Erik Prince’s advertorial is the Times opinion page’s latest misstep.
As President Trump prepares to send a to-be-determined number of American troops to Afghanistan in the latest effort to bring this 16-year-and-counting war to a close, a gentleman named Erik Prince has taken to the venerable opinion pages of the New York Times to humbly offer a modest alternative: Why doesn’t the president just send contractors to fight this fight instead?
My proposal is for a sustainable footprint of 2,000 American Special Operations and support personnel, as well as a contractor force of less than 6,000 (far less than the 26,000 in country now). This team would provide a support structure for the Afghans, allowing the United States’ conventional forces to return home.
Prince goes on to explain that he would leverage the historical successes of Special Operations forces in the region by retaining those veterans as hired guns, deploying them through private security firms as a sort of souped-up shadow army that would train Afghan forces and supervise combat operations. (They’d fly in Afghan planes, for example, but would leave decisions about when to use weapons to Afghan pilots.) This strategy, Prince argues, would cost the United States less in terms of both dollars and lives, providing it with the best chance to end an ill-conceived war that, as of this year, is old enough to get a driver license in just about every state.
Incredibly, not until the very end of Mr. Prince’s column does he drop this little nugget:
If the president pursues this third path, I, too, would vigorously compete to implement a plan that saves American lives, costs less than 20 percent of current spending and saves American taxpayers more than $40 billion a year.
Yes, before he was famous for being Betsy DeVos’ brother and/or the alleged wannabe fixer of a secret meeting between the White House and Russia on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, Erik Prince was best known as the founder of Blackwater, which is—you guessed it!—a giant private security contractor! Blackwater, which has since been re-branded as Academi, did billions of dollars in business with the federal government, primarily during the Bush administration, and most famously in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Although Prince is no longer a part of Blackwater, he now chairs something called Frontier Services Group, which is—again, prepare to be shocked—also a giant private security contractor, and precisely the type of enterprise that might be interested in being paid hilarious sums of money to fight a war overseas, should said sums of money suddenly be subject to a formal bidding process.
Perhaps sensing that some people might find this arrangement a tad unseemly, Prince offers the following preemptive rejoinder:
Just as no one criticizes Elon Musk because his company SpaceX helps supply American astronauts, no one should criticize a private company—mine or anyone else’s—for helping us end this ugly multigenerational war.
The problem is not that Prince is taking advantage of an opportunity to shill for his latest collection of well-compensated mercenaries. It’s that the New York Times is giving Prince space on its opinion pages in order to do so—a distinction lost on the requisite list of conservative thought leaders who jumped immediately to Prince’s defense:
Ugh. Erik Prince is not a retired military leader, or a former diplomat, or a respected scholar, or a member of any other class of people who might present the brand of nuanced argument that opinion sections—especially the Times‘—are purportedly designed to print. He’s a businessman, and in a place where readers expect to encounter legitimate policy debates, he gets to deliver a black-and-white infomercial for a business that he owns. This isn’t objectionable because it is an opinion with which reasonable people might disagree. It’s objectionable because it barely bothers to acknowledge that a principal reason the author probably holds this particular opinion is because he might make a metric fuckton of money should his “opinion” be adopted as policy!
Permitting uncritical marketing copy to masquerade as objective analysis can have real consequences for how public opinion takes shape. Nowhere does Prince, for example, acknowledge that his former company had to pay millions of dollars in fines after tales of its employees’ myriad misdeeds, which included murdering 17 Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, eventually came to light. (If you’re really interested in offering an objective, good-faith argument in favor of retaining private soldiers to win a war, the fact that those soldiers have a very spotty history of how they conduct themselves in combat zones is perhaps a relevant detail.) Prince, however, neglects to bring this up, and his editors, for some strange reason, never bothered to point this out to him.
It’s been a bumpy few months for the Times‘ opinion page, which has perhaps skittishly allowed its fear of being too critical of the Trump administration to bleed into what is ostensibly its straight news coverage. (Glenn Thrush, blink twice if you’re filing this drivel from a dark broom closet in the West Wing.) It is good to print “alternative viewpoints,” so long as the Times is honest about where they’re coming from. By running Prince’s advertorial, the Times has again failed to live up to that responsibility.