This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In June, an American Green Beret was reportedly strangled to death in Mali by U.S. Navy SEALs, allegedly in connection with a shadowy money-skimming scheme. (The military is currently investigating.) In July, The Intercept, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and Amnesty International revealed that a drone base used by U.S. forces in Cameroon was also a site for illegal imprisonment, brutal torture, and even killings on the part of local forces. (The military is investigating.) In August, according to a blockbuster investigation by the Daily Beast, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in a massacre in which 10 Somali civilians were killed. (The military is investigating.) In October, four Special Operations soldiers were killed in murky circumstances during an ambush by militants in Niger. (The military is investigating.)
This spate of questionable, scandalous, or even criminal activity involving U.S. forces in Africa should come as little surprise. Over the last decade and a half, operations on that continent have been expanding and evolving at an exponential rate. A token number of U.S. troops has grown into a cast of thousands now carrying out about 10 separate missions per day, ranging from training to combat operations, which are up 1,900% since last year alone. U.S. commandos sent to that continent have jumped from 1% of special ops forces deployed overseas in 2006 to nearly 17% today, the highest total outside the Middle East. There have also been numerous indications of U.S. forces behaving badly from one side of the continent to the other. Few in the mainstream media or among those tasked with oversight of such operations have, however, taken any significant notice of this.
"We don't know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the wake of the ambush in Niger. More recently, Congressman Ted Lieu of the House Foreign Affairs Committee added, "From combating al-Shabaab in Somalia to Boko Haram in Nigeria, U.S. military personnel are deployed across the African continent with little public scrutiny or awareness." This attention deficit helped set the stage for the recent scandals that have forced lawmakers and the public to take some notice.
The situation of the U.S. military in Africa is, in some respects, not unlike that in California, where TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon begins her latest article. There, climate-change-charged dry weather and unseasonably warm temperatures made the state a tinderbox that recently burst into a series of devastating wildfires. The U.S. military has created its own tinderbox in Africa, where longtime expansion without oversight has led to a series of blazing scandals. And all of this is just a small part of the larger story told by Gordon -- of a world filled with the dry underbrush of decades of failed U.S. policies and of a president with a penchant for setting fires. Once, ignoble political calculations, futile strategies, ideological idiocy, and intellectual ineptitude provided flashpoints capable of sparking foreign policy failures, conflicts, or ruinous domestic policies. Today, writes Gordon, the commander-in-chief functions as a one-man flamethrower, setting blazes the world over as a matter of whim and embracing the inferno as an end in itself. Nick Turse
The President Plays with Matches
And the Whole World Burns
By Rebecca Gordon
"I've just heard that my family home near Carpenteria is literally in flames at this moment," a friend told me recently. She was particularly worried, she said, because "my mom has MS. She and my dad got the call to evacuate after midnight last night. They were able to grab a few photos, my sister's childhood teddy bear, and the dog. That's it. That's all that's left."
My friend's parents are among the thousands of victims of the 240,000-acre Thomas fire, one of California's spate of late-season wildfires. Stoked by 80-mile-an-hour Santa Ana winds, plenty of dry fuel, and 8% humidity, such fires are devouring huge swaths of southern California from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Months of dry weather and unseasonably warm temperatures have turned the southern part of the state into a tinderbox.
Once again the country watches in horror as firefighters struggle to contain blazes of historic voracity -- as we watched only a couple of months ago when at least 250 wildfires spread across the counties north of San Francisco. Even after long-awaited rains brought by an El Niño winter earlier in 2017, years of drought have left my state ready to explode in flames on an increasingly warming planet. All it takes is a spark.
Sort of like the whole world in the age of Donald Trump.
The crazy comes so fast and furious these days, it's easy to forget some of the smaller brushfires -- like the one President Trump lit at the end of November when he retweeted three false and "inflammatory" videos about Muslims that he found on the Twitter feed of the leader of a British ultra-nationalist group.
The president's next move in the international arena -- his "recognition" of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel -- hasn't yet slipped from memory, in part because of the outrage it evoked around the world. As Moustafa Bayoumi, acclaimed author of How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, wrote in the Guardian, "The entire Middle East, from Palestine to Yemen, appears set to burst into flames after this week." Not surprisingly, his prediction has already begun to come true with demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon, where U.S. flags and posters of President Trump were set alight. We've also seen the first rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and the predictable reprisal Israeli air attacks.
Trump's Jerusalem announcement comes as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pursues his so-called Middle East peace initiative. Kushner's new BFF is Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne. We don't know just what the two of them talked about during a late night tête--tête as October ended, but it probably involved Salman's plans to jail hundreds of prominent Saudis, including 11 fellow princes. They undoubtedly also discussed a new, incendiary Israeli-Palestinian "peace plan" that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are reportedly quietly circulating.
Under this proposal, according to the New York Times,
"The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants."
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