Hillary Clinton has just become the most significant US political figure to come out in favor of banning Blackwater and other armed private security contractors from operating in Iraq. "When I am president I will ask the Joint Chiefs for their help in reducing reliance on armed private military contractors with the goal of ultimately implementing a ban on such contractors," she declared in a major policy speech on Monday.
Her position is a welcome development for those in the Congress, such as Illinois Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who have long sought to rein in private security contractors.
In her speech, Clinton slammed Obama on this issue, saying, "Senator Obama and I have a substantive disagreement here. He won't rule out continuing to use armed private military contractors in Iraq to do jobs that historically have been done by the US military or government personnel." The Clinton campaign wants voters to believe it is that simple. It is not.
First, Clinton's timing is suspect. She has served for five years on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has done nothing to end the use of Blackwater and other private security forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the aftermath of the September 2007 Nisour Square massacre, during which Blackwater operatives gunned down seventeen Iraqi civilians, Clinton condemned the company's conduct but declined to sign on as a co-sponsor to legislation introduced by Sanders and Schakowsky in November 2007 seeking to ban Blackwater and other mercenary companies.
Instead, she chose to do it in late February, after The Nation published the comments of a senior foreign policy advisor to Obama who said, "I can't rule out, I won't rule out, private security contractors" in Iraq if Obama becomes president and that Obama does not intend to sign onto the Sanders-Schakowsky legislation. The next day, after refusing for over a week to provide a comment to The Nation on the issue, Clinton's staff released a statement saying she would endorse the Stop Outsourcing Security Act to "ban the use of Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq." Clinton declared, "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due." The statement was released five days before the make-or-break primaries in Texas and Ohio, when the New York Senator was on the ropes.
On Monday, Clinton said, "I believe what matters in this campaign is not just the promises we've made to end the war; what matters is what we've actually done when it came time to match words with action. Because more than anything else, what we've done is an indication of what we'll do." On the issue of Blackwater, Clinton has been MIA for years.
Clinton's campaign is well aware that Obama has been ahead of the curve on the issue of armed private contractors in Iraq -- and certainly ahead of her. In October 2007, Clinton claimed she was unaware that Bush had granted Blackwater and other contractors immunity in 2004. "Maybe I should have known about it; I did not know about it," she said.
On Monday, Obama struck back. "Now, let me be clear: I actually introduced legislation in the Senate before Senator Clinton even mentioned this that said we had to crack down on private contractors like Blackwater because I don't believe that they should be able to run amok and put our own troops in danger, get paid three or four times or ten times what our soldiers are getting paid. I am the one who has been opposed to those operators. Senator Clinton is a late comer to that. But you know this is what happens during political season and I understand it."
In February 2007, Obama introduced contractor reform and oversight legislation that has become the Democrats' major plan in the Congress. Obama's bill seeks to make all contractors subject to prosecution in US civilian courts for crimes committed on a foreign battlefield. The bill is not without its problems. In theory, FBI investigators would deploy to the crime scene, gather evidence and interview witnesses, leading to indictments and prosecutions.
Apart from the fact that it would be impossible to effectively police such an enormous deployment of private contractors (at present basically equal to the number of active duty US troops in Iraq), the legislation would give the private military industry a tremendous PR victory. The companies could finally claim that a legally accountable structure governed their operations, yet they would be well aware that such legislation would be nearly impossible to enforce. Perhaps that is why the industry has passionately backed this approach.
But despite the measure's significant flaws, Obama did introduce it eight months before Nisour Square, at a time when Clinton was largely inactive on the issue, despite her significant Congressional influence.
In response to Clinton's speech Monday, Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, "Hillary Clinton is attacking Barack Obama on an issue where he has led and she did nothing until her campaign fell behind."
Beyond the rhetoric, how serious is Hillary Clinton about stopping Blackwater and other armed private security forces in Iraq? Obama's campaign made a difficult admission, likely at odds with many of his supporters, by saying he wouldn't rule out using these forces because they will be needed, at least at first, to implement his Iraq plan. The State Department does not have the official security agents available to protect the massive army of diplomats in Iraq, which Obama intends to maintain and, perhaps, increase. The campaign says Obama wants to change that and to make all security personnel official US Diplomatic Security agents, but that could take years, according to the State Department.
Like Obama, Clinton has an Iraq plan that will keep thousands of officials and others who require diplomatic security in Iraq. If she thinks the military wants to do that job, she hasn't been reading the papers. If she thinks there are enough official State Department agents to do it right away, she hasn't been looking at the numbers: Blackwater has almost as many security operatives working in Iraq (nearly 1,000) as the State Department has available in the rest of the world combined (1,450).
At the end of the day, both Obama and Clinton have Iraq plans that for the foreseeable future will necessitate using private armed security forces. While Obama's campaign has acknowledged that fact, Clinton has seized it as an opportunity to attack Obama. Short of dramatically shrinking the size of the US civilian and diplomatic presence in Iraq, the next president may have no choice but to continue the current contracting arrangements. If, as president, Obama or Clinton did order the military to take over the protection of diplomats, that would result in an increase of US military convoys on the streets of Iraq, regularly placing US soldiers in direct -- and likely lethal -- contact with Iraqi civilians and vehicles.
In the bigger picture, the most disturbing aspect of this is that neither Clinton nor Obama have real plans to end the occupation. Their "withdrawal" plans will keep thousands of US military forces in Iraq, along with the Green Zone, the massive US embassy and the Baghdad airport. This could add up to as many as 80,000 troops, not including the armed security for diplomatic convoys currently provided by Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp.
If Hillary Clinton expects any credibility on this issue, especially after her recent condemnation of Blackwater and the pledge to ban private security forces in Iraq, it would mean radically revising her Iraq plan to one of complete withdrawal. That means no residual forces, "strike forces," or the army of "diplomats" necessitating security, which regularly proves fatal for Iraqi civilians. At the same time, if either Obama or Clinton really wants to end the occupation, it means a pledge to swiftly withdraw all US troops and contractors. At this point, neither seems willing to do that.
This piece was originally published by The Nation