Reihan: Why Private Military Contractors Are A Good Thing

A debate has erupted over US reliance on private military contractors in Iraq and elsewhere. My sense is that the brilliant and decidedly uneven Robert Young Pelton, a staunch critic of PMCs, has set the tone for the debate. My own view is different. We do depend on PMCs, we're likely to depend on them even more over time, and this is a very good thing. Consider John Robb's thoughts on the subject.

The defining fact of our time, as John Mueller has argued, is the decline of war. This, of couse, contradicts the Colin Gray view and I can see how it might seem strange given the bloody conflicts that dominate the headlines. But this doesn't change the normative shift that has taken place over the last century, from a time when military aggression was seen as both inevitable and acceptable to the present, when it is seen as an offense against all things good and decent. A similar normative shift was behind the decline of enslavement in the West, which began long before the vile practice became economically impracticable. Ideology matters.

The kind of conflicts we're seeing and are likely to see are far more like crime, pervasive and opportunistic, than like conventional interstate warfare. The patriotic sentiments that motivated volunteer armies in the past are harder to apply to campaigns designed to strengthen vulnerable foreign states, or to limit the extent of bunkering and other criminal activities that have no obvious ideological valence. And so we will need to rely on skilled professionals to help police the world.

To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about abuses committed by PMCs. That is a failure of the US and Iraqi governments, but not of PMCs as a matter of principle.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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