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A Good Match: Donald Trump and Erik Prince

When the United Nations General Assembly met in December 1989, one of its most important achievements was passage of the Mercenary Convention – the “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.” The Convention was subsequently ratified by 35 countries and went into effect as an international treaty in 2001. Considering that, historically, mercenaries have, with rare exception (today’s Swiss Guard at the Vatican), proven to be lawless killers who both spread and thrive on anarchy, this move by the General Assembly was a prescient one. The problem was, and still is, that many of the world’s “great powers” are remarkably short-sighted and refuse to sign on. Among these is the United States. In the meantime the mercenary business has become a worldwide big business. So much for the UN Mercenary Convention.

Now, some 29 years later, we have a president of the United States, Donald Trump, who thinks the world’s most notorious mercenary – an American by the name of Erik Prince – can help achieve the misguided goals of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. It would seem that the answer to that perennial question, “Will they ever learn?” is no.

Who Is Erik Prince?

Erik Prince was born in June of 1969 in the northern midwestern town of Holland, Michigan, into a very wealthy, conservative Christian family. He attended Holland Christian High School and is reported to now be an ardent religious fundamentalist. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy but never graduated. He then went to Hillsdale College, again a conservative Christian school in Michigan, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1992. He then joined the Navy and became a “SEAL,” which stands for the Navy’s “Sea, Air and Land” special forces. In 1997, having left the Navy, he founded Blackwater Worldwide – a notorious mercenary organization. He managed Blackwater until 2009 and sold the operation in 2010.

Under Prince’s leadership Blackwater was employed by the G. W. Bush administration to protect convoys of American diplomats in Iraq. It did so in a predictable “cowboy” fashion, leaving a large number of dead civilians in its wake. Most of Blackwater’s second-tier administrators ended up under indictment in the U.S., and some of its operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan have been charged with murder. None of this was surprising to anyone who knew the history of mercenary forces.

In 2010 Erik Prince decided he “needed a break from the United States” and moved to Abu Dhabi, where he now acts as a military adviser to the United Arab Emirates.

A Good Match

Donald Trump and Erik Prince are a good match. First, both men believe in the privatization of almost all activities (including military ones) that are, in truth, best carried on by responsible governments. The “free” market is their ultimate definition of freedom generally. As we will see, this really makes them both advocates for anarchy. Here they follow in others’ footsteps. Remember that Prince’s initial employer was the Bush Jr. administration, also made up of conservative “free” market ideologues.

Second, both men are immoral – they have no scruples. This is pretty obvious when it comes to Trump and his corrupt cohorts, and Prince is in at the fringes of that syndicate. He reportedly served as a go-between for Trump and Russian bankers with close connections to Vladimir Putin. This effort was allegedly made to establish a back-channel connection between the incoming Trump administration and the Russians. It is possible that, in sworn testimony before Congress, Prince lied about the nature of his activities in this regard.

At this point, one might ask, what about Erik Prince’s Christian background? Alas, despite strong belief to the contrary, it is a mistake to equate ardent religious belief – particularly in its fundamentalist guise – with the practice of morality. Historically, the connection just isn’t there. Religious zealots, just like most ideological fanatics, are prone to violence, and some of history’s bloodiest crimes have been committed in the name of religion. That includes recent ones like G. W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. G.W. reportedly claimed he was told to invade by God. The problem is ongoing. To judge from today’s headlines, it would seem that violent religious zealots are the scourge of our age. So Prince fits right in.

President Trump’s present interest in Prince has to do with the bloody mess in Syria. Trump is under some pressure from the U.S. military to pull out the 2,000 or so U.S. troops still in that country. But in Trump’s view this would be a step toward turning the western part of that country (where the U.S. forces operate) over to the Assad government, the Iranians and the Russians. So he needs an alternative strategy. Trump has consulted with the Saudis and Gulf Arabs about funding and manning what amounts to a mercenary army to replace the U.S. troops in Syria. And who is the West’s expert in mercenary endeavors – the fellow who can put all of this together and make it work? It is Erik Prince.

Conclusion

The notion that the good society is the one that looks after the basic needs of its citizens so as to create a platform for the realization of their creative potentials is, if not dead, then in serious abeyance. Something has come along to undermine this ideal. What now competes with it is the idealization of anarchy. And, in this the United States leads the way. The main route to this end is economic – the privatization of just about everything while simultaneously destroying regulation. We know, again from history, that this can only lead to disaster, but the politicians who are leading this charge are themselves ideologues who don’t give a fig for any history that might call into question their free market preferences.

The main route opens into many tributaries and one of them leads to the mercenary – the gun for hire. It is hard enough keeping professional soldiers in line – those operating under rules of engagement put in place by states which have signed on to the Geneva Conventions. Bring mercenaries into the mix and, as Niccolo Machiavelli realized at the end of the 15th century, you are now tying your interests to untrustworthy and quite bloodthirsty barbarians. To grasp this fact you must know something about the history of warfare and be able to correctly learn from the experiences of others. Most politicians seem not to be able to do either of these things. It’s an old story and seems to be today’s story as well.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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