The op-ed, titled "Mercenaries for Darfur," suggested using personnel from Blackwater Worldwide.
The opinion piece was not novel. Such calls have become increasingly popular and fashionable in recent years. The actress Mia Farrow, for example, has suggested that Blackwater should intervene.
In 2006 Max Boot, a senior fellow at the uber-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that private units would be far more effective than any U.N. peacekeepers. He wrote, "Yet this solution is deemed unacceptable by the moral giants who run the United Nations. They claim that it is objectionable to employ -- sniff -- mercenaries. More objectionable, it seems, than passing empty resolutions, sending ineffectual peacekeeping forces and letting genocide continue."
That same year Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer Black, a former CIA official, said at a conference in Jordan that Blackwater was ready to provide brigade-size forces -- i.e., 1,500 to 3,000 strong -- for peacekeeping missions around the world.
Also in 2006, Chris Taylor, a vice president of Blackwater, said it "has a database of thousands of former police and military officers for security assignments. ... Blackwater personnel could set up perimeters and guard Darfurian villages and refugee camp in support of the U.N."
In January 2007 New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote there is "a pretty good argument for Western governments or the U.N. to hire Blackwater or another private security company to go in and do this. There's no reason, for example, why the U.N. (which has already authorized peacekeepers for eastern Chad but can't find the troops) can't just hire a security firm to do it and call them U.N. peacekeepers."
But what was noteworthy about the Journal piece was who wrote it. The author, William McGurn, was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush until Feb. 8, 2008. McGurn wrote:
"(Blackwater founder) Mr. (Erik) Prince has a remedy. He believes that with 250 or so professionals, Blackwater can transform about a thousand of the African Union soldiers into an elite and highly mobile force. This force would also be equipped with helicopters and the kind of small planes that missionaries use in this part of the world. It would be cheaper than the hundreds of millions we are spending to set up a larger AU/U.N. force. And he says he'd do it at cost."
This would not be the first time a private security firm has been considered for helping to end a genocide in Africa.
In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide Chris Grove, formerly the chief of staff of the now defunct South African private military firm Executive Outcomes, wrote an analysis detailing how EO could have ended the Rwandan genocide.
The bottom line was that EO could have armed troops on the ground in 14 days and could have been fully deployed with just over 1,500 personnel on the ground within six weeks, providing safe havens and confronting the Hutu militias for an estimated cost of $150 million. By way of contrast, back then the relatively dysfunctional U.N. peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone, to confront the murderous Revolutionary United Front, cost almost $100 million a month.
The back story is that while the Rwandan genocide was going on, EO officials actually had been contacted by the United Nations about operating in Rwanda. They actually had been asked to come to New York to brief their proposed plan when it was suddenly called off. To this day the reason has never been publicly revealed, although the unvoiced explanation is that the United Nations simply realized that member states would never approve such an operation.
Of course, what Boot and Kristof are calling for, and what Blackwater is willing to do, are entirely separate things. The former are essentially calling for a combat force, and the latter is offering to do training, but not fighting.
And some people think that while the idea is good, Blackwater is not the right firm to do the job. Robert Young Pelton, author of the well-received book "Licensed to Kill," wrote in an e-mail message that the African Union could use outside contractors without using Blackwater, which is identified with some of the biggest missteps in U.S. history. "Ask a Sudanese about Fallujah and Blackwater. They won't give you a high five and ask for a free BW challenge coin," he wrote. Referring to Blackwater founder Erik Prince, he wrote, "To be clear: I support Erik's focus and stated intention. I think using his BW vehicle and lobbying efforts to inject that corporation is a very bad idea."
And, if Blackwater needs 250 people to transform 1,000 AU soldiers, then it would need 2,250 to transform 9,000 AU soldiers, as McGurn wrote. And that number is only a third of the authorized 26,000 troops and police for their mission. So if Blackwater were to train the entire authorized force, assuming it ever gets to the authorized end strength, it would need 6,750 people. The idea that the Sudanese would be comfortable with that many Westerners -- let alone private military contractors -- in their country seems fanciful.
And, not surprisingly, as in the past, the United Nations is cool to the idea of using private contractors, even for just training AU soldiers. In response to the Journal article, Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno said, "When you have a systemic challenge like the war in Darfur, it requires more than a few mercenaries, even very well equipped and very well trained."
Finally, if the task is just to train AU forces, why would the United States not use its newly established Africa Command, whose mandate specifically includes building "capacity and capabilities among our African partners so that they are able to tackle Africa's security challenges"?
(U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a correspondent for Asia Times and the author of a forthcoming book, "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq." His "Dogs of War" column, analyzing developments in the private security and military sector, appears every Friday.)