Apologists for the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq have long claimed that the invasion was a way of “draining the swamp,” so to speak, in the Middle East. The “swamp” metaphor, of course, is a close cousin to their “flypaper” theory, which holds that hordes of terrorists will be drawn to Iraq by America’s presence where they can be exterminated en masse. Ironically, Iraq has become a magnet for another specimen associated with swamplands – Blackwater USA, the mercenary outfit whose headquarters is situated along what is known as the Great Dismal Swamp in the foothills of North Carolina.
Blackwater, which has garnered headlines recently for allegedly massacring unarmed Iraqi civilians in a series of unprovoked attacks, exists at the intersection of a number of troubling trends: the privatization of warfare, the incestuous connection between Republican political donors and public officials, and the hijacking of U.S. foreign policy by right-wing Christian extremists. No firm exemplifies this axis-of-ills more than Blackwater.
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by Erik Prince, a reclusive former Navy Seal. The hyper-wealthy Prince is a devout Christian with ties to many right-wing organizations dedicated to promoting a libertarian and socially conservative agenda. Such groups militantly oppose abortion, homosexual marriage, and secular character of American society. They believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that America’s law and culture must reflect our Biblical heritage. Citizens like Prince have funneled vast sums to conservative Republican candidates in the hopes of bringing about a cultural revolution in the United States.
Blackwater amounts to a private army, which includes 20,000 elite troops, twenty aircraft, and a state of the art military base. And the war on terror has literally been a godsend for the company. For instance, by some estimates Blackwater has received close to $1 billion dollars in government contracts, making it essentially “the fifth branch of the U.S military.” Business for Blackwater certainly picked up after 9/11, but the invasion of Iraq was a mother lode for the company. As the Times of London noted, “In Iraq, the postwar business boom is not oil. It is security.” And as the security situation in Iraq worsened, Blackwater’s profit potential exploded.
The invasion of Iraq provided enormous profit opportunities for firms like Blackwater, but many right-wing groups saw the idea of spreading democracy in Iraq as an opportunity to promote Christian teachings and values in the Muslim world, which they believed would be an antidote Islamic extremism. Christianity and capitalism could cure the ills of the Middle East.
Blackwater embodies the idea that one can serve God and mammon. A deeper problem, however, is that democracy and private mercenary armies are incompatible. Put simply, the expansion of for-profit armies erodes democracy (in so far as private interest and the public good are severed). For instance, when the profit incentive for going to war is great, then democratic checks and balances become a nuisance that the military-industrial-security-disaster complex will seek to circumvent and dismantle.
The run up to the war in Iraq is a case in point. That is, if a real democratic debate had taken place regarding the threat posed by Saddam, with the facts, evidence, and arguments weighed and deliberately and honestly, then the United States probably never would have invaded Iraq. But with billions of dollars at stake, then war profiteers had an enormous incentive to manipulate the political process to achieve the outcome they desired. When you add ideological fervor to the profit motive, then making a killing in Iraq can even seem morally justified.