War etc

Outsourcing the war

James Surowiecki, a business writer for The New Yorker, makes a number of good points about the US military’s increasing dependence on private contractors to do jobs soldiers once did.

On the no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton, he writes:

The conspiracy theories and corruption claims make for great headlines, but they miss the point. There’s little evidence of chicanery in the bidding process for Iraq contracts, and no serious person believes that the United States launched a war for Halliburton. The worrisome thing isn’t what Halliburton and other big contractors are supposedly doing behind the scenes. It’s what they’re doing in plain sight. National defense, the blood-and-iron burden of government, is increasingly becoming a province of the private sector. Our leaders seem intent on building a Milo Minderbinder army.

Outsourcing by the military and other parts of the government is based on the favorite conservative premise that the private sector almost invariably can do things better, faster and cheaper than the lumbering old public sector. But as Surowiecki writes:

…Effective as outsourcing can be, doing things in-house is often easier and quicker. You avoid the expense and hassle of haggling, and retain operational reliability and control, which is especially important to the military. No contract can guarantee that private employees will stick around in a combat zone. After the Iraq war, some contractors refused assignments to dangerous parts of the country. That left American troops sitting in the mud, and without hot food. Last month, after two South Korean subcontractors who had been repairing the Iraqi power grid were killed by guerrillas north of Baghdad, sixty of their colleagues just up and quit.

And guess what? The Defense Energy Support Center– part of the lumbering old public sector– “figured out how to import gasoline from Kuwait for about a dollar a gallon while Halliburton was charging $2.27.”