Alex Kingsbury

Half the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is made up not of soldiers, marines, and airmen but of private contractors. And although contractors are not combat troops, almost 1,800 of them have been killed since 9/11. Allison Stanger says this is a dangerous and unprecedented outsourcing of foreign policy that bodes ill for the future of the nation. Her latest book, One Nation Under Contract , takes a look at contracting and how it has militarized international affairs. Stanger, a professor of international politics at Middlebury College in Vermont, chatted recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What separates contractors from government workers?

It's really hard to make the distinction between the two because they are everywhere. In many cases, they sit side by side with government personnel at meetings. The question is who pays their salaries.

Is outsourcing war a new development? What about Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution?

Mercenaries have been around for a long time, and the Hessians were mercenaries. But now you have private companies with publicly sold stocks. That's something different than a government just going around and rousing up troops to aid the cause. Turning them into something commercial makes them legal and legitimate. We can get ourselves into bad places when we don't think about what should be outsourced.

How so?

Exhibits A and B are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We couldn't be able to fight those wars without contractors. The military could not feed its own soldiers without the help of private companies. If we didn't have those contractors, we would need to have a national draft.

Isn't the lack of a draft a good thing?

Not necessarily. It makes it very easy to engage in overly ambitious military commitments. It becomes a matter of money, not putting the lives of our sons and daughters in danger overseas.

Does contracting undermine existing government efforts as well as aid them?

It certainly doesn't help morale because of what it says about our commitments to the people who stay in-house. Now we have soldiers and contractors often doing the exact same job in Iraq, like driving a supply truck, and a contractor is getting paid three times the salary. U.S. soldiers are not happy about it. Moreover, what does it say about what we prioritize as a country? It says that the smart move is to serve in the government for a few years and then cash out.

What else is contracted out?

Is this a better way of distributing the burden of international action?

Is contracting inevitable?

We do need to reimagine government for the modern world. Large bureaucracies are not going to get it done. But we've gone too far in the other direction. With the crusade against big government, we've allowed lots of waste, fraud, and abuse because of the rapid charge to shift responsibilities from the government onto the private sector.

Do other countries outsource like us?

Think of it as the logic of the free market taken to the extreme. No other country in the world takes private sector government relations to this extreme. The United Kingdom is a close second behind the U.S. in terms of privatization, which is interesting because many military contractors are also based there. But if there's money to be made, what's to stop the Chinese starting up some military contracting companies? Or the Indians? Or the Saudis? There are dangerous implications for the international order.

Say we need 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan and a Chinese mercenary company offers a low-cost alternative to the Pentagon. Why not use them?

It does make logical sense. But I argue that war should be a national endeavor, done only when absolutely necessary. Outsourcing makes war that much easier to fight. As you add more for-sale forces to the equation, the more destabilized, violent, and chaotic things become. You can look at the Middle Ages, where forces were often hired and locally based, or you can think of privateers in the Caribbean. Neither situation offered great stability in the long run.

What do contractors think of the outsourcing?

Most contractors think of themselves as working for the U.S. government. But the fact is that they ultimately answer to a profit-making company, not government acting in the public interest. In the end, contractors are looking for guidance. There will be a new rule issued by the White House that will determine what activities are "inherently governmental" and what are not. That's something that contractors have been waiting a long time for the government to accurately and conclusively define.

How should we deal with this issue?

We need to have a debate about what the government should do and what can be done by the private sector. There's a temptation to fight over contracting by bringing everything in-house. You couldn't do that if you wanted to because the government simply doesn't have the capacity to do it anymore. The unions are rubbing their hands at that prospect, but that's not necessarily the way we should go. I hope that Congress and the public can effectively debate the issue, because the status quo isn't sustainable.