Thursday, January 24, 2013

norms of control

I very rarely ever use terms like "imperialist" when I discuss American foreign policy, in large part because it's the type of language that causes people to just shut down completely and stop listening. But there are ideas hidden within them that are very important, and I think this Foreign Policy essay does a really good (if largely inadvertent) job of demonstrating what I mean: the almost entirely unvoiced assumption that the United States has the license to do whatever it wants militarily, wherever it wants.

During the four-day siege of the In Amenas gas field, which culminated in an opaque takeover by the Algerian military that reportedly killed dozens, several pundits and journalists asked why the U.S. military did not send drones or special operations forces to free the hostages or kill the Islamist militants holding them. One CNN anchor asked Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "I'm curious as to your perceptions whether the U.S. is taking too much of a back seat." The following day, another CNN anchor seemed puzzled as to why Algeria would only permit the United States to fly unarmed drones over its territory, to which Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr noted: "The U.S. view is that the Algerians would have to grant permission for U.S. troops, U.S. military force, to go in there."
CNN should not have been surprised. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations received blanket permission to transit Algerian airspace with surveillance planes or drones; instead, they received authorization only on a case-by-case basis and with advance notice. According to journalist Craig Whitlock, the U.S. military relies on a fleet of civilian-looking unarmed aircraft to spy on suspected Islamist groups in North Africa, because they are less conspicuous -- and therefore less politically sensitive for host nations -- than drones. Moreover, even if the United States received flyover rights for armed drones, it has been unable to secure a base in southern Europe or northern Africa from which it would be permitted to conduct drone strikes
Now, Micah Zenko's point is largely to remind people that the United States is constrained in principle (if not in fact) by international law and rules of engagement, so I'm not blaming him. I'm just depressed that he needs to write a piece like this in the first place. Can anyone imagine a piece in Foreign Policy that features a spokesman from the Mexican military saying, "The Mexican view is that the Americans would have to grant permission for Mexican troops, Mexican military force, to go in there"? And would permission ever be granted in any circumstance, even on a case-by-case basis? Would we find anything odd about Ecuador failing to secure a base in southern Europe or northern Africa?
The White House can choose to act -- in Algeria or elsewhere -- without a state's permission, and deal with the political consequences and likely reduction in diplomatic and intelligence cooperation if U.S. involvement is exposed. Given that 94 percent of the Earth's land mass is not U.S. territory, the sovereign right to say "no" is one that advocates of using military force must keep in mind. 
To live in a country where people must be reminded of such things is to understand the meaning of the word hegemony-- even if the use of that term gets you laughed at. (Especially because the use of the term gets you laughed at.) These vague impressions of the normalcy of limitless force projection are as dangerous as any coherent philosophy of militarism. That's the American perspective, today: not that America is extraordinary for how often it breaks the rules, but rather that it's extraordinary that America ever follows them at all.


Anonymous said...

“The White House can choose to act -- in Algeria or elsewhere -- without a state's permission”

Want to really provoke some shits and giggles—the WH can choose to act abroad without Congressional/Americans’ approval. Far too many Americans are just dandy with that too, well, as long as their party’s stud is in office.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Freddie. Good post.