Since I'm usually in a hurry to put away the Christmas decorations, I rarely do a good job of storing the lights. When I pull on the end of a cord, I'm usually dismayed to be holding a huge, messy tangle of lights, far bigger and more complicated than I had expected. Of course, I only have myself to blame--the snarl is purely the result of my own neglect.
While people in the US national security community have been spending all their time dealing with the Iraq problem, other issues keep getting haphazardly tossed into the closet. Eventually, when we start tugging on one of these problems, a lot of others emerge.
Case in point: Chiquita's admission that it was paying right-wing paramilitary groups to continue operations in Colombia. The story, as we learned today, won't stop there. A Colombian prosecutor is investigating other multinational corporations that may have made similar arrangements with irregular forces. It would be amazing if Chiquita were the only company who paid protection money, and it would be equally amazing if the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia were the only recipients. The FARC, certainly, have been in the extortion business for a long time.
Let's keep pulling this thread. Have corporations cut similar deals in other countries? Yes, undoubtedly. There are plenty of places in Latin America, Africa, and Asia where roving groups with guns can make all kinds of trouble. During the 1990s, when energy companies were trying to build Central Asian gas and oil pipelines as an alternative to Persian Gulf exports, companies like Unocal regularly paid bribes to Afghan warlords. In Nigeria, a small guerrilla group attacked oil platforms and kidnapped oil company workers. And, of course, in Iraq, various insurgent groups--ranging from genuine revolutionaries to criminal gangs with revolutionary names--have been extorting money from foreign corporations. (Which, of course, is where some of the reconstruction money disappeared.)
Keep pulling, and out pops another unwelcome detail: who is protecting these corporations? If you're going to mine diamonds in Western Africa, you won't count on the rebels or governments to stay bribed--particularly if the leaders of these factions have an uncertain grip on their own forces. The same "security firms" that are doing a brisk business with the US government today are making even more money from private corporations. Therefore, the lines between the public and private part of US national security is even more blurred, both in the means (these mercenary companies) and the ends (the employers demanding their services).
Yank harder, and out pop other questions. How does the revolving door between national militaries and the security companies work? Who is receiving campaign contributions from Blackwater, Dyncorp, and similar companies? How much does the United States have invested in Plan Colombia, and how well is it paying off? In other countries riven by inernal war, such as Colombia, are we investing too much, too little, or the wrong resources to handle the threat at hand?
These are all important issues. They're also the issues that Americans are largely ignoring, while Iraq consumes all available time, resources, and attention. Worst of all, we haven't even mentioned international terrorism yet.