Category Archives: Friends, Allies, and Frequented Sites

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be Tried in NYC, Lynne Stewart Off to Jail and Other News


[KSM: Coming soon to a NYC courthouse near you]

Attorney General Holder announced he is bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) from Guantanamo to NYC to face a criminal trial instead of allowing his case to continue in front of military tribunal. Holder claims the courts have a better chance of convicting KSM than the tribunals, which is crazy given the defendant was prepared to plead guilty and said he wants to receive the death penalty. Holder also thinks the criminal court system will move at a faster pace.

Conservative critics of Holder’s decision point to the length and delays in the Jose Padilla case as well as the real possibility that much of the evidence pointing to KSM’s will be thrown out due to the methods used to extract that evidence, in particular water boarding. They are also concerned a criminal trial will lead to important intelligence falling into the hands of Islamist extremists.

One defense attorney who knows these extremists intimately is Lynne Stewart. Stewart was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for passing information for her client, Omar Abdel Rahman.

Another defense attorney who is finding himself in the hot seat is Paul Bergrin. Better known for his role in Abu Ghraib trials, Bergrin is being tried in a New Jersey court for the murder of a witness and informant who was preparing to testify against one of his clients. Bergrin is “also accused of trying to hire a Chicago hit man to kill a witness in another federal drug case. The assassin recorded their conversations and is cooperating in the case, prosecutors said.” The federal prosecutor added prostitution, drug and bribery charges earlier this month. Given his harsh condemnation of the Bush administration, the Bergrin case is viewed in some (loony left) quarters as an attempt to silence the voice of dissent.

In other news, I was contacted by a reporter in the Bay Area for a story he is writing on the political cult, NATLFED. He wanted to ask me a few questions about the organization regarding recruitment and other matters. At first I was flattered but after doing a bit of searching on the Internet I became concerned that the journalist was less interested in writing a serious critical piece than producing a snarky article about kooky bay area left-wing organizations. That’s all well and good but he doesn’t require me for that.

Another thing I noticed after typing out my answers to his questions was I may as well post some of that information here at my blog. So expect another post on NATLFED a few weeks after his article is published. I will make sure to post a link to his piece as well. I am very interested in reading it and hope I am wrong about my assumptions.

The blog, Spanish Security World added me to their blogroll and I was glad to reciprocate.

Posted RKL’s “It’s a Beautiful Feeling!” 7″ and Anthrax’s “Capitalism is Cannibalism” 7″ at Roland’s new music blog. Next post, Rudimentary Peni‘s “EPs of RP”.

Bill Jones has finally posted some of the videos he did for mutant trumpeter Ben Neill on Youtube. The music is from Ben Neill’s Automotive album. They take a while so be patient.

“Bug Funk”

When I heard this song, I thought a woman was singing. I can’t believe a man is:

“Nite Nite” (lyrics and vocals by Andrew Montgomery)

Demonstrations and Double Standards


Whatever you think about the Tea-Party protesters, whether you think their cause (or causes) is right or wrong, you cannot help but notice different standards applied to them and the demonstrations organized by the far left.

First, the matter of numbers. It’s strange how a protest of tens of thousands will make the first few pages of the NYT but a conservative protest with hundreds of thousands is back on page A-37. Moving further left, the various IMCs–the reporters of political rallies, protests, demonstrations, and the like–have been silent. Why is that?


Second, the organizations represented. When the NYT recently reported on an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. they noted the anti-war movement “consists of dozens of organizations representing pacifists, veterans, military families, labor unions and religious groups.” Nothing was mentioned about the groups on the radical left (communists and anarchists) who organize these anti-war protests. Nothing was mentioned about the black bloc and others who routinely destroy property and aggressively confront the police in these demos.


And, as Zombietime points out, nothing ever gets mentioned about the people who threatened violence against president Bush when he was in office.


Zombie asks:

Is there a double standard? Seems to be.

Every threat to Obama is now vigorously pursued, trumpeted and dissected by the media and the blogs, and roundly condemned. And I condemn such threats as well.

But in the past, whenever someone threatened Bush at a protest, there was a deafening silence on the part of the media and the left-leaning blogs, and consequently very little (if any) follow-through on the part of the Secret Service. Which I find quite distressing. I was condemning those threats in the past (as best I could, by drawing attention to them on my blog) — but few people were joining me in my condemnation.


