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Blackwater's Man in Washington

Meet Doug Brooks, whose trade group represents the private military industry's biggest players. He makes hired guns sound like U.N. peacekeepers.

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

One guy, one helicopter. The anecdote, which he made a point of telling me on two separate occasions, was meant to amplify the larger point of why he thinks the private sector should take a prominent role in peacekeeping: It's cheap, it's efficient, and it's adaptable. And in places where the United Nations refuses to act, private companies can fill the void, assuming a government entity is willing to pick up the tab. "This is the reason we created IPOA, really, because of 'Western-less' peacekeeping," Brooks explained. "The reality was that the West wasn't going to support humanitarian operations in places they don't give a shit about." He cited Congo and Darfur. "What would have happened if they had used ArmorGroup in Rwanda?"

Brooks launched the IPOA in April 2001, shortly after his return from Africa. It started small, with only six member companies, and for Brooks it continued to be more of a hobby than a career until the contracting bonanza that resulted from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then the IPOA's ranks have swelled with companies seeking to burnish their images with the private military industry equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Brooks now manages a staff of full-time employees and interns. Members pay annual dues ($5,000 for logistics contractors, $15,000 for private security companies), which account for some 60 percent of the IPOA's annual operating budget. In return, members receive permission to display the IPOA logo on their marketing materials. As a condition of membership, the companies must agree to adhere to the association's code of conduct—stressing concepts like human rights, ethics, transparency, and accountability. If violations occur, they are subject to the IPOA's "enforcement mechanism." This is composed of a complex, multi-tiered system of committees that review potential infractions and determine what, if any, penalty should be imposed. It sounds much tougher than it actually is. After all, the worst punishment the IPOA can dole out is expulsion from the association, which Brooks calls "the commercial kiss of death." This has yet to happen, which probably speaks less to the good behavior of private military contractors than to an inherent conflict of interest in the association's oversight process: The organization is financially dependent on the companies it claims to be overseeing.

I asked Brooks if the IPOA would ever really expel one of its members. "If a company does something to sully the reputation of the association, it's not a big deal," he responded. "A company either sorts itself out or, if it's that bad, you get rid of them." What about Blackwater? Could last week's shootout lead to its expulsion? Brooks was noncommittal, saying only that "the mark of a good company is how they deal with the problem."

But the fact that, as yet, no companies have been kicked out has invited outside skepticism. "Doug has a great series [of] codes, [and] a lot of them make a lot of sense," says Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. "But at the end of the day they're trying to deal with issues that are criminal, so you can't merely have a market solution to them." Moreover, Singer continued, "Being kicked out of IPOA is not the proper punishment for a criminal action. It's great that an organization is willing to do that, but it's sort of like kicking O.J. out of the country club." Deborah Avant, a political science professor at the University of California-Irvine and author of The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security, agrees. "I think there is a fair amount of skepticism about the degree to which he is able to stand up to the industry as opposed to being a front for it."

Brooks acknowledges these shortcomings, at least to a point. "There're limits to what we can do, and people have to recognize that," he told me. "There are things we can do to put some constraints on companies that otherwise wouldn't be there, but we are not a government nor should we be, I would argue. Ultimately, if you don't have an effective legal accountability system that's by a government agency, you lose a big chunk of your capability to control these companies." He went on, though, to say there's "too much bullshit" being written about the dangers of "rogue" contractors. "The reality is, you stop paying a company and it goes away; it doesn't take over the government."

Brooks, who insists that his goal is "to help end wars," brims with excitement about the private sector's potential to save lives in conflict zones around the world. But the conduct in the Iraq War of companies like Blackwater, an IPOA founding member accused of multiple indiscriminant shootings in Iraq, has proven to be a distraction, as have accusations against other companies (not all of them IPOA members) of human trafficking, overbilling, corruption, and shoddy work. Though at times Brooks can make hired guns sound like U.N. peacekeepers, few people doubt his good intentions. "I've known Doug for a while, and I take him very seriously when talks about his focus on private peacekeeping. It's not just marketing," says Singer. The reality, he adds, is that ever since the Iraq invasion the IPOA "has been forced to steer in a completely different direction. You can see that in the press inquiries that Doug is having to answer all the time. He's doing a lot more talking right now about Blackwater and Baghdad than about using contractors in Congo or Darfur." It's a conflict that is perhaps unavoidable as Brooks struggles to ensure that recent contractor scandals "don't hamstring the humanitarian potential" of the IPOA's member companies. But according to Avant, the Iraq War has made it harder, not easier, for Brooks to promote standards in the private military industry. She points out that, especially early in the war, companies that bent the rules typically did better for themselves than companies that followed them. The premium placed on good behavior was weakened as a result. Still, she says, IPOA standards are a good first step. "The industry does have an incentive to say, 'Look, we're not just a group of cowboy mercenaries. This is the law we operate on; these are the standards.'"

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