The announcement (Feb. 22) that the US has opened a drone base in Niger has been deliberately couched in abstract counterterrorism terms: unarmed Predator drones for reconnaissance purposes in order to track Al Qaeda and, never to be missed, “its affiliates.” Who could possibly object to such worthwhile activity? The New York Times, in its news story, didn’t seem to. And if polls are any indication, the general effort, especially in that far-off nebula called Africa, where the baddies, whom we’ve got on the run from Pakistan and Afghanistan, hang out, has Americans’ rock-solid support.
We know the bit about “unarmed” and “reconnaissance” is not meant seriously, a Brennan-Obama wink as it were, because the same introductory ploy was used in Djibouti, where a very large US drone base was established on those terms, and quickly transformed to the only real purpose of such an enterprise, i.e., targeted assassination. Djibouti was carefully selected because of the wide swath of territory it covered, and because the government was amenable to US terms, including a status-of-forces agreement, just as now in Niger, in which US personnel are exempted from local jurisdiction in the commission of crimes. An ideal situation, in which we can roll up our sleeves and go after the Enemy, which in the Djibouti case meant al-Awlaki and his son, both US citizens.
What of course is not being said, about Niger, Djibouti, and the whole counterterrorism effort is that, as a result, Africa is “in play” more than previously for American imperialist activities, which before, could be taken for granted as normalized, almost routine, exploitation of raw-materials production, but now, with China’s penetration, and far more sophisticated relationships to the peoples affected, such as building soccer fields and promoting education, requires of the US a catching-up phase to hold its own. As with imperialism, whether or not historically attached to colonialism, the so-called “natives” are a mere incidental factor in the execution of policy, yet in this case, not only they but also counterterrorism is incidental to US purposes. Even imperialism per se begins to blend into a wider framework, which, let’s call, the geopolitical strategy for a) maintaining the security of capitalism in, and chief architect of, the world system, and b) buttressing America’s claims to lead and work advantageously in that system.
We are in Africa whether or not al Qaeda and “its affiliates” are present, because Africa, in what has become an increasingly multipolar world, is both ripe for pickings in its own right and a pivotal sector in the political-economic rivalries of the Great Powers. Indeed, the fight is also becoming ideological. Just as we feared Russian penetration outside its immediate sphere of influence during the Cold War, now it is China, in a Second Cold War, or perhaps the First continued under new conditions, which we must at all costs prevent from invading our sphere of influence or testing our military strength. Bless al Qaeda, it enables us to prosecute our warlike activities against China! To paraphrase Sartre’s seminal essay on anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism is about everything except Jews; here, counterterrorism is about everything but terrorists; and if we didn’t have al Qaeda and “its affiliates” to contend with, we would have had to invent them, as part of our desperate attempt to remain the unilateral dominant power on the global stage.
The strain, however, is showing. The blanket use of assassination, coming directly from the personal authorization, down to specific targets, of His Majesty POTUS (and the Svengali-like Brennan always at his ear on the Terror Tuesday swing-dings off the Situation Room), is itself admission enough to the world that America, like Rome before it, is beginning its decline, placing it—except for its huge nuclear arsenal, which partly accounts for the deference still shown the US by the world community—as one among the many others in the family of nations, a position ordinarily satisfying to a country, but not to one which is accustomed to having its own way and, in addition, depends on the huge defense-cum-military budget to ward off economic stagnation and unemployment (even here, not succeeding all that well). This airstrip in Niger is more than the opening of a new front against terrorists. It is a straw in the wind, embodying the doctrine of permanent war, the necessity for creating an active regional presence throughout the globe, a forward line of bases to ensure the stabilization of areas intended for political-commercial penetration—and, if possible, gain the jump on China.
To falter in this regard is to risk falling victim to the psychological version of the domino theory: If the US loses in Africa (incidentally, Niger and Djibouti nicely complemented each other for controlling the East and West), this will encourage its (nonofficial) enemies from gaining ground in other areas of US interest. The unraveling of international power must be stopped. And behind China, what of Brazil, what of the Third World erupting and industrializing on its own terms? What of other regions, once drone warfare and assassination have deprived America of its moral coloring, would these countries still show deference to America? And in fighting this rearguard historical battle, the US can enter the realm of still greater urgency and its soulmate, denial, by fleeing from the major questions threatening world civilization itself, such as climate change and environmental degradation, taking refuge in the fairy land of antiscience, as though challenges to American might and challenges to the well-being of the planet will alike disappear, if we only close our eyes and keep our finger on the firing trigger (8,000 miles from target) for further assassinations.
[Here follows my New York Times Comment (Feb. 23) to the article on Niger drone base. The objectives of imperialism]:
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.