This is not a new development. The NYT regularly downplays the prevalence of extremists on the left, instead preferring to focus on the right. However, where were the racist skinheads, brownshirts and other neo-Nazis at this conservative demonstration? Where were the organizations representing the far-right? Nowhere to be seen or found.

Sure, you had some “birthers” and other kooks but nowhere near the prevalence of “truthers” and other crackpots one finds in left gatherings. Yes, there were nutty Paulistas and people who think Obama is a Muslim Marxist. Like this dude:

muslim marxist

But these people, and the people who compare Obama to Hitler, are far and away in the minority on the conservative right. Most conservatives find those comparisons offensive. Yet comparisons between Bush and Hitler were common on the progressive left during Bush’s two terms in office and few in the mainstream media or on the left were offended by that.


This brings me to the third double standard, the issue of motivation. What drives individuals to engage in collective action? In the case of left-wing protesters, they are pushed to participate due to a sense of great moral conviction. They protest because it is the right thing to do. What about conservatives who protest? What is their motivation?

The predictable response from the mainstream media is racism. Conservatives protest because our president is black. That is some sad commentary on the state of American politics in the 21st century.

Think about it. It used to be the right that was obsessed with race. At least that was the case when I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I realize there are right-wing racists and extremists out there who are incensed about Obama’s blackness. All you have to do is look around the Internet. An important thing to keep in mind is radicals are on the margins of mainstream conservatism.

When I look at the political culture of the U.S. today, the partisans obsessed with race are largely located on the left. And I am not only talking about the radical left, the liberal left engages in this as well. NY representative Charlie Rangel, other Democratic legislators and the mainstream media have been reducing conservative disagreements with Obama’s policies to racism.

Congressman Rangel claims conservative opposition is “a bias, a prejudice, an emotional feeling” and thinks “some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, ‘How did this happen?’ “. Even former president Jimmy Carter felt the urge to chime in. Kate Phillips (NYT) notes:

Coupling the Wilson remark with the images in recent weeks of angry demonstrators wielding signs depicting Mr. Obama as a Nazi or as Adolf Hitler, Mr. Carter said: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

Carter continued:

“I live in the South and I’ve seen the South come a long way.” However, “I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people not just in the South but around the country … that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

You really should not have to be a conservative to find this sort of rhetoric insulting. I am not a Tea-Party protester. But the double standard applied to them is disturbing. These protests are about dramatically increased taxes, a bloated deficit, and the expansion of federal government power. For the vast majority of participants, race is not an issue.


Martin in the Margins on Carter, “race” and the right

The Stark Tenet on protesting and demonstrations

Answering Martin’s Questions Regarding Anarchism



H/t to Martin for tagging me on this. I added a question (A), How were you introduced to anarchism?

(A) How were you introduced to anarchism?

I was introduced to anarchism in my teens through the punk-rock and hardcore punk music scene. While my understanding of anarchism was neither deep nor broad, the anti-authoritarian and DIY elements really appealed to me. Here is a little classic anarcho-punk:

When I got a bit older (20s) I started reading some of the classical anarchist authors and texts after volunteering at an anarchist press that will remain nameless; “Bakunin on Anarchism” (translated by Sam Dolgoff), Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread,” Rudolf Rocker’s “Anarcho-Syndicalism,” Abel Paz’s “Durruti: The People Armed,” Murray Bookchin’s “The Spanish Anarchists” and loads of stuff by Paul Avrich including “Anarchist Portraits,” “Anarchist Voices,” “Sacco and Vanzetti,” and “The Haymarket Tragedy.”

1. What exactly do you mean by anarchism (which key ideas and thinkers are important to you)?

In its most simple formulation, libertarian socialism i.e. socialism that allows for a maximum of individual liberty. As Bakunin wrote, “Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice and Socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”

Back in my anarchist days I moved from an anarcho-syndicalist or anarcho-communist perspective to a much more individualist or mutualist position. It’s strange that my personal progression was the inverse of the historical development of anarchism as an ideology i.e from a form of mutualism influenced by Proudhon to Bakunin’s anarcho-collectivism to Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism.

As to which key ideas and thinkers are important to me, today I have moved rather far from my anarcho-roots. But back in the day I liked Benjamin Tucker and the American individualists, Errico Malatesta (anarcho-communist), Rudolf Rocker (anarcho-syndicalist), and especially Fernando Tarrida del Mármol and Ricardo Mella who advocated what they termed anarchismo sin adjetivos (anarchism without adjectives). These two authors found that anarchists shared more in common then all their hyphenated forms seemed to indicate.

