When does neo-imperialist subtext tip over to overt imperialism? Well, when it comes to America’s Africa policy, apparently it’s when Foreign Affairs indulges the published fantasies of a multigenerational military trio of facsimile David Petraeuses peddling un-ironic Rudyard Kipling reprises. In the piece in question, retired Air Force Major General Marcus Hicks, and U.S. Army Majors Kyle Atwell and Dan Collini don’t pull punches – and are just a bit too on the neocolonial nose – off-handedly asserting: "Like it or not, a twenty-first century "scramble for Africa" is underway." Allow me to translate that into late 19th century apologism for the unfamiliar:
Look, we Westerners didn’t WANT to seize and exploit all of Africa besides Liberia and Ethiopia. You see, like it or not, we had no choice, ultimately…it was for their own good…they were kinda asking for it, even…
Nor have the enemies completely changed since Kipling ruled the literary-waves, because – per their title – the reason America assumedly must go to (or stay in) Africa is because, supposedly, "Great-Power Competition Is Coming to Africa." Which great powers, you ask? Well, still the Russian fear-mongering gift that keeps on giving (whom British and French high-age imperialists had just fought a war with in – here we go again! – Crimea a few decades before), plus ever-rising China (a modern variant of the feared and vilified late 19th century growing German economic powerhouse). In other words, this triumvirate tells us that the Russian Bear and Chinese Dragon are poised to gobble up Africa – which, unless Uncle Sam stops them, is presumably some sort of serious security threat to Altoona.
I read, reread, and re-reread their article the moment it popped in my email inbox, and I’ll admit my blood boiled. Ex-assistant professor alarm bells were loudly gonging as I thought, if I were back at West Point – where Atwell is set to start teaching International Relations (precisely what Petraeus taught there) – I’d turn this term paper into an intellectual murder scene of red ink:
Where is your evidence, Cadet Hicks?
Sweeping assertions and assumptions must be backed up, Cadet Atwell!
In the history department we use inductive, not deductive, reasoning, Cadet Collini!
Therein lies the essential problem: the rub and the ruse of the Three Militarist Musketeers’s clarion call for continental combat – they eschew relevant context, bail on backstory, evade inconvenient evidence, and lump otherwise dissimilar cherry-picked facts into a grandiose simplified model. All of which might be forgivable – if lamentable – were these intellectual part-timers just a batch of forgettable academics. But no: these are far too self-assured policy people, analyst-practitioners – writing in the establishment’s prime foreign affairs journal (shame on its editors, by the way!) – who mean to use their muddled model to make recommendations they fully expect to be followed.
People die behind such nonsense. Plenty of my soldiers did – and we never much bothered to count the countless foreign victims.
Which is to say we should take their trash analysis deadly serious. But not too seriously. So indulge my perhaps off-color channeling of Mystery Science Theater to play the show’s observant silhouette, and "humorously" – if rather darkly – comment on highlights from the article as it reads. Call it indulgent, maybe – and no doubt it is, from a rather exasperated authorial Africa-watcher. Only it might also be instructive, doing what too few dare, but more must – refusing to take militarism-masquerading-as-scholarship seriously, just because the authors wear fatigues to work.
From [near] the top, folks – we’ve got a dose of credentials and credibility virtue-signaling:
"As current and former military officers, one of whom led the US Special Operations Command for Africa from 2017 to 2019, we believe that the United States must position itself as the partner of choice for African countries in the era of great-power competition."
Translation: "Listen up everyone, adults – real men, in fact – are speaking…" Yes, these gentlemen are special operations officers with some legitimate experience on the African continent. But yeah, I’ll say it: tell me how that’s necessarily a net positive? By literally every metric, US military operations in Africa since 2002 have not only failed but further fueled conflict, combat, and chaos on the continent. If fictional fellow Africa veteran Captain Renault were calling the shots from Casablanca – and, say, he didn’t want to solve the West’s ongoing continental crime – he’d no doubt shout: "Gather the usual suspects!" Or, "Africa is burning – call the arsonists’ fire brigade!"
Russia has dramatically expanded its footprint in Africa in recent years, signing military deals with at least 19 countries since 2014…Its mercenary companies, including the Wagner Group, which fought a deadly firefight against US Special Operations Forces in Syria in 2018, now operate across the continent, from Libya to the Central African Republic to Mozambique."
This one is almost too easy: Pot, meet kettle…
Or, to [should be] unnecessarily bother expanding, it’s genuinely hard to comprehend the utter lack of self-awareness required for military representatives of what’s become a veritable mercenary nation – who’ve worked for a headquarters (AFRICOM) that’s long been basically a private security company with a modest and obligatory cadre of uniformed service-members – decrying Russian hired guns. Without caveat, at that. Somehow the folks at AFRICOM often seem shocked, just shocked, that many Africans aren’t so thrilled about this – and that essentially no country would agree to host America’s Africa command in, you know, Africa (it’s still in Europe).
