Fearful of repeating the foreign policy mistakes of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, top Trump aides Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon have recently turned to Erik Prince and Stephen Feinberg for help. According to a report in the New York Times, Prince, the founder of Blackwater, and Feinberg, the CEO of the holding company that owns DynCorp, are championing private military alternatives to a recommitment of uniformed personnel in Afghanistan.
There is a lot going on in this still-developing story. Let’s focus on two.
First, if Kushner and Bannon don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, why would they turn to two of the most prominent — and controversial — figures in private military contracting?
Have they so quickly forgotten all the fiscal, operational and diplomatic headaches contractors caused in Iraq and Afghanistan? All the instances of contractor fraud and overbilling, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars? All the abuses, irksome and monstrous, including the flagrant disregard for the cultural sensitivities of the occupied people; the killing of unarmed civilians (in what the U.S. Department of Justice called a wartime atrocity); the degradation, humiliation and even waterboarding of detainees? All the ways in which contractors alienated, even radicalized, local populations? (Recall that the friendly governments we installed in Baghdad and Kabul insisted on Blackwater and its ilk leaving their countries; the criminal prosecutions, congressional investigations and administrative penalties; and, of course, Prince’s hightailing it out of the United States in 2010, perhaps a half-step ahead of the law.)
Second, why are Kushner and Bannon formulating military strategy? Bannon and Kushner are reportedly intent on giving the president alternatives to the advice put forward by the likes of Pentagon chief James Mattis and national security advisor H.R McMaster. We’ve been down this road, too. Remember the George W. Bush administration’s kettle of chicken hawks? They squeezed out Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell from major policy decisions and, often, ignored the concerns of the military leadership.
Yet folks such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz look like Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz compared with Kushner and Bannon. Kushner has zero military or foreign policy experience. Bannon’s experience has been confined to service as a junior naval officer and a short stint on the National Security Council — before McMaster summarily removed him as utterly unqualified.
On this issue, Kushner and Bannon ought to defer to Mattis and McMaster, two of the very few Trump appointees who remain well liked and respected. Mattis and McMaster are career senior military officers and, reportedly, want nothing to do with the private military CEOs whose involvement was all too apparent and destructive under Presidents Bush and Obama.
We surely are far from closing the book on Iraq and Afghanistan. But whenever that book is written, one deeply unsettling chapter will tell the sorry tale of America’s injudicious revival of the private military industry.
Until recently, that industry was on the fast track to extinction, barely kept alive in the decades after World War II by unsteady warlords and petty dictators insensitive to the otherwise universally felt revulsion toward soldiers-for-hire. It had lost its place in a rapidly democratizing and increasingly legally accountable world, as modern states took the lead in cultivating national, public militaries unmotivated by profits, attentive of the laws of wars and intimately tied to democratic projects, commitments and aspirations.
The cultivation of such democratic militaries helped raise the costs and stakes of going to war. We weren’t just paying mercenaries to do a job. We were sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way, a proposition that — one would hope, if not expect — kept the graybeards at the drawing boards and negotiating tables just a little bit longer.
In the 1990s, however, the United States re-embraced military contracting, albeit on a small scale. And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we found ourselves entirely reliant on contractors, who at various times outnumbered uniformed personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan and whose presence enabled us to continue and even intensify the occupations long after much of America stopped thinking about them.
Sometimes, war is inevitable. But the decision to engage militarily should remain the hardest decision a president has to make. Kushner and Bannon should remember that before presenting President Trump with the seemingly easy option of dispatching contractors — especially since that initially pain-free path proved so agonizing the last time we took it.
Jon D. Michaels is a professor at the UCLA School of Law. His book, “Constitutional Coup: Privatization’s Threat to the American Republic,” will be published in October.