Last Wednesday afternoon, amid news that Blackwater USA security contractors had killed 11 Iraqi civilians and wounded 12 others in a Baghdad firefight, members of the antiwar group Code Pink gathered outside the Washington office of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group that represents a who’s who of the private military industry. There to greet them when they arrived was Doug Brooks, the IPOA’s founder and president, who’d been tipped off to the protest earlier that day by an anonymous caller. “He was on the street with an assistant with an armful of IPOA magazines,” said Code Pink’s Gael Murphy, who heads the group’s Washington office. “He had a smile on his face the entire time as though it were some kind of industry expo day, and he kept [smiling], even as we were asking him about some pretty dreadful matters.” Brooks spent about an hour fielding questions and even escorted some of the protesters upstairs to see his office. I asked Murphy if Brooks had managed to change any minds. “No,” she said. “We were not fooled just because [Blackwater] has a network to cover them—that they’re somehow more legitimate than they were the day of the killings.”
Doug Brooks tells a different story. The day after the protest I met him at a bar near his office. He wore a dark suit and wire-frame glasses. “I think we developed some fans,” he said, still smiling. “One guy, for example, said, ‘I don’t like the concept, but I guess if we’re going to have companies doing this stuff, we need this kind of organization doing the oversight.'” Brooks seemed energized by the experience, which, despite its being a protest, he treated as an opportunity to convert the opposition. “Their questions were really good,” he continued. “We gave them paperwork. We gave them journals. A couple of them even took away IPOA pins.” He pulled one from his bag and placed it in my hand. It bore the image of a sleeping lion, the IPOA’s logo. “Just got a new batch in,” he said.
The son of a history professor, Brooks grew up in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. “God’s country,” he says. Although he’s lived in Washington for much of the past decade, he retains a disarming Midwestern charm, a quality he deploys to great advantage as the friendly, public face of a secretive, multibillion dollar business.
His organization currently represents 42 companies—among them, Blackwater, DynCorp, and MPRI—that belong to what Brooks describes as the “peace and stability industry.” The IPOA’s mission, according to its website, is “to promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the Peace and Stability Industry; to engage in a constructive dialogue with policy-makers about the growing and positive contribution of these firms to the enhancement of international peace, development, and human security; and to inform the concerned public about the activities and role of the industry.”
The latter had consumed most of Brooks’ time over the past week as he gave close to 40 interviews in three days to reporters seeking comment on Blackwater’s Baghdad shoot-out. Wasn’t he uncomfortable being the private military industry’s unofficial spokesman when one of its most prominent players stood accused of murdering civilians? “No, not at all,” Brooks said. “What it’s given us the chance to do is get out the point of what IPOA is about, to paint a larger picture, put it in context. Yes, we do have contractors working around the world, doing stuff that’s dangerous. Sometimes they’re armed, and sometimes innocent people get killed.”
Brooks first became intrigued by private military contractors as a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, where he indulged his childhood interest in military history by studying Vietnam and Southeast Asian security. Realizing he was “writing papers that could have been written 20 years earlier,” he soon tired of the subject. It was then that he began reading newspaper articles about Executive Outcomes, a private mercenary company operating in Africa. He changed his academic focus and, shortly thereafter, managed to win a fellowship to the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he began churning out papers extolling the promise of “private military companies”—a controversial term he has since abandoned—and their potential use in international peacekeeping operations.
Executive Outcomes is widely considered to be the forebearer of the modern private military industry. Founded in 1989 by former members of the Apartheid-era South African Defense Force, the company, working on contract for various embattled African governments, fought bush wars throughout the continent for much of the next decade, most notably in Angola and Sierra Leone, where they orchestrated the defeat of anti-government forces allegedly in exchange for diamond and oil concessions. Despite its success on the battlefield, the Pretoria-based company was forced to shut down in 1999 with the passage of an anti-mercenary law by the South African government. The negative stereotype it left behind—that of white soldiers-for-hire attacking impoverished black rebels in order to plunder the host country’s natural resources—is one the industry has been trying to escape ever since.
Brooks doesn’t shy away from Executive Outcomes’ controversial legacy. While he says that Executive Outcomes-style offensive operations no longer have a place in the industry—”none of the companies do it”—he credits the company with saving thousands of lives in Sierra Leone and even points to it as a model for the future of international peacekeeping. In 2000, while conducting field research for his doctorate, Brooks traveled to Sierra Leone, where he stayed in the capital city of Freetown with a South African helicopter pilot and former Executive Outcomes operator named Neall Ellis. “He was hired by the Sierra Leonean military to fly their Mi-24 helicopter gunship,” Brooks told me. “For months, he was the only thing between the RUF”—a rebel faction—”and Freetown. Neall had the most amazing intelligence network in the world, so he knew where the RUF were. So he’d go out there and shoot them up wherever they were advancing on Freetown. Well, one day, one of his engines went out. It took months to get a replacement, to get the right part. Meantime, the RUF marched right through the peacekeeper lines. January 6, 1999, they marched into Freetown. Ten thousand people killed. One guy, one helicopter.”
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.'”