I still have a lot of affinity for Carlo Tresca, who was able to work with anarchists, the syndicalists in the IWW and more mainstream trade-unionists. Like Mella, he was a bridge-builder between a variety of different leftwing movements and political perspectives. He was also a fierce opponent of Stalinists, fascists and the mob.

But the anarchists I felt I had the most in common with were people like Dolgoff or the working-class anarchist immigrants Avrich interviewed in “Anarchist Voices”. These people were activists and not traditional intellectuals. Their stories, their families, their struggles, their language, spoke to me and I found a lot of inspiration reading about their lives.

Sadly, I have found that anarchists in the U.S. have lost much of their willingness to actively fight against totalitarian socialism. Sure, they’ll diss the commies in their newspapers and journals. But when it comes to rallies and demonstrations, the anarchists and Stalinists, Maoists and other totalitarian socialists march side-by-side. In Tresca’s day, the anarchists would be fighting these scum in the streets, factories and neighborhoods. I have written a little about this here and here.


2. Does the anarchist experiment in the Spanish Republic have any relevance today (and if so what), or is the continuing fascination with it simply rose-tinted leftist nostalgia?

Allowing my remnant of anarchist influence to show through, I prefer to refer to the Spanish Revolution. The main relevance of that event is anarchists and other liberty-minded individuals should never, ever, trust the communists. Even if that means working with liberals, non-radicals and—dare I say it—other advocates of capitalism.

As to the rose-tinted nostalgia, it is incredibly strong among anarchists. As I have mentioned elsewhere, CNT militants certainly resisted Communist attempts at destroying the anarchist collectives. But, at the same time, the anarchists also implemented pro-capitalist methods themselves.

These methods including tying wages to productivity, the implementation of the piece-rate system, harsh punitive measures for slackers, even forced collectivization which most anarchists fail to admit.

As Seidman writes, “A dispassionate examination of the charges and countercharges leads to the conclusion that both anarchist and Communists were correct. The former used illegal coercion to initiate collectives, and the latter used it to destroy them.” (126) (Michael Seidman “Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War“. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

I highly recommend Seidman’s book as he does not have an ideological axe to grind and is trying to humanize our understanding of the conflict. Seidman argues for most Spaniards, the ideological struggles mattered less than day-to-day survival. What did they do? How did they survive? These are the questions Seidman seeks to answer, not which side had the proper ideological line. For most Spaniards, consumption was the primary consideration, not class-struggle.

Where we are today, I think the example of the Mondragon Cooperatives is more relevant than the Spanish anarchist collectives.


3. What exactly would it mean to implement anarchist ideas in a twenty-first century, globalised economy and polity – and would it even be possible or practicable?

That depends on what sort of anarchist you ask. The anarcho-primitivists have different ideas than the anarcho-insurrectionists who have different ideas than the anarcho-syndicalists who have different ideas than the anarcho-communists.

Possible, no.

Practicable, no.

In the end, anarchism is a utopian ideology. In my teens and twenties, utopianism had a lot of appeal for me. Today, I find that when utopian ideals are implemented they lead to dystopian realities. In other words, Hobbes was right. Human beings need the State in order to have what we know as civilization. That does not mean we should refrain from being vigilant against the encroachment of the State in our personal lives but we should recognize the benefits the State provides to us as individuals, families, etc.

I also think it is important to point out that some of the most important anarchist thinkers were intensely anti-Semitic. I am thinking specifically of Bakunin and Proudhon. This usually is swept under the rug by anarchists, including Jewish anarchists. Jewish Marxists do the same thing with Marx.

Campus Protest Roundup



[To the barricades!]

A roundup regarding the protests and occupations taking place at colleges and universities in the UK, US and Canada. Many of the protests focused on Israel and developing scholarships for Palestinian students. Some added demands specific to their institution. For example, students at NYU demanded the Bobst library opened to the public:

Bob from Brockley on Goldsmiths and the politics of Anti-Zionism.

Insider Higher Ed has a bit regarding Gaza Protests in the UK and US.

Roland Dodds (But I am a Liberal!) on the End of the Take Back NYU! (TBNYU!) occupation:

Throughout the whole video, the “activists” keep reminding the university security that they are on camera, and that it will reflect poorly on them in the future. I figure most folks will view the footage as a wonderful illustration of just how brainless these self proclaimed “student leaders” are, and not an indictment on any security personnel.

