Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining today's conversation. I wrote this morning about the Blackwater indictments, but there's also the auto bailout to talk about, and the new administration, and the stimulus package, and the question of whether Caroline Kennedy gets Hillary Clinton's seat in the Senate... And as I type, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is explaining why the governor of Illinois was arrested this morning. Plenty to talk about.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Eugene, I thought your article today on who is really to blame for the Blackwater incident was excellent. The points you made were exactly what I was wondering about when I read the news article about it yesterday. The company needs to train their people properly to ensure that deaths of innocent civilians are avoided. You're right, the blame really goes all the way up to the Bush administration. Why don't people seem to care about the lives of Iraqi people?

washingtonpost.com: A Whitewash for Blackwater? (Post, Dec. 9)

Eugene Robinson: It is not surprising that most Americans feel the loss of American life more acutely. One thing I think most Americans don't realize, however, is the extent to which this administration has outsourced the Iraq occupation to private companies.


Winchester, Va.: I watched the DOJ press conference and noticed that the prosecutors never once refuted the Blackwater contractors' claims that they were being fired at. Do you know something DOJ doesn't? Or do you think it doesn't matter if they were under fire or not?

washingtonpost.com: Transcript of Blackwater Press Conference

Eugene Robinson: Of course it matters. All the circumstances matter, including the fact that the Blackwater team was in an area that it was specifically supposed to avoid. Clearly the prosecutors do not believe whatever peril the men might have been in -- or thought they were in -- didn't justify the kind of indiscriminate carnage they committed.


Takoma Park, Md.: More of a comment, I guess. This entire situation is tragic. And there certainly is blame to go around. What is most distressing, however, are comments I am reading that suggest that a response of suppressing fire was routine. Let's relocate this scenario to say... The United States. I am guessing that a similar response by foreign-based private or government responders to an unspecified attack would not be as well received (see: Boston Massacre).

Eugene Robinson: Agreed.


Richmond, Va.: Okay, we all know that corruption in government is as old as time itself, but are you shocked at the audacity of Gov. Blagojevich while under investigation for any number of nefarious goings-on decided to try and sell Obama's seat? And, as an interesting sidebar -- did any of those who wanted the seat, pay?

Eugene Robinson: I'm pretty hard to shock, at least on the government-corruption front, but this amazing. It's not that Blagojevich allegedly tried to sell the Senate seat, it's that he talked so openly about it (allegedly) at a time when he knew he was being investigated with an electron microscope. One wonders just how smart the governor is.


Washington, D.C.: In your op-ed you stated that security in Iraq should not be provided by private contractors. I am certainly not defending the practice of using contractors, but I feel that our military is already spread thin enough in Iraq/Afghanistan and that protection of diplomats, etc., would make their mission even more difficult. What solution would you advocate for to ensure that our military is kept safe (and able to perform their mission with enough resources), as well as our diplomats?

Eugene Robinson: I think we have to make choices. If we're going to embark on huge military adventures, such as Iraq, we need a much bigger military. It seems to me that outsourcing war (or extended occupation) to private firms is not wise or sustainable.


Washington, DC: "so many essentially military tasks..." is exactly the problem. Our government doesn't know what inherently governmental means, nor do we know what, if anything, should be only reserved for government employees (except for the actual act of governing, of course). To replace the 190,000 contractors in Iraq, you'd need some 400,000 new military people. Congress controls force levels, not the Executive. More research on your part would really bring to light the true nature of these challenges so that a healthy debate could take place in the public sphere.

Eugene Robinson: You're right, except that the executive obviously has a big say in force levels. But do we really want to have a too-small military and then supplement it with the private sector? Maybe that's a good idea -- I have my doubts, obviously -- but we should make that decision with our eyes open. The fact is that a globe-spanning military presence requires lots of money and lots of boots on the ground.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: I am very disturbed by this talk of Caroline Kennedy for senator. All of this talk is being generated by people who have no real interest in NY. I am also disturbed that out of all the names being mentioned, few, if any from the minority community-there has never been a Black, Latino or Asian senator from NY. Is she the best there is? No knock on her, I say NY can do better.

Eugene Robinson: It will be interesting to see how this plays out. To my knowledge, Caroline Kennedy has never before showed any apparent desire to become a public person, let alone a public official. Of course, you could argue that she was a public person whether she wanted to be one or not. Politics in New York is played with the gloves off, and I think that Camelot or not, she will have stiff competition for the Senate seat if she decides to really pursue it.


Columbus, Ohio: Are you advocating that the Justice Dept. bring charges against Blackwater too? As a center left-leaning attorney, your column struck me as supporting a "charge them then figure it out" prosecutorial perspective. I hope you appreciate the irony that this would essentially be an extension of the last eight years (voter fraud cases, Mr. Seligman, etc.). Keep up the interesting writing

Eugene Robinson: I just wonder whether a bit more prosecutorial curiosity and zeal could have taken the investigation a little higher in the food chain. What kind of training did these guys receive? What were their job histories? How thorough was the screening conducted by Blackwater and the State Department? Were there previous incidents? What sort of pattern emerges when you look at Blackwater's overall record in Iraq?


