Peter Singer and Doug Brooks speak on the privatized military

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Monday night, Dr. Peter Singer and Doug Brooks presented two sides of the debate over the role of private security forces both instead of and in conjunction with national armed forces. Dr. Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institution’s director of the Project on U.S. Policy toward the Islamic World. Mr. Brooks is the president of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry organization for private security companies.

Both of these experts agreed that the use of private contractors to provide security and peacekeeping is changing the face of war. As Dr. Singer pointed out, when we look back at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan our examination will have to be radically different from examinations of past conflicts like World War II and the Korean War. Today, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 private contractors are working in Iraq. And both men agreed that no matter your position on the issue, withdrawing those contractors would dramatically shift the course of the coalition efforts.

While Singer and Brooks agreed on the major role played by private security forces in modern peacekeeping and nation building, they approached the issue from dramatically different directions. After presenting his definition of private security companies, or business providers of services intrinsically link to military service, Singer focused on how private service providers have been integrated into American military operations and the dilemmas they create in Iraq and other American led operations.

Singer argued that the rise of private security companies has occurred for three basic reasons: Changes in the supply and demand of military force in the post-Cold War world, the style of warfare nation-states find themselves fighting today, and changes in ideology through a “privatization revolution.” Because of these three causes, an entire industry with annual revenues of $100 billion and working in fifty nations has arisen.

With increasing numbers of private security contractors [PSCs] working for the U.S. government in particular, Singer presented his five major dilemmas:

First, there are problems with business contracting into war: unlike an American soldier, PSCs are contracted to do a job. Where American service-men and women are bound by oath and law to obey orders, a private contractor can simply decide to leave.

Second, the market for PSCs is an open market. No government has control over “who can work for these companies, and in turn who these companies can work for.” While PSCs employ many former members of the American and British special forces, they also have employed a South African apartheid fighter who openly testified that “he had fire bombed the houses of 60 political activists.”

Third, PSCs are a means to circumvent the public costs of deploying force. Singer argued that one of the reasons to have a public military is because there are supposed to be consequences to sending soldiers abroad, as it constrains politicians to sending soldiers only where they think it makes sense.

Fourth, Singer argued that PSCs present significant legal issues. So far in the Iraq conflict, not a single contractor has been prosecuted, despite evidence which ties them to the prison scandals. Furthermore, the states in which the contractors are operating usually have extremely weak judicial systems, which makes local trials an unrealistic proposition.

Fifth, and finally, Singer argued that PSCs are changing the face of the military. The military used to be a unique profession which “lived outside of society, but it also was the only one which had its own legal system” because it was responsible for the security of society. This is no longer true. Increasingly, the security of society is becoming an open market.

While Dr. Singer approached the topic in terms of dilemmas, Brooks presented PSCs as a solution to “westernless peacekeeping.” According to Brooks, peacekeeping requires a professional force, a long term commitment, and adequate resources. Today, most western nations are unwilling to provide boots on the ground and most developing nations don’t have the resources to successfully keep the peace. This gap is where PSCs enter the scene.

Brooks argued that the private sector is rapidly becoming the most effective tools in peacekeeping today, because PSCs have immense surge capacity, or the ability to rapidly reconfigure their force for nearly any challenge, and because they minimize political risk. Brooks pointed out that a private security contractor getting shot in Liberia is a page 23 story in the contractor’s home town paper. An American soldier getting shot in the exact same situation will make the front page. Because PSCs minimize risk, Western politicians are more willing to use them to quickly intercede in war torn areas. Most importantly, Mr. Brooks asked “who else?” The West isn’t wiling to send its soldiers into civil wars, and Brooks believes that PSCs are the answer.

Dr. Singer and Mr. Brooks presented their listeners with two compelling arguments on a relevant and increasingly important question in international politics today. While PSCs have become essential to American operations throughout the world, they have risen to significance so quickly that the American government has yet to catch up to them with regulations. As Dr. Singer pointed out, if he had “come here and given this talk five or ten years ago, I would have sounded crazy!”

Both men agreed that private contractors are here to stay, and it is high time that the government recognizes this and takes them out of the legal gray zone the groups now inhabit.

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