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