Opinion

Blackwater personnel liable to Iraq?

by Sheldon Richman

If Iraq is really a sovereign country, which is the fiction maintained by the Bush administration, then why arent the Blackwater USA personnel who are accused of murdering 17 innocent Iraqis accountable to the criminal justice system in that country?
Private contractors such as Blackwater have had immunity from criminal prosecution, but Congress now has voted to make them liable under U.S. law. That seems odd. If an American commits a crime in Iraq, why should he be accountable to U.S. authorities? It shouldnt matter that he was under contract to the U.S. government. If the tables were turned and Iraqis under contract to Iraqs government were murdering Americans on our streets, Congress would be singing a different tune.
We shouldnt be surprised by the treatment of Iraq as a ward of the United States. That attitude has been at the center of U.S. policy since President Bush decided to go to war. Ask yourself why American politicians almost unanimously favor imposing benchmarks on the Iraqi government. If Iraq is sovereign, by what right do they make any demands at all? The war parties (yes, the Democrats too) would reply that we (who?) have vital interests in the region. But that reveals quite a lot. When a government insists that the country it speaks for has vital interests worldwide, the defense of which may require direct or indirect intervention at any time and it is in a position to carry out that intervention it is an imperial power, call it what you will.
Blackwaters involvement in Iraq has been ugly but misunderstood. The presence of security contractors in Iraq does not signify that the war has been privatized. Unfortunately, the word privatization has been corrupted over the years. It used to mean that a service provided by government was fully relinquished to the private marketplace. For example, if a city government picked up the trash, it could privatize that function simply by stopping and letting private companies offer trash-removal services directly to city residents.
But somewhere along the line privatization has come to mean governments contracting with private companies for the provision of services. Some cities have turned the management of their schools or water plants over to contractors. This has been touted as a way to achieve efficiencies that government cannot match because if one contractor doesnt produce, it can be replaced by a competing one.
Whatever the merits of that argument, the arrangement is not privatization for one obvious reason. The government pays contractors with money forcibly extracted from the taxpayers and the services are forced on everyone. In a free market, sellers and buyers are free. Consumers are at liberty to reject services they dont want.
But under phony privatization, consumers are not free to say no. They are taxed by the political authorities, who pay the contractors (who are often cronies) for services the authorities want. This is nothing like a free market.
Calling the situation in Iraq a privatized war is absurd. With all the resources of the U.S. government at his disposal, President Bush sent troops to invade Iraq, overthrow the government and subdue the population. It was a government operation from top to bottom. The American people were the financiers without the power to stop the juggernaut. (Who would have offered his own money voluntarily for this war?) That the administration has used taxpayer money to buy the services of private companies changes nothing about this story. And if such companies exist by virtue of tax money, are they really private?
In a corporatist economy such as ours, government funnels lots of money to nominally private firms to accomplish things it might have done directly. But there is no essential difference between those two ways of doing things. What counts is who controls the money.
If the government were to close down the Internal Revenue Service and hire H&R Block to collect taxes, would that be privatization of the tax system? The question answers itself.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) and editor of The Freeman magazine.

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