) that indicates they "help corporations craft messages that put the best face on laying off thousands of people while justifying paying their executives colossal salaries."

It doesn't offend me that you wrote that -- it just makes me laugh because you simply don't know what you're talking about.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Emeritus Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use