Be Still, My Heart

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s most profound legacy could be that it set the world order back to the Middle Ages.
You're probably thinking of the President's Iraq policy allowing a 7th century quasi-government to seize control of much of the Levant, while playing along with Iran's nuclear ambitions in a way likely to secure the theocracy's position among the nations of the world, while making it ever more likely that we'll see a renewed war in the Holy Land.

What he's actually thinking about is the way private contractors remind him of 14th century mercenary armies. There's a strong argument for privatizing our response to groups like ISIS, though, which is that small private firms can offer a short decision chain similar to our enemy's. We don't lose the capacities provided by formal government armies, but those have Schumpeter's disadvantage in dealing with highly adaptable small forces. This is why Marx was wrong about capitalism leading inevitably to monopoly: small competitors lack the economies of scale, but they can often pick off pieces of the larger businesses because their ossified decision-making chains take too long to compete.

That works with 'monopoly on force,' too. As long as contractors are employed by legitimate governments and held accountable according to the ordinary laws of war, there's no reason they should not be used to deal with ISIS-type threats. It's my sense that it's actually much easier to hold private firms and their employees accountable using government mechanisms than for the government to hold itself and its own accountable. There's no sense of protecting one's own that would derail prosecutions, and it's very easy to cancel a contract.

Besides, the 14th century was the during good part of the Middle Ages.


Cass said...

We don't have a terribly good track record on holding contractors accountable in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

This doesn't seem like a step forward.

Grim said...

I suppose it depends on what you mean. We have a great record of cutting contracts to contractors accused of shady practices. If you mean finding individual contractors guilty in a court of law, we have a hard time doing that with anyone due to the difficulties of evidence collection in a warzone.

It's at best a very slow process -- like the Green Beret whose award just got pulled, years later, because he failed a CIA polygraph and it led to an investigation. At the time, our evidence collection suggested he deserved (and was awarded) an award for valor.

Cass said...

That's not what I mean at all.

Oversight is extremely difficult by remote. The military has people on the ground providing oversight.

Contractors, not so much. There's a critical infrastructure piece that's lacking.

Grim said...

Yeah, that's true if the military has people on the ground. But we're not necessarily contrasting a case in which we'd fight ISIS by occupying the place a la Iraq War with one in which we'd hire contractors to protect the oil fields. We're likely contrasting hiring contractors with the current policy of conducting suppression via air strikes and raids -- just the sort of cases in which that infrastructure is absent.

When the State Department or CIA screws up, we don't fire the whole department or agency and hire a new one. But that's just what happens when CACI is accused of wrongdoing. The whole thing is 'fired' by cancellation of contract, and they're replaced with an entirely different set of people. That doesn't even require proof of the wrongdoing via a court process: a report in the press is often enough.