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Last Updated: 07/15/2003
Pawn of pawns: USA, Africa and empire in the 21st century
Matt Norton

President Bush's trip to Africa poses many questions, including the nature of US influence there and elsewhere, the extent to which African states can play off the US against the EU, and the effect on weapons research. Matt Norton in this guest editorial takes a journey through some of the issues.

At the end of June Jane’s Defence Weekly broke the story of the United States’ plans to develop a Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV).  This unmanned aircraft would be able to fly at speeds of up to seven times the speed of sound at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet with a payload of 5,500 kilograms of attack munitions of various forms.  One form the munitions would take is the “glide bomb”, also under development, which is launched from the HCV or other space-based platform, is accurate to within 3 meters, and has a range of 3,000 miles[i].  Three thousand miles. 


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a unit of the U.S. Defense Department,  explains the rationale for these technologies as part of the concept paper for its FALCON (Force Application and Launch from the CONtinental United State) programme.  They, along with the Air Force, envision the HCV and glide bomb as part of the development, “of a new transformational capability that would provide a means of delivering a substantial payload from the continental United States (CONUS) to anywhere on Earth in less than two hours. This capability would free the U.S. military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilizing or threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organizations.”[ii]


In his book Losing Control, Paul Rogers identifies an attack during Gulf War I which seems to have been the progenitor of the FALCON project.  Seven B-52G long-range bombers taking off from a base in the continental U.S. conducted the longest bombing raid in history on targets in Iraq.  Thirty-five cruise missiles were launched from the air craft before they turned around and flew back to the U.S.[iii]  The operation was hugely expensive and, on the surface, entirely superfluous as the targets could far more easily have been attacked from forward-based air craft.  But the attack seems less to have been a practical exercise than a first awkward statement of a military philosophy[iv].  The precepts of that philosophy are now, more than 12 years later, made clear in the FALCON programme and they are quite clearly the military philosophy of an empire.


Meanwhile, in Liberia, the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) has issued a threat, saying that “any troops deployed before the departure of Taylor must be prepared for a fire-fight”[v].  In the context of the US misadventure in Somalia, the administration must be taking that threat seriously.  Stretched already by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing the U.S. wants is pictures of dead peacekeepers in Monrovia’s streets beamed around the world. 


How are we to understand these two apparently contradictory facts: on the one hand the power of the U.S. military seems truly daunting and poised to become even more so; on the other, an ill-equipped band of rebels operating at the periphery of the international system are able to issue threats to this very same military which are taken as credible and serious?  To further confuse the issue, the possible deployment of U.S. along with West African peacekeepers has gotten tangled up in Liberia’s factional civil war.  The rebels are threatening violence against peacekeepers if they are deployed before Liberian President Charles Taylor leaves the country.  Taylor, meanwhile, is refusing to step down before peacekeepers arrive, claiming that the vacuum of power this would create would make the situation even more unstable. 


The U.S. for its part is not only, through action or inaction, caught squarely in the middle of Liberian politics, it is also caught in its own contradiction.  Remember George Bush as a candidate, promising an end to foreign entanglements and drastic scaling down of U.S. peacekeeping?  Bush suggested that peacekeepers would only be deployed if

1)      Such deployment was in support of U.S. security and strategic interests, and

2)      Was of a limited duration with a clear objective.

Does Liberia meet these criteria?  Well, yes and no.  It does not back in the days when Bush was a candidate.  It does now that he is president, and the naïvely “thin” version of American security interests has been debunked by September 11.  The Afghanistan connection has shown the U.S. foreign policy establishment that underdeveloped and failing states on the global periphery ­– places where peacekeeping is often needed most – are critical to U.S. security.


Taking that into consideration, there has been a fundamental shift of the Bush administration’s Africa policy, represented most clearly in Bush’s recent five-nation tour through Africa.  Though Colin Powell claims that Africa has been a Bush administration priority all along[vi], at the very least it seems to be getting far more emphasis now than in the first two years of the Bush presidency.  In part this is an effort on the part of the U.S. administration to brush up an international image damaged by the recent U.S. turn against multi-lateral institutions and treaties (International Criminal Court, Kyoto Protocol) as well as its controversial war in Iraq.  Bush may have a deep commitment to support, in Colin Powell’s words, “African ambitions, the desire of the African people to lead better lives”[vii], but having displayed the great strength of the U.S. for all to see in Iraq, he is now trying to send a clear message that the U.S. also has great heart.


If the U.S. is best described as an empire, as many commentators have suggested, the threats of LURD and Bush’s goodwill tour of Africa throw some light onto the nature of the power that this empire wields.  LURD poses a real threat to the U.S. because if Liberia becomes a repeat of the humiliation of Somalia, then America’s use to Africa will be partially undermined.  What America has to offer will be weakened, and if Bush’s tour signifies anything, it signifies that he wants to make an offer, to make a deal, or a series of deals amounting to a relationship.  He wants a relationship with Africa that gives the U.S. some influence on the continent, and a peacekeeping disaster in Liberia would undermine what the U.S. has to offer and make the U.S. less useful to Africa.


The appearance of being useful to Africa is central to the pursuit of U.S. security concerns there.  Africa needs to want American engagement which is why LURD’s threat is real.  If there is an American empire, it is an empire of influence rather than an empire of control.  As Michael Ignatieff writes, “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burder . . . [t]he 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite . . .”[viii].  That is to say, America has no vassals, has no client states dependent on it entirely for their survival, and so it can give no orders.  In the last year Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, Germany, NATO and others have provided examples of imperial commands ignored.  Though the U.S. is one of Israel’s most stalwart political supporters and gives billions to Israel in aid, when push came to shove in April of 2002 as Israel staged numerous incursions into West Bank towns and villages to great international outcry, Bush demanded that Israel stop its offensive immediately.  Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected this direct and publicized order, responding that Israel would indeed stop their military offensive . . . as soon as their objectives were complete.  American empire is an empire of influence, not control, but influence is tied quite strongly to interest.  That is why if America wants to get closer to Africa, then America must be able to offer something to Africa.  Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey, and Germany do not support U.S. policies or actions out of loyalty, they do so out of interest, because they get something out of the deal.  When what they get is outweighed by what they are giving up the influence of the empire is overruled by the pragmatism of interest.