Ned Resnikoff (Campus Progress, “How Not to Protest”) opines:

The TBNYU! protest was one of the strangest farces in NYU’s 178-year history. By the end of the 40-hour occupation, only 10 protesters remained, which NYU security* unceremoniously removed from the building. Each one was suspended and kicked out of campus housing, and NYU did not meet a single one of the group’s demands. Nevertheless, the official TBNYU! blog, with characteristic detachment from reality, insisted that the occupation had “made a difference.”

Which relates to one of my comments at Roland’s:

You can already read on rad left sites like the IMCs that the protests– even if they did not achieve their demands–were a “success.” As I’ve stated many times here and elsewhere, a large measure of what drives radical activism in the U.S. is not the achievement of demands/goals (political or other) but the validation of an individual’s identity and radical ideology. In other words, it is more about how protesting makes them feel then actually achieving anything concrete. You know, “demand the impossible,” and all that.

Noga (Contentious Centrist): Two Posts on Anti-Semitism at York University.

More on the situation at York here and on anti-Israel activities at Carleton University here.


Bob provided some more links in the comments.

Elder of Zion on Israel Apartheid Week

ZWord on Israel Apartheid Week

Thoughts on the Current Debate: A Perspective from the U.S.


[Image courtesy of Zombietime.]

I haven’t found the time to post a response to what Bob, Marko and the Drink Soaked Trots for War have been writing the past week or so. I’ve found the discussion stimulating aside from the occasional juvenile outbursts. I certainly find the West vs. Anti-West perspective to have some utility, especially vis-à-vis the current anti-totalitarian struggle we are facing.

The generic left-right divide does not actually capture the complexity of people’s politics in the U.S. these days. For example, an individual may be considered “conservative” on foreign policy issues and “liberal” on domestic issues. Plus, when you actually start to examine positions on specific issues things get more muddled. I’ve known many working-class individuals who are very “liberal” when it comes to wages, health care, and pensions but very “conservative” when it comes to the environment or matters of concern to the lgbt community.

Why this is the case is an interesting question to ponder. IMHO most Americans have similar ambiguities in their political identities. I suspect that part of it is we don’t have a long history of political parties tied to specific political ideologies like democratic socialism, communism, etc. in the United States. The parties espousing these sorts of ideas were all relatively short-lived, especially compared to those of Europe. This continuous institutional history goes a long way in explaining differences in worldview between American and European workers.

I think the entire issue of reality, cognition, and perception gets overlooked in these discussions and debates. It’s my contention, and I realize it’s a strong claim, that most people involved in radical politics in the United States are not involved for reasons that many would consider political. Instead, involvement in these groups and organizations provides a sense of belonging and identity.

Most of the actions that take place under the rubric of “radical politics” in the U.S. has very little actual political content, at least in relation to domestic or foreign policy. As Kevin Harris has argued, many people who join these marginal political groups are participating in a self-delusional political fantasy:

My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective.

Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not.

They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.

I’ve found that most people on the radical left (whether “authoritarian” or “libertarian”) subscribe to various forms of fantasy ideologies. For them, politics is about validating their own personal political beliefs (like being “anti-state”) rather than accomplishing anything political. That’s not to say that the libertarian left holds uninteresting political beliefs. But let’s be honest, how many of these black-hooded youths actually thinks “the state” is going to collapse anytime soon?

I used to consider myself an anarchist. Anarchism was–key word being was–a thriving political movement in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it had a strong foundation in working-class communities. Today it is mostly a fad for middle-class college students, like socialism in general. This, not government repression, explains the movement’s weakness. These ideologies lack any sort of appeal amongst the classes they were once associated with. Historian Ron Radosh refers to this as the “leftover left”.

Marko articulates similar thoughts when he writes:

It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place…

And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.

That’s the clincher. As I’ve written elsewhere, utopian political programs lead to dystopian outcomes. Reform is necessary in any society or system of government, economics, jurisprudence, and so forth. But revolution, at least as dreamed by the radical left in the U.S., is a fantasy.

The Team Against the Committee: Fighting Tyranny and Terrorism Without Losing Our Liberal Soul


Here is an excerpt from an article by David DeRosiers, “The Team Against the Committee”: Fighting Tyranny and Terrorism Without Losing Our Liberal Soul” (The Political Science Reviewer, Vol 2., No. 1, 2003). The article is a few years old but I just discovered the existence of this journal. DeRosiers examines how liberal societies can confront violent groups through the ideas of political scientist Bertrand de Jouvenel. The essential problem, “It is very difficult for liberal regimes, which proclaim that the building of a group and the pressuring of the government are essential freedoms, to act against any group—even those animated by what Jouvenel calls ‘bellicose intent.'”

