Global Policy Forum

PMSCs and the Arab Spring

The United States has nurtured the private security industry, not just within Iraq and Afghanistan, but also across the Arab world, but the role played by PMSCs in the Arab Spring has been largely overlooked. The governments of Libya and Bahrain, fearful that local armies might harbor grievances against them, have made extensive use of these private security contractors to quell uprisings by civilians and opposition groups alike. This serves to undermine grass-root democratization efforts in the Middle East. With the UAE leadership now forming ties to former Blackwater owner, Erik Prince, this article questions proxy role of the United States in the Arab Spring.

By David Isenberg,

August 27, 2012.

If you ever watched the science fiction television show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine you may recall the "Ferengi Rules of Acquisition" which state (#34) "War is good for business" and (#35) Peace is good for business."

This may seem paradoxical but it worked for the fictional Ferengi. And here on planet Earth it apparently also works for private military and security contractors (PMSC), according to a recent journal article.

Consider that for the past decade we have read and heard near endless streams of commentary about how crucial PMSC are for various peace, stabilization, humanitarian, and contingency (code for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) operations. And to be fair, most of them are perfectly decent men and women doing often difficult jobs in hazardous conditions. But not all of them. In fact, some of them are doing their contractual best to keep in power repressive and autocratic regimes. The result might be to prematurely end or at least set back an Arab Spring and hasten the onset of an Arab Fall.

Writing in the summer issue of the Stanford Journal of International Law Jon D. Michaels, Acting Professor at the UCLA School of Law, writes in his article, "Private Military Firms, the American Precedent, and the Arab Spring":

Among the important, but largely overlooked, developments arising out of the anti-government protests across the Arab world is the expanded role played by foreign military contractors. These contractors have reportedly endeavored to keep incumbent, autocratic regimes afloat. For instance, Colonel Gaddafi relied heavily on foreign military personnel in his ultimately unsuccessful effort to quell the rebel insurgency in Libya. Bahrain's royals, beset by domestic uprisings of their own, have similarly turned to the marketplace, employing foreign security teams to take on a host of military and police duties. Moreover, the leadership of the United Arab Emirates has worked with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to set up its own private special operations force. That force might, too, be pressed into service in the event the undemocratic Emirates likewise experiences domestic unrest.

One doesn't have to think very long to see how contracts like these do more to potentially sully the reputation of the industry than the alleged media bias that some PMSC advocates like to complain about.

Michaels asks two questions:

First, how does their use of contractors affect grass-roots democratization efforts? And, second, how does their use of military contractors affect U.S. foreign policy, both in the Arab world and more generally?

He notes:

Gaddafi imported foreign personnel in part on the assumption that he could not count on Libyan soldiers to fire on fellow citizens. Reports confirmed Gaddafi's suspicions. Contingents of the Libyan military abandoned their posts. Others went a step further, joining the rebel insurgency.

If one moves eastward the situation is potentially unstable.

According to Michaels:

There is much popular unrest in Bahrain, so much so that in 2011 both the Saudi military and UAE police forces intervened on behalf of the threatened monarchy. It is therefore not surprising that Bahrain and its UAE neighbors alike are contracting with private military outfits to, among other things, help protect the ruling regimes.

Whereas the United States could be viewed as using contractors in a way that undermines democratic engagement and accountability at home, the employment of private security forces by the likes of Libya, Bahrain, and the UAE represents a more overt affront to popular sovereignty. Throughout the Arab world, many citizen-soldiers have refused to fire on protesters. Some have gone a step further, defecting to the rebels' side. Their doing so sets them apart from foreign contractors, who've shown no such divided loyalties. Unlike the foreign contractors, these dissenting citizen soldiers are more likely to harbor grievances against the government not dissimilar to those that precipitated the civilian protests. They are also more likely to count friends and family among those protesting. In short, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience and outright insurrection, citizen-soldiers provide an important, independent check on autocratic government power.

In short, Michaels is suggesting that citizen-armies are stakeholders in the "future of their countries in a way that cannot be said about foreign military contractors. But contractors are less likely to identify with or concern themselves with the street protesters - and thus are more reliable agents of the ruling regime."

How is this bad for the United States? First, consider that the U.S. government has been supporting, albeit cautiously and tentatively, the Arab Spring. But the "introduction of contractors -- especially ones with (1) little loyalty either to the regimes they are propping up or to the citizens they might well be called upon to repress or with close ties to the United States -- poses additional complications." If they end up killing civilians the United States is going to be blamed for it, regardless of who hired them. If you doubt it just remember the aftermath of the killing of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors at Nisoor Square in 2007.

The United States will be blamed, and this is a key point for Michaels, because the United States has enabled the rise of the modern PMSC industry. Like the old E.F. Hutton commercial when the USA speaks on the benefits of PMSC people listen. Specifically, this has been done in two ways.

First, we made contractors tolerable, if not respectable, again. Having employed hundreds of thousands of military contractors in high-profile engagements this past decade, there is little ground for the United States to condemn their employment by other sovereign states. After all, the United States government has routinely renewed contracts with controversial contractors and has brushed aside requests from the Iraqi and Afghan governments to discipline or remove wayward contractors. We have continued to do so notwithstanding contractors' involvement in prisoner abuses, wanton killings of civilians, and their spearheading of a controversial assassination program for the CIA. Given the U.S. precedent, it will be difficult for our government to make a legal or moral claim to curtail the use of contractors by other governments, notwithstanding the fact that those other governments employ chiefly foreign contractors and use them to deter or suppress domestic, democratic movements.

Second, we have nurtured and subsidized the private military industry. By hiring contractors and awarding them billions of dollars in contracts, we enlivened and emboldened a fledgling industry - enabling it to gain experience and professional contacts while in our employ. Of note, we have also permitted ostensibly reputable corporate contractors to subcontract with local but often highly unreliable warriors, thus helping to spawn a discount market for seemingly less professional military services. Having made so much money in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither the corporate outfits nor their subcontractors are likely now - as those engagements draw to a close - to fade into the sunset. To the contrary, there is now a dynamic market of entrepreneurs seemingly primed to look beyond Washington for new business opportunities.

Could this be a case of the old saying, be careful what you ask for because you might get it?


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