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.
Laura A. Dickinson is an Oswald Symister Colclough Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School. She joined GW Law in 2011. Previously, Professor Dickinson was the Foundation Professor of Law and the faculty director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU). Her work focuses on human rights, national security, foreign affairs privatization, and qualitative empirical approaches to international law. Professor Dickinson’s recent monograph entitled Outsourcing War and Peace, published by Yale University Press in 2011, examines the increasing privatization of military, security, and foreign aid functions of government, considers the impact of this trend on core public values, and outlines mechanisms for protecting these values in an era of privatization.
Prior to her position at ASU, Professor Dickinson was on the faculty of the University of Connecticut School of Law, where she taught from 2001 to 2008, and she was a Visiting Research Scholar and Visiting Professor in the Law and Public Affairs Program at Princeton University in 2006-2007. She served as a senior policy adviser to Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, and is a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Stephen G. Breyer, and to Judge Dorothy Nelson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Professor Dickinson has served as a member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law, and co-organizer of a Collaborative Research Network on Empirical Approaches to International Human Rights Law, convened under the auspices of the Law & Society Association.