Clinton, Obama Tussle Over Blackwater (Updated)
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By Noah Shachtman Email February
29, 2008 | 10:42:00 AM
Just as Blackwater had finally fallen from the headlines and the boys in Moyock thought their State Department contract would be quietly renewed, their worst nightmare has hit: Blackwater is a campaign issue. In an ironic twist of politics, Blackwater head honcho Erik Prince is now on the same side of the contractor issue as Senator Barack Obama -- more or less.
Senator Hillary Clinton broke her longstanding silence on private security contractors in Iraq. Her senate office announced late Thursday that she is co-sponsoring a bill to ban "Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq."
The timing of the announcement is particularly curious. It comes less than a day after the investigative journalist and Blackwater critic Jeremy Scahill published a piece in The Nation reporting that, if elected, "Obama will not 'rule out' using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq." The campaign also informed Scahill that Obama would not be signing on to legislation banning the use of contractors in war zones by 2009. [Obama previously pushed in the Senate a bill to force some transparency into the private military contractor business -- ed.]
The campaign also informed Scahill that Obama would increase State Department funding so that State could build their own ranks and eventually replace contractors. Scahill noted the difficulty of the position:
The senior adviser acknowledged that Obama could find himself in a situation where, as President, he continues using forces he himself has identified as "unaccountable." The Obama campaign, in other words, may have painted itself into a corner.
It appears that Clinton's campaign realized the risk Obama was taking and picked up the issue in an attempt to outflank Obama on the left and pick up the vote of Blackwater opponents.
I spoke with Scahill about the coincidental timing. "For over a week I tried to get Hillary Clinton's campaign and Senate staff to issue a policy statement reflecting her position on her potential future use of PMCs in Iraq if she won the presidency. Silence. Then, the day after my story comes out revealing that Obama will not "rule out" using them, all of a sudden Hillary Clinton becomes the most important political figure in the US to call for a "ban" on Blackwater et al." Scahill said. "Where was her call for a ban after [Blackwater's controversial shooting of civilians at] Nisour Square?"
Maybe somewhere underneath the Oval Office drapery measurements?
Senator Clinton targeted what has become America's most hated company with unusually strong rhetoric, clearly intended for emotional appeal, something her campaign has sorely lacked:
"From this war's very beginning, this administration has permitted thousands of heavily-armed military contractors to march through Iraq without any law or court to rein them in or hold them accountable. These private security contractors have been reckless and have compromised our mission in Iraq. The time to show these contractors the door is long past due. We need to stop filling the coffers of contractors in Iraq, and make sure that armed personnel in Iraq are fully accountable to the U.S. government and follow the chain of command," said Senator Clinton.
Thousands of heavily-armed contractors marching through streets? Contractors marching? More like lounging around Campy Liberty's pool in their Speedos.
Obama seems to be confident enough in his lead that he can risk political fallout of the acknowledgment that whoever becomes the next president will have little choice but to continue reliance upon contracted security. The math is simple. The number of Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp
personnel in Iraq is nearly equal to the number of Diplomatic Security Service officers worldwide (approximately 1395 vs. 1450). The US government is not in a position to replace them.
Obama's campaign seems to understand something about the contracting issue and now that Senator Clinton has taken a position, it's time for her to do her homework and maybe even bring on a new national security advisor who understands the complexity of the issues.
I hear that Cofer Black is available...
Disclaimer: In no way do I endorse either of these candidates, although I do admit that if Cofer signed on as their national security advisor, I would support a Prince/Scahill ticket.
-- R.J. Hillhouse, cross-posted at The Spy Who Billed Me
Peter Singer, of the Brookings Intitute, has this to say about the timing:
Yes, timing of this is, to be kind, rather odd. I guess, just as the issue had gone partisan with the Dem and Republican split over Halliburton over the last several years and then the sad display of partisanship at the Blackwater shooting hearings in the fall, it seems Hillary’s campaign is now trying to make it a wedge inside the Dem party, in the last throes of the nomination. For me as an analyst, it is sort of amusing, as the issue was absolutely ignored for so many years and now suddenly it’s a presidential campaign issue?
I’m not sure Hillary’s campaign will get much traction on it, however. At the end of the day, it’s only a five sentence statement of intent, coming after her being 8 years on the Armed Services Committee, a full year after Obama issues his bill on contracting, 7 months after the Blackwater shootings, and 6 months after Obama’s bill becomes the core of much of the latest round of reforms in the Defense Authorization act. Maybe she’s trying to get some pop by doing this 5 days before the OH and TX primaries. But, if a back and forth happens on the topic of private military contracting, it is going to be very hard for her to argue any depth on the issue and, even more so, avoid the political timing label. Obama just has to point to his track record on the issue and say, “Why did you just suddenly discover this issue now 5 days before the votes, and, more importantly, where have you been for the last years?” Indeed, if you check his campaign’s defense policy factsheet that they issued to public in November 07, before he catches fire in the Iowa primary, he lays out some pretty extensive policies on reforming contracting. But what is notable is the into to that section. It reads:
“Almost every candidate running for president has talked about this issue to the press. Barack Obama has actually taken action, and did so some eight months before the recent tragedy in Baghdad involving Blackwater shootings of civilians. It is yet another demonstration of his foresight and judgment on the issues that matter, rather than waiting for the polls to determine his position after the fact.”
Ouch. Again, that sentence, which now reads pretty telling, is from back in November.
More broadly, the real test of these various proposals to reign in contracting is their workability. Prior to this, the bill she’s signing onto hasn’t shown much movement and, even if it had passed, would likely be vetoed by Bush (witness what he did to the far more modest idea of a war time contracting commission with his signing statements). So, end sum: tempest in teapot, stoked by media and electoral politics. But if its does go further as a campaign trail issue, its likely one he can launch a pretty devastating counterattack on.
[ed. note: Singer is a supporter of the Obama campaign and has provided assistance to it in his personal capacity, but is writing here only in his capacity as a Brookings fellow, in which he has provided analysis on the contractor issue to the offices of both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, among others.]