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Waiting for the barbarians

The so-called War on Terror has created a global bonanza for the world of commercial military suppliers, writes Solomon Hughes in this exclusive extract from his new book War on Terror, Inc

April 14, 2008
15 min read

In his verse ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Greek poet Constantine Cavafy describes a country where all public life focuses on its enemies. Citizens wait in the forum because ‘the barbarians are due’. The emperor and consuls are dressed in their finest garments to impress the barbarians when they arrive. Normal laws are suspended, and parliamentary debates cancelled during the present barbarian danger. Then the worst possible news reaches the city: ‘… the barbarians have not come. / And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.’ The barbarians’ failure to materialise hurts more than their expected arrival – after all, ‘… what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.’

A generation of Western politicians grew up during the Cold War, when the fear of the ‘barbarians’ of Russia and China was used as a key to international and domestic politics: all confrontations between the West and developing nations were recast as battles between freedom and communist tyranny. Anti-communism dominated home politics during the 1950s, and remained a significant force right up to the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Ideas to the left of the Democrats in US, or of social democracy in Europe, were often painted as illegitimate relations of the communist enemy. Some leading politicians seemed disorientated when the barbarians of the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a unified force. The Soviets had provided a ‘kind of solution’ to how to organise US and European government, and now they were gone.

Leaderships in the White House and Westminster have seized on the new terrorist threat as a new kind of useful barbarian, again shaping much of foreign and domestic policy into the frame provided by the ‘war on terror’. Relations with the developing world are determined according to who is on side in the battle against terrorism, and who harbours the diverse terrorist enemy. Authoritarian regimes like those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia can be part of the coalition for freedom simply by declaring themselves against terrorism. Populations or nations that find themselves in conflict with the Western consensus – like many Iraqis, Palestinians and Iranians – are lumped together with Osama bin Laden’s small, violent network as part of the terrorist threat. Home politics are also bent towards an authoritarian, surveillance-happy ‘homeland security’, with the suspension of ordinary civil liberties and the enactment of emergency laws. The threat of the new barbarians provides a new and unhappy political ‘solution’. The theme of this book has been that, while legislators and officials are drawn to this political solution by themselves, they are also encouraged along this road by a substantial business lobby with a commercial interest in militaristic and authoritarian responses to the threat of terrorism.

The neoconservatives have a long history of building up the threat of the barbarians. In the 1970s George Bush Sr founded a group called ‘Team B’ to second-guess the CIA’s estimate of Russian weapons and intentions. This group, which included Paul Wolfowitz and other prominent neoconservatives, deliberately overestimated the scale of the Soviet military and the aggressive threat of the Russian leadership in an attempt to derail détente between East and West. From Team B developed the Committee on the Present Danger, a lobbying group which sought to keep up political pressure for a strong, interventionist US army. The Committee fought against anti-military feelings generated by the Vietnam failure, countering them by emphasising the Soviet threat. In effect the Committee on the Present Danger, led by neoconservative figures like Richard Perle, strained to keep the Cold War going. Unfortunately, these ideologues saw their present recede decisively into the past, when the Soviet bloc fell apart during the last decade of the twentieth century.

Unsurprisingly, given this past, neoconservatives like Cheney and Wolfowitz seized on the terrorist threat as a source of new barbarians. They set out an argument that would make the Islamist terrorists into an enemy around which all Western foreign policy – and a substantial amount of domestic policy – could turn. They enthusiastically embraced the idea that the terrorist menace could replace the red menace. A new ‘Committee on the Present Danger’ was formed by figures like James Woolsey to argue that the terrorist threat was not a ‘law enforcement issue’, but rather an ‘existential war’. The US leadership tried to frame all foreign policy questions in terms of the war on terror, in the same way that a previous generation of leaders had tried to squeeze all international conflicts into the frame of anti-communism.

During the Cold War, the US and British leaderships were willing to back any dictator, warlord or coup that was thought to provide protection against communism. For example, millions suffered and died while the West backed the South African regime and its vile proxies in Angola and Namibia, simply because they were seen as bulwarks against the red menace. In Southeast Asia, the Cold War was very hot, taking the form of the Vietnam War. In Central and South America it meant backing death squads against anyone – whether guerrilla or nun – who looked the least bit red. During the war on terror, all conflicts have been squeezed into the framework of the battle with Osama bin Laden – even when, as in the case of Iraq, such a connection had to be fabricated. As during the Cold War, reactionary, authoritarian and bloody regimes – Libya, Egypt, Uzbekistan – were welcomed aboard as long as they were ‘against terrorism’.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that Bush and Cheney tried to update old red-baiting strategies for the age of terror, and to use the war on terror to police domestic opposition to their policies. But Cold War nostalgia was not limited to the US. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown explicitly argued that the Cold War model should be used in the new war on terror – for example, in an article for Rupert Murdoch’s daily Sun newspaper. Brown’s apprentice in his previous post as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, made the same point in a radio interview. Brown wanted the Cold War analogy to sound reassuring after some of Prime Minister Blair’s bellicose stands, by emphasising the ‘cultural’ nature of the conflict with communism and the use of the ‘soft’ power of influence, as well as of the ‘hard’ power of war.