The U.S. is suddenly showing interest in Africa.  Perhaps it wants to show, as suggested above, that in addition to strength it has heart.  Perhaps the U.S. is using Africa to send a message.  Perhaps the president is attempting to shore-up the African American vote in the next presidential election, or perhaps Bush is afraid of what may come from more failed states, particularly if America seems complicit in that failure.  Suffering blamed on the U.S. was once thought irrelevant, but has come to be seen as dangerous. 


Several African commentators have raised such doubts about the sincerity of the U.S. president’s visit to the continent.  His photo ops were not genuine, his stops too short for him to gain any meaningful insight into Africa or the countries he stopped in, his response to famine was to promote genetically engineered crops.  All of these points, however, overlook one important development that the president’s visit signals:  The U.S. is suddenly interested in Africa.  The Americans want to play, they want to be engaged, they want to be on Africa’s good side.  These may be the first tendrils of empire’s influence (the top U.S. NATO official has made several suggestive comments regarding an increased NATO interest in Africa while the U.S. military has established a presence in Djibouti in the context of the War on Terror), an influence that many Africans may not welcome, but it is also the opportunity to charge the empire of influence for what it gets.  African states are now in a position to perform their own calculus of interest in order to decide the price of their friendship. 


Liberia is a perfect example.  Bush comes to Africa to broadcast the new U.S. stance on the continent, the new American commitment.  Nothing would undermine this new stance so quickly as a refusal on Bush’s part to take an interest, even to get involved in stopping the warfare in Liberia.  If Bush wants to send the message that the U.S. cares about Africa, the response should be, and appears to have been, “show us in Liberia.”  It is a dirty, quid pro quo way to do politics, but it gets results, and that is the point.  Despite his often stated distaste for nation-building and peacekeeping, as this issue of the Monitor goes online, Bush has reached a provisional agreement with Kofi Annan on a timeline for the deployment of a limited number of U.S. troops to support an ECOWAS peacekeeping force.  The point is not that he is insincere.  He may be, but the point is that in order to gain influence, the currency of American empire, in Africa, he has to take action, has to be engaged, has to work constructively with Africans.


AIDS can be treated similarly.  Bush wants the credit for pledging US$15 billion, African states should give credit while at the same time demanding that Bush reaffirm his commitment to the notion that patent rights not trump public health, a position the U.S. agreed to at the WTO talks in Doha.  The money should not all flow directly back into the coffers of drug companies, and the structural problems in the patent licensing system which will not be touched by Bush’s AIDS package should not be left off the table.  Nelson Mandela has the right pragmatist spirit, using the U.S. funds, even if they do have serious strings attached, as an example to demand a matching amount from Europe[ix].


In twenty years time the U.S. may have hypersonic strike craft capable of hitting targets anywhere in the world within two hours of launch from the continental U.S.  Until then the empire needs friends.  But friendship among states is a matter of calculation based on what one can get from the other – and thus comments that the new Bush commitment to Africa is disingenuous ought be ignored.  Of course it is disingenuous, and of course the U.S. wants something back.  A pragmatic approach is more useful.  The U.S. gets a few things out of being Africa’s friend, support in the war on terror, possible support for future actions on the U.N. security council, it shores up its access to African oil which will play an increasingly important role in world oil supplies, particularly if instability in the Middle East lingers or grows, credit for playing the “good guy” by helping to curb AIDS or end bloody civil wars.  The U.S. stands to get a lot from Africa. 


The question that African political leaders ought to ask themselves is “what can we get in return?”.  An increased willingness on the part of the U.S. to provide peacekeeping support in states on the brink or in the grip of war is one tangible benefit.  Money to fight AIDS, if it is coupled with a commitment to solving the standoff between patent rights and the pandemic, is another.  If Bush and the U.S. want to be friendly with Africa, Africa should expect U.S. support in confronting the major challenges facing the continent.  It may not be true friendship, but the imperial politics of the 21st century require this level of pragmatism.

[i] BBC News, World Edition.  “US Plans Hypersonic Bomber”  Available at .  Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK.

[ii] DARPA.  2003.  “FALCON:  Force Application and Launch from the CONUS Technology Demonstration Solicitation 03-XX”  Available at .  Last accessed 14 July 2003.

[iii] Paul Rogers.  2000.  Losing Control:  Global Security in the Twenty-first Century.  First edition.  Pluto Press.

[iv] Awkward in the sense that these attacks required 35 hours, two in-air refuelings from bases in Spain and the Azores, and overflight permission from a variety of states, including Saudi Arabia, which Gulf War II has shown to be a fickle commodity.  Ibid.

[v]  “Liberia Rebels Warn Peacekeepers”  Friday, July 11, 2003 Posted: 12:33 PM EDT (1633 GMT)

[vi]  “Powell:  Bush demonstrating his commitment to Africa”  Available at: .  Last accessed 14 July 2003.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Michael Ignatieff.  January 5, 2003.  “The American Empire:  The Burden”.  Available at .

[ix]  BBC News, World Edition.  “Europe urged to boost AIDS funds”.  Available at .  Last Updated: Monday, 14 July, 2003, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK

Matt Norton is a professor of peace studies at the University for Peace and is coordinator of the new MA International Peace Studies due to begin this Autumn.