Jouvenel’s position is the very opposite of the civil libertarian who judge political liberty by the freedom that the public Authority allows to those groups and individuals that are committed to its elimination. For example, the radical Islamist, who uses the liberal hedges of civil liberties and liberal public opinion to actively and openly subvert his host is a perfect example of the “dangerous texture” that continues to surround even liberal politics. In contrast to the ACLU’s insistence that the existence of such groups testifies to the strength of liberal societies, Jouvenel insists that it points to liberalism’s inherent vulnerability. These are the “clouds, no bigger than a man’s hand from which the tempest will come.”

Jouvenel understands the practical difficulty of trying to control and eliminate such groups. And one can easily picture-because life affords us with many examples-the public Authority taking action against a faction, only to find itself undermined because the subversive group casts the attack on its bellicose intention as an attack on political liberty itself: “Sure, today it’s the Nazis in Stokie [sic] or the Branch Davidians in Texas, or the Mullahs in Patterson New Jersey-all of whose values challenge us-but if we say it is legitimate to go after them, what will stop them from one day coming after us.” This is the “slippery slope” argument of civil libertarians who always take the permanence of liberal democracy for granted and forget, or never learned, the lessons of Weimar.

Muravchik in Democratiya: The Neoconservative Persuasion and Foreign Policy


[I posted about the new edition of Democratiya a few days ago. I’d like to direct your attention to Alan Johnson’s interview with Joshua Muravchik. The interviews in Democratiya are always excellent but this one was of particular interest to me given Mr. Muravchik’s political development. The entire interview is worth reading but this bit stood out for me.]

Part 1: The Fall of Socialism

Johnson: Let’s talk about your book on socialism, which was made into a TV series by PBS. You are not ashamed of your socialist past. You point out that the Socialist Party ‘had no blood on our hands’ and ‘fought communists tooth and nail, often when few others would.’ But you admit to a feeling of embarrassment at having been ‘enthralled by a seductive but false idea that has done a lot of harm to the world.’ [3] The totalitarian impulse, you argue, was ‘there from the beginning’ in ‘socialism’s role as a redemptive creed, a substitute religion.’ Marx’s idea of a leap from a realm of necessity to a realm of freedom, for example, was ‘utterly messianic’, and ‘set the stage for the twentieth century’s great experiments in mass murder by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler.’ This is your argument:

Monotheism had linked cosmology – the understanding of which is a universal human craving – to an ethical system. The establishment of that linkage constituted the single most important step in the progress of mankind. Socialism severed that link. Socialism denied that the path to the kingdom of heaven lay in individual righteousness. Rather it was to be found in political outcomes. The individual could reach it not by striving for moral goodness but by planting himself on the right side of history or of the barricades. [4]

Muravchik: I kept wrestling with the central mystery of socialism. How could something that desired to make things better have instead made things so much worse? Was it that socialists were bad people? From my own experience I am still convinced that most people who embraced the idea of socialism did so from a humane feeling – they wanted the world to be kinder and gentler. Yet socialism’s most important results were quite the opposite. Of course, social democrats did things to humanise society when they were in government, but the overall record of socialism, when you add up both sides of the ledger, is quite appalling.

I concluded that the central problem is asking politics to do something it can’t do – to provide the ‘leap’ that Marx wrote about. This ambition departs entirely from the realities of human existence, which is imperfect and tragic. Life may not be nasty and brutish but it is short and it will always have its share of sadness and disappointment.

[read the interview]

Military Contractors, State Power and the Monopoly of the Use of Force


In the controversially titled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Charles Tilly made a rather uncontroversial observation, the consolidation of state power in Europe was accompanied by the monopolization of the use of force. In Tilly’s words, “A tendency to monopolize the means of violence makes a government’s claim to provide protection, in either the comforting or ominous sense of the word, more credible and more difficult to resist.” (see Bringing the State Back In). Yet recent trends in the United States and elsewhere suggest this cornerstone of state power may be eroding and with it, the ability of the U.S. to achieve success in the Long War.