Which makes you wonder if these uniformed Africa-enthusiasts have done much reading on the nefarious history of white mercenaries on the continent – stuff like "Mad" Mike Hoare in the 1960s Congo, or the more recent explosion of Rhodesian and South African apartheid-era army vets turned soldiers-of-fortune blazing across Africa in the 1990s. Heck, haven’t they at least watched Leo DiCaprio attempt a Rhodesian/Zimbabwean dialect in the 2006 film Blood Diamond? If so, the authors might understand why AFRICOM Inc. doesn’t play – any better than the hypocrisy of uncritical Russian merc-alarmism does – with actual Africans.
Already, Libya has become a theater for proxy warfare between Russia, Turkey, and other countries backing opposite sides in an increasingly bloody civil-turned-proxy war. The United States has played a peripheral role in that conflict, but that did not stop Russia from allegedly shooting down a US drone over Libya in 2019.
"Peripheral role," or did the troubling triad mean to say the American "pyromaniac’s post-arson apathy?" You’ll note that nowhere in their 2,000-plus published words did the authors raise the US role in Libya – except to criticize an insufficient amount of it, or censure Russia’s sending mercenaries there and backing an opposite side in the country’s ongoing proxy war. That seems odd. Specifically, less disingenuous analysts might’ve mentioned the minor matter that through its Tuareg rebel-, radicalized Islamist-, and emptied arms depots-super-spreader regime change war toppling Moammar Ghadafi in 2011, the Franco-U.S.-Anglo coalition literally lit the regional fires that the fear-mongering firm of Hicks, Atwell&Collini insist only America can put out.
Then again, vicious cycles and self-lighting conflict-charcoal briquettes generate immense cash-flows for the likes of war industry outfits like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon. Those merchants of death, by the way, were the number one-two-and-three defense contractor funders of the second-highest think tank-recipient of such blood money (to the tune of $8,946,000 between 2014-19) – the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Oh, and you’ll never guess who just wrapped a stint at CNAS as a "Next Generation National Security Leaders Fellow" – column co-author Kyle Atwell. Check it out: there’s even a "Support CNAS" donation box-link right below his bio there!
By offering sustained and effective counterterrorism assistance, [Sorry, have to stop them right there: given the US military track record and exploding violence stats, isn’t "effective" rather a strong word here?] the United States can become the partner of choice for African countries, encouraging them to develop their economies and political systems in accordance with Western norms.
One presumes they mean besides all those "partnered" African army captain and colonel coup-artist alumni – two in Sahel-linchpin Mali over just the last eight odd years – of the Pentagon’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. In fact, serious scholarly and journalistic analysis demonstrates that AFRICOM has been a veritable coup-factory from its inception! Which raises the question: have these guys ever made an assumption that wasn’t false?…(I mean that question almost seriously)
"Anything short of that [a revamped regional military strategy that addresses transnational threats] will cede the advantage to the United States’ adversaries on a continent where opportunities and risks are set to grow in the coming decades."
Funny, no one – certainly not these purportedly panicked officers – has bothered to explain precisely what horrible things shall happen if the supposedly strident Russian and Chinese invaders (who actually have far less continental military presence than America, France, or Britain) "win" this encore "scramble" for Africa. I mean, really. What’s the threat, why does it matter – if it were actually true, a big if, at that – how exactly does Scranton suffer? I’ve yet to receive a memo on this, not a Tweet, Pinterest post, Snap, or whatever the kids are communicating with today. Could it be that the imperial endgame contest is mostly in the authors’ – and Washingtonian and war industry – minds? Toss the geopolitical game of Risk back on the dusty shelf where it belongs, fellas.
Lest I have ask: when it comes to world-views…is there sum that’s lower than a zero-sum game?
I’ve known officers like these guys – have worked with and for the type. And make no mistake, the tone of these co-authors drips with the cardinal sin of their archetype – reasonably well-read military professionals who truly believe they’re the only truly trustworthy adults in the room. These are self-styled sober realists beset with a 21st century brand of imperial paternalism. See, they know what’s good for both American citizens and African peoples – if only those erratic emotionals they ostensibly serve would listen! In fact, Hicks, Atwell, and Collini could’ve saved readers time and trouble if they’d had the candor to openly crib lines from Kipling’s famed 1899 poem:
"Take up the White Man’s burden-
Have done with childish days"
It’s clear that’s just what the co-authors think and prescribe – get in the ring, America, and duke it out with largely imaginary Russians and Chinese on that ever-tortured African continent.
There’s just one catch: what’s truly childish is these well-groomed military men’s understanding of Africa.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen