Military Contractors and the Perils of Outsourcing War

Allison Stanger discusses One Nation Under Contract.

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Half the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is made up not of soldiers, marines, and airmen but of private contractors. And although contractors are not combat troops, almost 1,800 of them have been killed since 9/11. Allison Stanger says this is a dangerous and unprecedented outsourcing of foreign policy that bodes ill for the future of the nation. Her latest book, One Nation Under Contract, takes a look at contracting and how it has militarized international affairs. Stanger, a professor of international politics at Middlebury College in Vermont, chatted recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What separates contractors from government workers?

It's really hard to make the distinction between the two because they are everywhere. In many cases, they sit side by side with government personnel at meetings. The question is who pays their salaries.

Is outsourcing war a new development? What about Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution?

Mercenaries have been around for a long time, and the Hessians were mercenaries. But now you have private companies with publicly sold stocks. That's something different than a government just going around and rousing up troops to aid the cause. Turning them into something commercial makes them legal and legitimate. We can get ourselves into bad places when we don't think about what should be outsourced.

How so?

Exhibits A and B are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We couldn't be able to fight those wars without contractors. The military could not feed its own soldiers without the help of private companies. If we didn't have those contractors, we would need to have a national draft.

Isn't the lack of a draft a good thing?

Not necessarily. It makes it very easy to engage in overly ambitious military commitments. It becomes a matter of money, not putting the lives of our sons and daughters in danger overseas.

Does contracting undermine existing government efforts as well as aid them?

It certainly doesn't help morale because of what it says about our commitments to the people who stay in-house. Now we have soldiers and contractors often doing the exact same job in Iraq, like driving a supply truck, and a contractor is getting paid three times the salary. U.S. soldiers are not happy about it. Moreover, what does it say about what we prioritize as a country? It says that the smart move is to serve in the government for a few years and then cash out.

What else is contracted out?

Contractors do lots of positive things as well. U.S. values are a force for good in the world, and often it is private actors that are actually getting them implemented around the world. I call it a privatization of power. We need to harness the positive forces as well as rein in the negative aspects of privatization.

Is this a better way of distributing the burden of international action?

Contracting makes things like the Clinton Global Initiative possible. Groups like Save the Children receive lots of government money and are essentially contractors. There's a whole rethinking in the world of international development about the role of the private sector. And contracting is often a much better way of getting something done. The problem is that the current system for contracting, such as it is, doesn't incentivize long-term thinking about what should and shouldn't be outsourced.

Is contracting inevitable?

We do need to reimagine government for the modern world. Large bureaucracies are not going to get it done. But we've gone too far in the other direction. With the crusade against big government, we've allowed lots of waste, fraud, and abuse because of the rapid charge to shift responsibilities from the government onto the private sector.

Do other countries outsource like us?

Think of it as the logic of the free market taken to the extreme. No other country in the world takes private sector government relations to this extreme. The United Kingdom is a close second behind the U.S. in terms of privatization, which is interesting because many military contractors are also based there. But if there's money to be made, what's to stop the Chinese starting up some military contracting companies? Or the Indians? Or the Saudis? There are dangerous implications for the international order.