December 29, 2012

From Benghazi to Blackwater

Academi (formerly Blackwater) and other military contractors received an early Christmas present on the 20th: a windfall in future profits from diplomatic security:

[B]oth the influential independent commission on the September attacks in Benghazi
and a Senate hearing on Thursday pointed to flooding the State
Department’s security corps with money. And one of the key post-Benghazi
decisions the next secretary of state will make is whether to continue
spending that cash on hired guards or to bolster the ranks of State
Department employees that protect diplomats themselves. The Benghazi commission, run by former Amb. Thomas Pickering and
retired Adm. Mike Mullen, recommended spending an additional $2.2
billion over the next decade on “construction of new facilities in high
risk, high threat areas.” It also urged using emergency war funding to
finance “respond[ing] to emerging security threats and vulnerabilities
and operational requirements” in dangerous postings. Ironically, even
while the commission blasted the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for
inadequately protecting the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, its
recommendations will line the bureau’s coffers.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my Twitter and Facebook streams. Articles were posted and resposted warning that diplomacy is inherently dangerous, a fortress mentality would only prevent diplomats from doing their jobs, and that the new contracts would lead to a return to the low points of Iraq War military contracting. Certainly, returning to the era of "Big Boy Rules" (if that is what this means, which is by no means self-evident) would be a net loss for American national power. But just like my blogmate Dan's UAV-loathing nemeses, the cottage industry of contractor-haters tends to ignore the real problem at hand while focusing their ire on a handy external object. However, frantically attacking a goateed, black polo'd voodoo doll will not make policymakers stop using private military contractors--the fault lies in larger questions of statecraft.

Diplomacy is indeed inherently a dangerous business. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other environments of transitional authority, State Department employees have risked their lives alongside general-purpose forces, special operations forces, and CIA agents and tactical operators. But there is a crucial difference between a diplomat and a soldier, a difference that has been unintentionally obfuscated by ten years of "civilian surge"-ing. As Steven Metz noted, only DoD has the redundancy and capacity to deploy, equip, feed, and protect large numbers of Kevlar-clad men in places where many residents with guns aren't Americans trying to get out. Diplomatic risk is unavoidable, but without something akin to the British imperial civil service there is a limit to the level of risk an under-resourced organization like State can bear.

It is easy to criticize the State Department's tendency towards bunkering in Iraq only if one forgets that the United Nations, which lacked proper security, was attacked with significant loss of life. Sérgio Vieira de Mello is evidence of the unfortunate fact that credible influence has costs. Many non-governmental organizations are now agonizing over whether or not to use private military contractors themselves. Much of the world is in the middle of political transitions, many states have not established full control, and local political factions don't always see foreigners with good intentions as a boon. In fact, stability and the rule of law can actually upset the informal arrangements that undergird many political systems. In Haiti, cracking down on gangs robbed established politicians of their enforcer cadres.

But this does not answer the question of why diplomacy is a dangerous business for Americans. Whether or not you damn or praise America with the ideologically charged term "empire," the growth of a network of contractual relationships is the most tangible legacy of our centuries-long climb to global preeminence. Great powers contract out security, logistics, and economic commitments to trusted agents. But those agents must struggle to legitimate said commitments to domestic audiences. Libya's largely pro-American populace did not produce or sanction the Benghazi attack. But there were still men with guns who did, and the government will not act against them.

The principal-agent problem arises when trusted agents in places like Libya are unwilling or unable to fulfill their contracts. Diverting resources to benefit a distant power, stepping on local interests, and risking being damned as the pawn of foreigners is costly. Withdrawing from contracts is not. The patron needs the client, and failures to complete the contract are often unpunished. This is why Pakistan can funnel money, arms, and even operational direction to those who kill Americans and Afghans with impunity. To make matters worse, the nature of strategic geography often dictates that clients are sought in some of the world's most unstable locales. Every administration since Carter has the same Persian Gulf security policy, and that policy involves cozying up to repressive states. The logistics tail of the Afghan war proved beneficial for many a Central Asian autocrat.

Unfortunately, contractual relationships have a nasty way of enmeshing the US in local political disputes, because our support makes us an actor in other states' domestic politics. Americans--diplomats, soldiers, or otherwise--are thus targets to any faction with a grievance or a desire to position themselves in the political arena. Counting on the locals to respect a little thing called the Vienna Convention is a fool's errand, and the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis should have signaled loud and clear that norms of diplomatic conduct are just scraps of paper to armed "students," terrorists, and militiamen.

Increased security, private or governmental, is a ready solution when trusted agents cannot or will not protect Americans from those who seek to do them harm. The Libyan government cannot properly protect the American consulate, does not exert effort to capture those responsible, and does not even provide security for American law enforcement to investigate the attack. So if the host nation cannot do the job, why blame the State Department for turning to those who can? Blackwater, for all of its lethal flaws, never lost a principal.

Note too, as Dan and Jason Fritz have, that Benghazi is also a symbol of how light-footprint interventions magnify the consequences of the principal-agent problem. The US was willing to overthrow Gaddafi but preferred exerting influence rather than control over the turbulent post-conflict environment. The fact that the Benghazi consulate's security was contracted to an unreliable militia is a potent symbol of how trying to avoid the costs inherent in the exercise of power can sometimes lead to disaster. This is not to argue that a large American occupation force was the answer. But as Fritz observes, the reluctance to pay the cost afterwards to advance American political goals should have been a deciding factor in the intervention itself.

The real problem with PMC diplo-security is that it only accentuates the fundamental problem--unreliable client governments offloading costs onto the United States. By waging air war on Pakistan's proxies instead of holding Islamabad to account for its misdeeds, we become the focus of the Pakistani public's rage. Meanwhile, Islamabad keeps on providing the material support that keeps terrorists and insurgents in the field after our platforms return to base. Similarly, responding to Benghazis by bulking up on security entails assuming responsibility for what the Libyan government should be doing.

For better or worse, superpower status means that we will have to deal with the tough reality of trying to maintain a set of hierarchal relationships for the foreseeable future. We will struggle to manage complex security, logistical, and economic relationships in unstable places with often unreliable partners. And we will create new relationships through interventions that entail lengthy post-conflict assistance. Raging at the Blackwaters of the world is unproductive, and the consequences of Benghazi should highlight precisely why. PMCs are market-oriented institutions and no demand that is worth paying large sums to satisfy will go unmet.

Benghazi's partisan nastiness will fade as we enter 2013. But its consequences for American diplomacy are enormous. Fortress security may prevent future Benghazis, but at a high cost that we bear alone. We would do better by trying, through a mixture of various forms of national power, to incentivize the governments we rely on to actually fulfill their most basic of responsibilities: protecting the men and women we send into harm's way to advance our interests.