Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dangerous and Misguided: Notes on the Militarization of US Africa Policy under Obama

Donald Rumsfeld famously asked whether our wars were creating more enemies than they were destroying.  A similar question could be asked about our drone bombing/assassination/armed intervention/faction-taking policies in much of the Arab world and now, increasingly, Africa. Except that to ask the question is to answer it. Yes, of course they're creating more enemies than they're destroying--and more implacable ones at that. The rest of the world is not Nazi-occupied Europe. We can't just go in and stomp on stuff and hope they'll understand. Every time we kill someone minding their own business on their own turf we make an enemy of their families, their friends and their neighbors. Kill enough of them and we make enemies of entire nations.

So why, then, do we continue to use lethal force so frequently and indiscriminately? And why are we extending these belligerent policies to Africa, when they've demonstrably failed in the places they've already been tried? One answer I used to entertain is that we don't have a theory of mind.[1] We can't imagine, that is, that they think any differently about us than we think about ourselves. We know we didn't deliberately kill those kids, target that wedding party, take sides in their version of Hatfield-McCoy. We assume they understand that about us, and never ask how we'd react were the situation reversed. This is more than not being able to put ourselves in other people's shoes. This is not being able to imagine that other people, in other shoes, can have thoughts other than our own.

Another answer is that the war faction[2] knows perfectly well what it's doing. Creating enemies is what it wants. More enemies justify ever more belligerent policies, which generate ever more enemies, which justify ever more belligerence, and on and on. For the war faction, this works out great: The more enemies we have abroad, the more leverage it has at home.  Conflict internationally creates the conditions most propitious for its triumph in the domestic competition for political power. There's nothing about this dynamic that Euripedes didn't warn us about, but steroidal warriors like Bristol seem determined to bring us closer to it.

In the end, however, these answers strike me as too cynical. Violence professionals aren't stupid and political entrepreneurs aren't traitorous. The reality, I think, is that everyone is just doing their job. There's just no percentage in not killing that suspected terrorist. If you let him live and he kills someone, that's your career--or your administration. If he turns out to have been an innocent mechanic--well, by the time his son grows up and becomes America's sworn enemy, it'll be the turn of your successor's successor to worry about. And who knows what will have happened in the meantime? Call it the fierce urgency of now. From the president down to the SoF colonel, all the incentives line up one way: stomp first, ask questions later. And the logic that applies to individuals goes for regions: Africa in general and the Sahel in particular may have been among the last strategically unimportant places on earth, but now that there's money involved and careers to be made who, really, wants to risk letting something slip through?

America is powerful enough that we usually only feel the consequences of these misguided policies at the margins of our imperium;  in Benghazi, say, or the Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria. Even with the latest estimate for the Iraq war running north of $2 trillion, it's possible for most citizens to remain blissfully ignorant of the policies our government is pursuing. They might be short-sighted but they have, by design, zero tangible impact on our lives. So long as that remains true, the militarization of US power projection seems likely to continue--particularly in places like Africa, where the stakes are so low and the rewards so high. You can bet your career on it.

[1] And by "we," I don't mean any particular official or policymaker, though someone like Bristol makes it easy to imagine the trait personified. Rather, I mean the collectivity, the group out of which policy decisions emerge. Somewhere there must be a literature about how group dynamics slant decision making under conditions of conflict. 
[2] I'm going to leave the phrase undefined.... Y'all know what I mean, and I'm done today pretending I'm a political scientist.

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