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Don't blame Blackwater

The security firm acts according to its contract with the State Department.

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One critical piece has been missing from the debate about Blackwater's behavior in Iraq. The security firm operates as should be expected – as an agent of the US State Department, which it is. It acts just as State has prescribed by contract. Giving the Defense Department (DoD) more oversight over Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq, a plan announced Tuesday, doesn't change that.

Since Blackwater was involved in a September shootout in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, the firm has come under intense criticism for what many call overaggressive tactics.

But the issue isn't an overly aggressive contractor. It's the State Department's zero tolerance for casualties of its employees in Iraq. Such an approach makes tragedies such as the September episode more common – and it marginalizes the lives of innocent Iraqis who just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Placing so many diplomats and civil servants on nation-building assignments in the middle of a civil war has a high price – perhaps too high, as officials at State have finally started to acknowledge.

The US government appears to tolerate a certain number of casualties from the all-volunteer military. But civilian employees are a different story. Images of dead diplomats being dragged through Iraqi streets or videotaped beheadings of civil servants, it's assumed, would undermine already tenuous public support of the war.

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