Anonymous: Quick question - how about the US government allowing tax payers to claim all interest payments as a tax deduction as an alternative bailout plan? I don't know what it was called but I do recall my parents having that tax benefit. Everyone wonders what they can or will do for common folk. Well, I can't see a direct payment to foreclosed home owners, but I do see a lot of folks in debt (credit cards, loans, etc.). Our country will be in a crisis until we relieve our debt ratios.

Eugene Robinson: That would be one way to stimulate the economy. I don't know how much that would cost. I do know that the Obama team's theory is to spend the stimulus money on what amount to capital projects -- infrastructure, etc. -- so that when the economy finally turns around, instead of having just spent a lot of money, we'll have new roads, bridges and other stuff that we need anyway.


Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: One of the problems with all the car market is, no one can get credit to buy any car. So any plans to put any pressure on the banks holding taxpayers money to start lending it out as intended?

Eugene Robinson: I'm pretty sure that no meaningful pressure will be applied by the Bush administration.


Cordelia, Calif.: Hey Eugene,

Old guy here, USMC Viet Nam vet, pre all-volunteer military. We had some contractors, generally not mercenaries (that was against rules...yeah right). Once again the private market doesn't do everything better, nor do governmental entities do everything worse. I don't think we will ever learn.

Eugene Robinson: I guess we won't. It just seems to me that war-fighting is a national undertaking that should be conducted by national institutions. If you agree that we need government for anything at all, it's defending the security of the nation. Right? (Leaving aside the question of whether the Iraq war enhanced or detracted from our security...)


Oakton, Va.: I'm confused. When Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby I read that he was a partisan liberal out to get Republicans. When did he change sides?

Eugene Robinson: Don't be confused. Patrick Fitzgerald is Eliot Ness, or maybe Sgt. Joe Friday from the old "Dragnet" series. Just the facts, ma'am. That's what he has always been.


Saltillo, Miss.: I absolutely agree that something must be done about companies like Blackwater and, especially, Blackwater itself. My brother-in-law was over there in U.S. Army through much of 2007 and said the soldiers wouldn't even let Blackwater mercenaries into their bunkers during mortar attacks since they were such jerks. Time that company is disbanded.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. And here's an opposing view:


Savannah, Ga.: I wonder how many people expressing outrage have actually been protected by these guys. Maybe you guys should go out on a mission in hostile territory, with any backup an hour or more away, among people actually trying to kill you, and THEN tell me that what they do or did was wrong.

I spent 9 months in Iraq, and several attempts on my life, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for these guys. Now, I don't know the exact circumstances of this particular incident, but neither does anyone else really. If they DID do something wrong I am all for them being held accountable. However, all I see is a bunch of people who have no knowledge of what those guys do piling on them (and, by proxy, Bush).

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, Savannah. My point is, why does this kind of work have to be done by a private contractor? Why aren't they serving in a bigger U.S. Army or Marine Corps? And as far as the incident at Nisoor Square is concerned, read the prosecutors' account of what happened that day. People were gunned down whose only crime was trying to surrender or get out of the way, the prosecutors say.


Boston: Do you have any idea if and how the use of contractors may change under Obama?

Eugene Robinson: I know that he has been critical of the practice, but it will not be easy for him to end it anytime soon.


Another perspective on Blackwater: This weekend, I had the pleasure of having brunch with a friend who is on leave home for one of his two annual visits home. He is a state department employee with significant military background who is deployed in Iraq right now as combination security and diplomatic support. His personal take on what occurs there and how people react gives a little recognized perspective on their lives. When you live in a highly dangerous area and put your life on the line for your job on a 7x24 basis and only get a break from this for one week every six months, you sometimes make overzealous mistakes. These people are human and while I deplore the loss of human life and certainly think that we need to handle this with the utmost diplomacy and offer what restitution and apologies that we can, I think we also need to be lenient on those who have been put in the position of the ground forces. It's a tough job and I doubt I would be able to do a better job than most of them and I don't intend to second-guess them at something I am ill-equipped to handle.

My friend told me that there are now people in place (including multi-starred officers) who handle the diplomatic discussions whenever any incident occurs. They've become very professional in handling the aftermath. He described one incident and I was impressed with the response.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you for your note. I understand that occupying another country is a difficult and dangerous thing to do. There are rules of engagement, however -- for good reason, since an occupying force has to coexist with the civilian population, and it's in the occupier's interest to establish some level of trust. This incident seems to me to be unacceptable, on any level. Outsourcing the occupation strikes me as unsound practice -- and incidents like the one in Nisoor Square make Iraq a more dangerous place for any American.

Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for tuning in, and see you again next week.


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