Brown said that the Western confrontation with the Soviets had been ‘a battle fought through books and ideas, even music and the arts’, and a ‘battle for hearts and minds’, as well as one of military power. The cultural war against communism included the covert funding of political organizations and magazines; the imposition of loyalty pledges; the removal of ‘unsound’ people from positions of influence, from Hollywood to local schools; the harassment of labour activists and campaigners – so Brown’s evocation of ‘soft power’ offered little comfort. It underlined the fact that Brown saw himself as continuing with the policy of making into a wide-ranging ‘war’ a conflict with the lethal but thankfully relatively small threat of domestic terrorism.

Brown’s comments about the Cold War were revealing in two ways. Firstly they showed that, though one of the main actors in the war on terror, Tony Blair, had walked off the stage, his understudy Gordon Brown intended to follow a similar script. Secondly, by invoking the Cold War Brown invited us to wonder whether the problems of the Cold War were going to be repeated in the war on terror. The theme of this book has been that President Eisenhower’s warnings about the ‘military-industrial complex’ can be restated for the war on terror: in short, there is a new ‘security-industrial complex’ made up of a circle of businessmen and politicians with a vested interest in responding to the terrorist threat with ever more aggressive, broad, expensive and counterproductive overreactions on the domestic and international fronts. Eisenhower’s warning came from the old Cold War years, but Brown’s attempted revival of one aspect of that conflict showed that the old warning could not, unfortunately, be treated as a mere historical curiosity.

One battle over Iraq, in 2007, affords a clear sense of how closely the British and US political leaderships were intertwined with business interests in the war on terror. The battle was not fought in the streets of Baghdad, but in the courts of Washington, D.C. Rival security companies launched legal actions and political lobbying campaigns to wrestle the most significant private military deal in the Iraq theatre – the ‘Reconstruction Support Services’ contract – out of the hands of Aegis, the British paramilitary company run by Tim Spicer.

This $280 million-a-year contract was at that point one of the most complete military privatisations ever. The deal put a private company in charge of mobile armed units, called Security Escort Teams, guarding the most important political figures. The contract also demanded that the company create and run ‘Reconstruction Operations Centres’ in Iraq, which would be in charge of all other private security companies in the country. These centres would manage military intelligence for the contractors, which they would also provide to the US army. Clauses in the contract said that the private company must have analysts with ‘NATO equivalent SECRET clearance’, who will conduct ‘analysis of foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations, and their surrogates targeting Department of Defense personnel, resources and facilities’.

The contract places the contractor in charge of the most delicate military intelligence. After gathering this intelligence, the company is supposed to use its analysis both to assist the US army in its battle with the insurgency and to help direct the other security firms – keeping them out of harms way in the dangerous Iraqi ‘red zone’. Aegis itself codenamed this contract ‘Project Matrix’. The company told the Washington Post that its teams would go into Iraqi towns and cities and report back to the US – to ‘provide “ground truth” to the Army Corps’ – and help guide other contractors with ‘threat assessments for the people that travel the battlespace’.

Aegis worked hard to keep this lucrative contract. Spicer took great pains to build relations with the US state, hiring Kristi Clemens to run Aegis’s Washington office. Clemens had the right background to lobby for her new employer in the US. Clemens had previously been a spokesperson for Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq. She later became a Republican political appointee in the US Department of Homeland Security, but left that job after being accused of distorting public statements about terrorism to help get Bush re-elected.

Spicer also hired Robert MacFarlane as an Aegis director. MacFarlane had worked for Ronald Reagan, helping run the Iran-Contra operation. McFarlane was central the plot, which involved selling arms to Iran in return for hostage releases, while using the profits to pay for the ‘secret’ US backing of the Contras in their war against Nicaragua’s government. MacFarlane had been found guilty of misleading Congress in the affair, and had tried to kill himself with an overdose of Valium. He was later pardoned by President Bush Sr. A number of veterans of the Iran-Contra affair turned up in the administration of the younger President Bush, so MacFarlane was a useful contact. The advantage to Iraqis of these legal battles and struggles for influence is less obvious.

