Over the past decade, the United States has radically shifted the way it projects its power overseas. Instead of using full-time employees of foreign affairs agencies to implement its policies, the government now deploys a wide range of contractors and grantees, hired by both for-profit and nonprofit entities.
Thus, while traditionally we relied on diplomats, spies, and soldiers to protect and promote our interests abroad, increasingly we have turned to hired guns. Contrast the first Gulf War to later conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the Gulf War the ratio of contractors to troops was 1 to 100; now, with approximately 260,000 contractors working for the State Department, Department of Defense (DoD), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq and Afghanistan, that ratio has often exceeded 1 to 1.
To be sure, U.S. history is rich with examples of contractors; the privateers of the Revolutionary period are a case in point. But our current turn to privatized labor does reflect a new trend, spurred by the post-Cold War decline of the standing military and the elimination of the draft, supported by the public’s faith (not always backed up by data) that the private sector can perform work more efficiently than government employees, and fueled by the exigencies of the war on terror in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Many of these modern contractors perform logistics functions, such as delivering meals to troops or cleaning latrines on the battlefield. Others guard diplomats, convoys, and military bases. But contractors have also gathered intelligence, interrogated detainees, and engaged in tactical maneuvers, sometimes under circumstances involving hostile fire.
Those of us who remember the 1980s lived through the Iran-Contra Affair and its labyrinth of arms-for-hostages deals, secret transfers of U.S. government funds, backdoor support for the Nicaraguan Contras after Congress cut off funding, and the duplicity of Reagan administration officials who tried to hide and then cover up what they were doing. Some of us even recall the covert war in Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s where the U.S. military, the CIA, and various paramilitaries pursued Communist forces in campaigns that were common knowledge in the region but kept secret from Congress and the American people. A few seasoned chroniclers of our national security are even able to remember earlier secret support for paramilitary forces, coup attempts, and a plethora of covert operations that were undertaken by the United States as an adjunct to its Cold War with the Soviet Union.
In the post-9/11 environment, the United States confronted the Taliban, al Qaeda, and associated terrorist and insurgent groups, where the conventional military force that quickly forced Iraq’s retreat from Kuwait and subdued the Milosevic regime in Kosovo in the 1990s was far less effective. Paramilitary campaigns waged by the CIA and contractors became an integral part of the counterterrorism response to these new enemies, and our military greatly expanded its own capabilities to collect intelligence and carry out clandestine operations. Over time, first in the Bush administration and now in an expanded and more aggressive strategy by the Obama administration, the United States has been conducting what The New York Times described as a “shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies”:
In roughly a dozen countries – from the deserts of North Africa, to
the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by
ethnic and religious strife – the United States has significantly
increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy
using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to
spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution assigned to Congress many of the powers of external affairs previously vested in the English king. That allocation of authority is central to America’s democratic and constitutional system. When decisions about armed conflict, whether overt or covert, slip from the elected members of Congress, the principles of self-government and popular sovereignty are undermined. Political power shifts to an executive branch with two elected officials and a long history of costly, poorly conceived military commitments. The Framers anticipated and warned against the hazards of Executive wars. In a republican form of government, the sovereign power rests with the citizens and the individuals they elect to public office. Congress alone was given the constitutional authority to initiate war.
Legislative control over external affairs took centuries to develop. The English Parliament gained the power of the purse in the 1660s to restrain the king, but the power to initiate war remained a monarchical prerogative. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), John Locke identified three functions of government: legislative, executive, and “federative.” The last embraced “the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions with all persons and communities without the commonwealth.” To Locke, the federative power (what today we call foreign policy) was “always almost united” with the Executive. Any effort to separate the executive and federative powers, he counseled, would invite “disorder and ruin.”