TEL AVIV – For an administration that prides itself in never letting a crisis go to waste, the Ebola outbreak is seemingly offering the perfect opportunity to achieve a long-time Western goal – to build up a U.S. military presence in Africa in the face of growing Chinese investment and influence on the continent.
President Obama’s announcement of humanitarian aid for the Ebola disaster came in the form of a major increase of military personnel in the region, declaring an estimated 3,000 U.S. forces will join the U.S. Africa Command, or Africom.
The stated goal of those forces, according to a White House release, is to establish a Joint Force Command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to “provide regional command and control support … and facilitate coordination with U.S. government and international relief efforts.”
Obama’s plan to fight Ebola in West Africa calls for $500 million to be added to this year’s Overseas Contingency Operations for “humanitarian assistance” in West Africa. Some estimates say the actual cost will trump $750 million.
While the personnel sent to Africa will undoubtedly aid in containing the Ebola outbreak, there may be ulterior motives for their deployment.
In August, the World Bank documented economic growth in resource-rich Sub-Saharan Africa rose to 4.7 percent in 2013 and is estimated to burst to 5.2 percent by the end of 2014. The rise has been aided by international investment in natural resources and infrastructure, the World Bank noted.
The Washington Post in August reported that in recent years China “has arguably become the most formidable of the foreign players in Africa,” with China in 2009 surpassing the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner.
Indeed, Chinese trade with African countries was nearly double that of the U.S. in 2013, with China doing $200 billion in business that year compared to about $110 billion between Africa and the U.S. that same year.
In August, former president Bill Clinton noted the possibilities for U.S. growth in Africa during a panel discussion with the chief executives of Wal-Mart, General Electric, Dow, the Nigeria-based industrial conglomerate Dangote Group and the South African investment holding company Shanduka Group.
“It strikes me that we’ve only barely scratched the surface of what we could and should be doing there and that we’re missing the boat,” Clinton said, according to the Washington Post. “We should understand this is a massive opportunity for American business.”
The Obama administration has sought to expand U.S. influence in Africa nations, with the president hosting an Africa summit and traveling to the continent last year.
Also, as the Post noted, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker “more than doubled the size of her department’s presence in Africa, bringing Commerce’s African offices to a total of eight countries.
Still, that number pales in comparison to China’s commercial offices in 54 African nations.
Africom to expand U.S. influence?
Africom’s official mission statement reads the military arm, “in concert with interagency and international partners, builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”
The Guardian’s Dan Glazebrook in 2012 noted that Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared at a 2008 conference that Africom may have another agenda.
Meoller stated at an Africom conference held at Fort McNair on February 18, 2008, the mission was also aimed at preserving “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market.”
In a 2010 opinion piece in the Foreign Policy journal, entitled “The Truth About Africom,” Moeller wrote “Let there be no mistake. Africom’s job is to protect American lives and promote American interests.”
Still, Moeller wrote Africom’s main mission was to coordinate with African nations, and he lamented fears the mission was to expand U.S. dominance.
“No, the U.S. military is not trying to take over Africa,” Moeller wrote.
Some have pushed conspiracies that the ouster of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, de facto leader of the pan-African movement, was intended to rid the region of a major obstacle to expanded Western influence.
Gaddafi was the single biggest African investor in pan-African growth and helped push the 2001 establishment of the African Union, which consists of 54 African states. The late Libyan strongman also wanted to establish a singular African currency and passport.
The 2011 NATO-assisted revolution in Libya was commanded in part from Africom.
Glazebrook claimed in his 2012 Guardian piece that “in taking out Muammar Gaddafi, Africom had actually eliminated the project’s fiercest adversary.”
Continued Glazebrook: “Gaddafi’s Libya had an estimated $150 billion worth of investment in Africa – often in social infrastructure and development projects, and this largesse bought him many friends, particularly in the smaller nations. As long as Gaddafi retained this level of influence in Africa, Africom was going to founder.”
Ebola ushers in Africom?
Until the Ebola outbreak, Africom only had approximately 2,000 assigned personnel, with the command’s headquarters located in Stuttgart, Germany.
Obama’s Ebola directive now sends more than that number, 3,000, to a base in Africa, specifically establishing a new Joint Force Command in Monrovia, Liberia, working with international partners.
A long-term goal of Africom was always to establish a major base inside Africa.
The expansion of Africom’s missions were also seen earlier in 2012 when the U.S. sent 100 Special Forces purportedly to hunt for infamous war criminal James Kony.
Interestingly, a recent survey of attitudes of African nations showed that only a crisis like Ebola could help persuade skeptical countries on the continent to accept an increased Africom presence.
In 2010, pollster and political scientist A. Carl LeVan analyzed more than five hundred African news reports, finding, according to his stated conclusion, that “support for AFRICOM corresponded with greater aid dependence, and that countries sustaining high levels of growth with less foreign aid were more critical of AFRICOM.”
LeVan stressed the heavy influence of the African news media and its role in supporting or opposing an increased Africom presence.
Last month, however, the All Africa news agency reported African countries were cracking down on media outlets amid the Ebola outbreak, leading to complaints from news outlets and local civil rights activists.
With research by Joshua Klein.