Spicer’s new links with the US security establishment did not guarantee that the company would be able to retain its grip on this slice of business. The contract was so central to the new military privatisation that other leading companies tried to take over, keen for their staff to be in charge of the ‘battlespace’ and the delivery of ‘ground truths’ in Iraq. When the contract came up for renewal in 2007, this jewel in the crown of military privatization attracted multiple bids. Two of the companies rejected from the bidding – the US firm Blackwater and the Anglo-South African Erinys – immediately launched court actions, demanding to be reconsidered. One of the consequences of privatisation was that the new wings of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq now devoted valuable time and resources to fighting each other in court. Links with the political establishment – the British establishment as much as that of the American – were clearly prized by the security companies.

Two British firms were allowed to bid for this US security contract: Spicer’s Aegis and the Armor Group. Aegis had hired a prominent British politician – former Conservative defence minister (and grandson of Winston Churchill), Nicholas Soames. The Armor Group’s chairman was former Conservative defence secretary, Malcolm Rifkind. Rifkind had been Soames’s boss in the last Conservative administration, but now the two MPs were rivals in the battle for Iraqi security cash. The fact that the military companies were so keen to employ former ministers meant that any current or future politician knew that they could look forward to a lucrative career in the new security industry. The ‘revolving door’ between politicians and the security business provided the basis for the new security-industrial complex. It created a financial incentive for politicians to press forward with the subcontracting of state security services. In turn, the security industry had a vested interest in persuading politicians that new military interventions or extended police powers were feasible, and even positive ventures.

This game of musical chairs between positions of political influence and the boardrooms of the security industry is now well documented. Former Conservative leader Michael Howard sits alongside former CIA director William Webster on the advisory board of Diligence, a private intelligence company set up by former MI5 and CIA agents. The traffic of personnel between the new security industry and the leadership of Britain’s political parties affected both the Labour government and opposition. Prime Minister Gordon Brown made several ministerial appointments from outside his own party, announcing that he wanted a government ‘of all the talents’.

One such talent was the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West. While Sir Alan had never been talented enough actually to be elected, he did have his admirers. After resigning from the navy, Sir Alan had become a paid adviser to a company called QinetiQ, which had been formed out of Britain’s military laboratories, which had themselves been sold to US-led private investors. QinetiQ’s workshops once housed the historical counterparts of ‘Q’ – the gadget man who supplies James Bond with his spy kit. The newly commercialised boffins knew which way the market was moving, and the firm set up a ‘rapidly expanding security business’ to deal with ‘homeland security’ issues. The company sells surveillance systems, ‘data mining’ programmes to identify ‘dangerous passengers’, scanning machines designed to identify dangerous weapons, and other high-tech security products.

Shortly after Brown appointed the ex-QinetiQ man, the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, made Dame Pauline Neville-Jones his own senior security advisor. She had formerly been the head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, but in her retirement from public life had been chairwoman of QinetiQ for three years. So the security advisers to both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition had worked for the same security-focused company. The government could approach the terrorist threat politically or technically: it could aim to reduce the terrorist danger by trying to bring enough disaffected people into the political consensus, to isolate the hard core, violent minority; but it could also look to expensive computerized security systems as a way of trying to identify terrorist groups. The strong presence of security industry veterans in the political process makes the latter strategy more likely.

The nexus of links between the political class and the new security industry can both make company employees into ministers and ministers into company employees. Lord George Robertson – previously Labour defence secretary and then head of NATO – now works for Englefield Capital, a banking firm that owns GSL, which itself operates the private prisons, immigration detention centres and secure transport that form the backbone of the private security industry. The post-ministerial career of former home secretary, David Blunkett, includes a job advising Entrust, a Texas-based security firm bidding for work on Britain’s identity card. Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Barnett runs Atos Origin, a French-owned company also bidding for work on the identity card.

The US and British states have taken on new powers to fight the war on terror, and then promptly delegated these powers to a new and growing corporate sector. discontent over individual parts of the war on terror has not yet been enough to substantially shift British or US policy. One of the many reasons that the transatlantic leadership continues to reach for militaristic and authoritarian solutions to current crises is that there is now a substantial commercial lobby beckoning them in this direction. The first step towards unravelling the influence of the security-industrial complex is the recognition that it exists. I hope this book goes a little way towards making that possible.

War on Terror, Inc: Corporate Profiteering from the Politics of Fear, by Solomon Hughes, is published by Verso, price £16.99

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