Iraq for Sale

I had the opportunity to watch Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale last night, and it spurred a lot of thoughts. The film is mainly about contractors in Iraq, from Blackwater to Halliburton to CACI, who do everything from soldiers’ laundry to interrogations to guarding Paul Bremer.

I came into the documentary sort of agnostic about contractors: the entire American government is being privatized, so why would the Army be any different? And it didn’t particularly bother me that Army outsourced laundry and mess halls to a private company. After all, they outsource the design and construction of planes and tanks to private companies (Boeing, Grumman, et. al.). Why stop there?

Well, as you can imagine, the documentary is less than sympathetic about the role of contractors: it simultaneously accuses them of gouging the taxpayers and skimping on proper security for their employees. They’re rich and stingy!

The use of contractors has several advantages as far as the Army is concerned. First, it makes the U.S. footprint in Iraq seem smaller, which is good politics. Imagine if the media talked about 270,000 troops (the total if you add soldiers + contractors) in Iraq instead of 170,000. Second, they have less accountability. Several military interrogators at Abu Ghraib got court martialed for their role in abuses there. The contractors standing next to them simply got fired, if that.

But there are real downsides, too. First, the contracts are “no-bid” or “cost plus.” That means the contractor can generally charge whatever they feel like and the government will pay the bill. It’s no surprise then, that KBR was billing us $99 per load of laundry. Granted, water’s hard to come by in the desert, but still: $99?! Apparently they also have a habit of destroying a $80,000 truck when the oil filter kicks out and ordering a new one, instead of bothering to, you know, replace the oil filter. Why the hell not, when you know Uncle Sam’s gonna pick up the tab. (It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Krusty lights his cigarettes with $100 bills)

In response, the Army will often say, “well, KBR is the only company that has the expertise…” That should be a red-flag right there! If a “market” is such that only one company can compete, because it has the connections, finances, or whatever, maybe it’s not really a viable market. Maybe that’s a service that the government is best suited to provide. And when the government overcharges, the GAO investigates and things change. When you’re on the wrong end of a no-bid contract, you have little leverage.

The use of contractors also inhibits indigenous businesses in Iraq: why not spend more money hiring locals? I’m sure that the soldiers really appreciate having KFC and Pizza Hut in Anbar Province, but would it be the worst thing if they got used to eating lamb and rice? Maybe give them a way to bond with the locals?

The criticisms of contracting fall, I think, leave you with two options: either we abandon the practice altogether, or else we reform it. I don’t think you can do the former, for the reasons I elucidated above: the Army has to outsource some things, lest it nationalize the entire defense industry. But in an operation like Iraq, the system seems to be pretty darn broken.