“Businesses Worldwide. United for Peace”–International Peace Operations Association

The most recent, costly and controversial example of this shift are the private military contractors (PMCs) operating in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently restricted the movement of military contractor Blackwater to the U.S. Green Zone in response to allegations of indiscriminate violence and the targeting of Iraqi civilians. For critics, Blackwater and other PMCs are essentially mercenaries, hired soldiers with little sense of morality or loyalty.

The security contracting industry has been working hard to counter that image through their trade group, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA). The IPOA considers itself “the most ethical, transparent, and effective voice of the Peace and Stability Industry in the world” and paints a different picture of military contractors than we see in the mainstream media. Contractors are removing land mines in Africa, assisting with reconciliation in the Balkans and performing other necessary functions in post-conflict zones throughout the world.

I asked a friend who served as a solider in the first Gulf War what he thought about the role of contractors, was it good or bad for the military, are they of use in specific roles, and so forth. He thought in specific instances, food preparation and service, transportation of basic supplies, etc. using contractors was better than having soldiers perform these tasks. However, when it came to the use of force he was much more critical. Soldiers are held to much stricter rules of engagement and to much harsher consequences and penalties for getting out of line. The contractors are outside of the chain of command and do not share these restrictions.

For the soldier, the behavior exhibited by many contractors is dangerous to our counterinsurgency effort. Unprovoked firefights are a major concern. On a more strategic level, the actions of contractors undermine U.S. attempts to win “hearts and minds” in Iraq and damages American credibility in the ideological struggle throughout the region.

Peter Singer’s recent study for the Brookling’s Institution, “Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Go To War Without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency,” examines these concerns.

The point here is not that all contractors are “cowboys,” “unprofessional,” or “killers,” as Blackwater and other contractors are often described. Rather, most are highly talented, ex-soldiers. However, their private mission is different from the overall public operation. Those, for example, doing escort duty are going to be judged by their bosses solely on whether they get their client from point A to B, not whether they win Iraqi hearts and minds along the way.

Then there are the financial costs. Privatization works great for catering, but it has proved far less efficient for combat operations. Questionable contracts have resulted in the loss of billions of dollars.

Singer’s study explores how the use of contractors:

Inflames popular opinion against, rather than for, the American mission through operational practices that ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency.

As one set of contractors described. “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.”

Participated in a series of abuses that have undermined efforts at winning “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people.

The pattern of contractor misconduct extends back to 2003 and has involved everything from prisoner abuse and “joyride” shootings of civilians to a reported incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor shot dead the security guard of the Iraqi Vice President after the two got into an argument on Christmas Eve, 2006.

Weakened American efforts in the “war of ideas” both inside Iraq and beyond. As one Iraqi government official explained even before the recent shootings.

“They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans. They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”

Reveals a double standard towards Iraqi civilian institutions that undermines efforts to build up these very same institutions, another key lesson of counterinsurgency.

As one Iraqi soldier said of Blackwater. “They are more powerful than the government. No one can try them. Where is the government in this?”

Forced policymakers to jettison strategies designed to win the counterinsurgency on multiple occasions, before they even had a chance to succeed.

The U.S. Marine plan for counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle was never implemented, because of uncoordinated contractor decisions in 2004 that helped turn Fallujah into a rallying point of the insurgency. More recently, while U.S. government leaders had planned to press the Iraqi government on needed action on post-“surge” political benchmarks, instead they are now having to request Iraqi help in cleaning up the aftermath of the Blackwater incident.


I’ll be writing more on this topic in the near future.

Political Influences: Part I


Bob from Brockley asked a few bloggers (including yours truly) to list our five greatest political influences. It’s rather difficult for me to say as my politics have shifted over time from the extremes of the radical left to a more pragmatic centrism. It was very hard reducing the list to five but here they are:

1. Family. I’d be remiss (and a jerk) if I failed to mention my family. First, my mother taught me the value of compromise and being a good listener and negotiator. Second, my grandfather and his extensive library introduced me to the world of ideas at an early age. Last, but certainly not least, my brother (may he rest in peace) schooled me in the art of debate arguing.

2. Friends. I’ve been blessed with some remarkable friends over the years, many of whom never seem to tire of hashing and rehashing political quandaries, historical events, and old arguments. Without these intellectual comrades and allies I would not be the person I am today.

3. Paul Avrich. Historian and author of numerous books on the Russian and U.S. anarchist movements.

4. George Orwell.

5. Paolo Freire. Educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.