July 24, 2007

Surging Into Africa

In Esquire this month, Thomas Barnett reports that the United States is slowly but surely building up a large military presence in Africa. By 2012, we plan to have some two dozen bases scattered around the continent, outposts that do a combination of "defense, diplomacy, and development." There's never been an "Africa Command" before, and this is, Barnett notes, a major new development that's largely flown below the media radar.

Okay. But why do we need such a massive military presence in Africa? What's the point? That's... not clear.

Barnett can't really summon up a concrete rationale for such a presence. As he admits, "There aren't enough Islamic terrorists in Africa" to justify the buildup. The United States certainly doesn't need two dozen bases to secure Africa's oil supply. And China isn't trying to build an empire on the continent; Beijing just wants access to natural resources. Nothing to fear there. No, the main purpose of Africa Command seems to be to engage in "preemptive nation-building"--the United States wants a presence in Africa so it can dominate and shape the region as it develops.

How this is all supposed to work, exactly, is unclear. After all, is the military uniquely suited to development work? That's doubtful. Barnett has an anecdote about how soldiers stationed in a village in Kenya helped the local school build a girls' bathroom. That's admirable, but you don't need a military presence to do that. On the other hand, as African nations develop, the U.S. could threaten them to adopt "free-market" reforms--or face the business end of a Marine battalion. Maybe that's what this is all about. I mean, here's how the military plans to "surge" into Africa:
The pattern of our military's expanding presence in Africa seems clear: 1) look where the locals or former colonials set up shop previously; 2) move inside the existing wire first with your special operators for capture/kill missions and military-to-military training with the locals to do the same; and then 3) settle in more formally with new versions of Camp Lemonier. Once set up, the task force storefront can be used to flow trigger pullers onto the scene at a moment's notice -- the precinct that hosts the SWAT team.
Setting up shop in the old colonial strongholds is a nice touch. No doubt it would be shrill to call this "imperialism," eh? Note also that the United States' "expanding presence" in Africa is likely to get us embroiled in local conflicts. Barnett tells the story of how CENTCOM got sucked into Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia last December. The U.S. signed on mainly because we were jazzed about killing some unspecified number of fighters in Somalia. (Says one official: "Honestly, nobody had any idea just how many there really were. But we wanted to get them all.") As far as anyone can tell, nothing positive has come from our involvement in--and support for--that war.

Anyway, there's a decent debate about U.S. hegemony to be had here. Is there a chance that this military presence in Africa could be a force for good--one that could stabilize the continent and help governments build up their security forces and maintain order? Or is this neo-colonialism just going to wreak havoc, as we arm and equip nasty regimes that violate human rights; strong-arm poor countries into adopting economic policies favorable to U.S. corporations--as has been done in Latin America for the past fifty years; and end up getting the U.S. military involved in an endless series of conflicts and quagmires?

I tend to think the latter scenario, while crudely sketched, is far more likely. Honestly, if the United States really wanted to help "stabilize" Africa, it could huddle together with France, Britain, and Russia, and figure out a way to stop flooding the continent with the small arms and rifles that end up killing more people than all the Al Qaeda fighters in the world could ever hope to do. But it's not at all obvious to me that the growth of Africa Command is a good thing.
-- Brad Plumer 12:35 AM || ||