Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Obama Grudgingly Says There's a Need for Blackwater

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, grudgingly admits that there will continue to be a need for the special services that Blackwater provides.

In a wide-ranging interview with the editors of the Military Times, Obama states,

When it comes to private contractors, there is room for private contractors to work in the mess hall providing basic supplies and doing some logistical work that might have been done in-house in the past. I am troubled by the use of private contractors when it comes to potential armed engagements. I think it puts our troops in harm's way. I think it creates some difficult morale issues when you've got private contractors getting paid 10 times what an Army private's getting paid for work that carries similar risks.

The senator is mistaken about that tenfold pay difference and the risks, as Blackwater's security men in Iraq take bullets practically every day. No matter; Obama shows he's realistic and flexible. He continues,

When it comes to our special forces, what we've seen is that it's a potential drain of some of our best-trained special forces, and you can't blame them if they can make so much more working for Blackwater than they can working as a master sergeant. That, I think is a problem.

A "potential drain." Well-nuanced. A valid concern, but there's no evidence of an exodus of highly trained special forces personnel who are leaving to join Blackwater. Most serve their planned terms and leave for the private sector; Blackwater allows them to continue to serve with their military-learned skills. Again, though, Obama is coming across quite moderately.

Counters a Military Times questioner, "Blackwater would argue that they're a bargain: that you get a higher level of ability, that they can put people there, they can keep top-level talent there perpetually."

Obama's response is interesting:

I am not arguing that there are never going to be uses for private contractors in some circumstances. What I am saying is if you start building a military premised on the use of private contractors and you start making decisions on armed engagement based on the availability of private contractors to fill holes and gaps that over time you are, I believe, eroding the core of our military's relationship to the nation and how accountability is structured. I think you are privatizing something that iswhat essentially sets a nation-state apart, which is a monopoly on violence. And to set those kinds of precedents, I think, will lead us over the long term into some troubled waters.

The senator is remaining pretty consistent with the position he took last February: that he has no plans to shut down private security contractor operations in Iraq and that he reluctantly thinks they have a place in the American force structure.

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