Book Discussion “Outsourcing War and Peace”: Laura Dickinson responds to Stanger, Pearlstein, Walker, Horton and Borgen

by Laura Dickinson

[Laura Dickinson is the Oswald Symister Colclough Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC.]

This is the final day in our discussion of Professor Dickinson’s book Outsourcing War and Peace: Preserving Public Values in a World of Privatized Foreign Affairs. Links to the related posts can be found below.

Thank you all for your insightful comments and for engaging in such a productive debate about this difficult issue.  I have just a few additional thoughts.  Allison Stanger raises the important question of whether we can truly have public values in a world in which private sector employees are performing work that civil servants used to do.  This challenging issue requires a deeper philosophical debate to do it justice.  But I do think that certain core values, such as respect for human dignity, are public-regarding in their aims, and that therefore private actors can (and indeed sometimes have an obligation to) protect such values.  Moreover, given that privatization is likely here to stay, I think we have an obligation to keep engaging on the issue without assuming that there is no opening for public values.

Deborah Pearlstein emphasizes that privatization is just one part of a new era of watered-down checks on the war power, an era that perhaps began with the demise of the citizen-soldier.  I largely agree with this point, though I suspect that privatization is distinct in the degree to which it reduces transparency and accountability.  For example, the Department of Defense still can’t even give us an accurate tally of the number of contractors in Afghanistan (to be sure, that’s partly because State and USAID don’t provide comparable information to the SPOT database).  Outsourcing arguably exponentially enhances inter-agency coordination problems.

Jeffrey Walker notes that agencies rarely terminate for default, and I agree that termination and debarment are potentially important parts of the contracting toolkit and must be used more if such contracts are to protect public values.   Scott Horton points out that the weak accountability regime for contractors has gummed up the SOFA negotiation process.  I would add that this weakness has interfered with more than SOFAs in U.S. bi-lateral relationships.  For example, when former U.S. soldier Raymond Allen Davis reportedly killed two armed men on the streets of Lahore in 2011, the fact that he was a contractor played into fears of outsourcing prevalent among Pakistanis.  Yet those fears perhaps would hold less sway if, in cases of extreme abuse, contractors were more frequently subject to punishment.

Finally, Chris Borgen muses that the executive branch may not have an interest in improving oversight of contractors because outsourcing expands executive power.  It is undoubtedly true that increasing the leeway of the executive branch may be one of the motivations for outsourcing.  I argue in the book that the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all found in contracting a way to reduce the political costs of war.  But at the same time, I suggest that it is also the underlying politics of privatization—the dominant political narrative that the private sector can perform tasks more cheaply and efficiently than government employees—that is the main driver of outsourcing.  In some cases, contractors may in fact be more efficient, but we have turned to contractors in the foreign affairs arena in many cases without doing the math.

All of this means that it will be very hard to roll back outsourcing, but I don’t believe that requires us to give up on the possibility that public values can be brought to bear on the process.  Instead, I think we must continue to explore, and insist upon, new models for protecting these values in an increasingly privatized world.

7 Responses

  1. Excellent discussion and I have enjoyed all of the comments and posts.

    My commentary on the whole thing, coming from a security contractor point of view and as a US citizen and tax payer is that public values are important, but winning wars is more important. The logic being, that if you lose your war, you lose your nation and all your rights of demanding public values on a military that has has been decimated by a stronger military. So, we can talk about public values all day long, but at the end of the day, winning wars is of the highest priority of a nation–if it wants to survive.

    So with that said, how do we raise an army to defend a liberal democracy like ours? Well we tried the draft, and Vietnam happened, and the draft became a horrible idea that ended with the end of the Vietnam war. And thanks to folks like Milton Friedman, the idea of the draft was the equivalent to a nation raising a ‘slave army’. As it stands, the selective service is the only form of conscription we have, and is intended as a ‘last ditch’ effort for protecting a nation.
    But all in all, the draft is dead, and even after ten plus years of this current war, the debate to bring back the draft is virtually non-existent. Folks have tried, but it has not happened and for good reason. The idea of being forced to fight, or for soldiers having to fight side by side with individuals who are there against their will, is abhorrent to this country’s citizenry. It is hard sell and political suicide for those leaders that attempt to impose such a slave military concept on our society.
    This is a very important concept to remember when having this current debate about private force in war. Because right now, our ‘All Volunteer Military’ is how we do business–and private contractors are essential to make that happen. Our AVM is also an army that is contracted.
    Soldiers sign contracts, they get paid, and they receive benefits. There is nothing ‘volunteer’ about it, and they choose to join and receive pay/benefit.  They also sign contracts that allow the government to do all sorts of crazy things with them. Stuff like stop loss or call backs.  But like I said, these are ‘contracts’ that citizens sign on their own free will.

    But even with all of this pay and benefits, an AVM has a hard time adapting to the changing dynamic of wars. You go to war with the military you have, and not the one you wish you had.  So the beginnings of wars require manpower.  Or wars change after several years, and military planning requires even more manpower?  Or the leadership of the country changes, and that leader might have an entirely different idea of how that war is to be prosecuted.  So these ups and downs of manpower requirements are highly dependent upon the current force levels, and a congress funding that effort. A congress that is influenced by politics and the defense of a nation. Lot’s of variables, and yet our force structure has to be flexible enough to meed the needs of a war, or multiple wars.
    Military leaders have to be able to see into the future as well, and predict what is needed. But overall, we have not been able to do this, and time and again, we get into wars without sufficient manpower.  And that is why we turn to contractors. 
    There is also the curse of the peace dividend.  At the end of wars, like the Cold War or the First Gulf War, a nation demands the peace dividend or an end to the size and cost of a standing army. The citizenry demands it because they are tired of paying for it, and politicians give them what they want.  Those politicians are then able to direct moneys in the budget towards things that will make them the good guys in the eyes of their people.
    This peace dividend is great, all the way up until a 9/11 happens or a Pearl Harbor happens. This cycle happens over and over again in the history of this country, and it will happen at the end of this war. We are already seeing some signs of that with force reductions now. 
    I guess my point is, that with this cycle of war and peace, and what society is willing to pay for in terms of a standing army that is maintained on a contractual basis (AVM), that we have to use contractors to make up the difference. It’s either that, or maintain a massive standing army eternally, and demand a society pays for it. Good luck selling that one. lol Or we can try to implement a draft again….but good luck trying to sell that concept.
    So yes, I agree that we must learn how to use our contractor force and we must take a hard look at how our public values mesh with winning wars and the survival of a nation.
    I absolutely agree that we should be doing everything we can to turn contracting into an asset during war time, and not a liability. It is something I constantly explore and discuss on my blog, and we are getting there….slowly. It is frustrating, because I think there are plenty of lessons learned and reports to work from, and government just needs to lead and act on this information. But I am optimistic, and I think we are getting there when it comes to reform and how best to use contractors during times of war. -matt

    For those who would like to reference a qualitative and quantitative analysis about exactly what I am talking about above, Bruce Stanley has produced an excellent paper on the subject. It is called
    Selective Privatization Of Security: Why American Strategic Leaders Choose To Substitute PSC’s For National Military Forces


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