I had an opportunity to speak with David Axe, a military correspondent with Wired Magazine’s Danger Room and a regular contributor to warisboring.com, to discuss a variety of natural security issues and the evolving role of the U.S. military in responding to climate-related disasters and relief. Axe is a contributing editor at World Politics Review, Warships International Fleet Review and Eurasia Critic, and a regular contributor to The Washington Times and C-SPAN. He has traveled extensively throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, reporting from a number of war zones, including Afghanistan, Chad, East Timor, Gabon, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Nicaragua and Somalia, where his experiences have informed his understanding of how violent conflicts are linked to poor environmental stewardship and natural resource scarcity.
Rogers: So you’ve traveled to Africa and covered the continent very well. And I’m curious, of all the resource issues you’ve encountered in Africa, which has had the most significant impact on security? Is it food and land, water, energy or minerals?
Axe: Well that depends on the region of Africa that we’re talking about. In Central Africa it’s pastured land - or pastures for herds – and viable crop land, and both those are tied to water. Also firewood which is also tied to water. So in Central Africa – that being Chad, Sudan, Central African Republic – the problem is that it’s dry. And because it’s dry there are fewer and fewer trees for firewood, less and less land suitable for cultivation, and less land that’s good for herds. So that is one of the sort of fundamental causes of conflict in that region.
In East Africa, the horn of Africa – Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia – one of the major resources that’s tied to conflict is fish and access to the sea – so ports. Somalia once was an economy greatly dependent on fishing. But with the collapse of the Somali government in 1991 Somali fishing grounds have become sort of a free-for-all for any country that wants to – well for any private company that wants to plunder those waters illegally. So that’s been one of the root causes of piracy. Tension between Somalia and Ethiopia has been exacerbated by access to the sea. Ethiopia is landlocked and one of the factors of Ethiopia’s interventions in Somalia is enabling access to Somali ports. So access to the ocean and fishing in East Africa.
I have less experience in West Africa, but there are looming threats I believe to security in West Africa. Many countries in West Africa are developing very quickly. And the pace of development means that they’re consuming resources very, very quickly. And that could indicate that development is unsustainable and hiccups in development could result in conflict. I’m thinking particularly of Gabon in this case. Gabon enjoys being one of the more secure countries in West Africa, but that security to some extent is bought by progress – by economic growth. And that economic growth to a great extent hinges on exploiting Gabon’s oil and wood. When the oil and wood run out – which they will – Gabon will discover that its mono-economy might quickly or easily transition to other modes and that could lead to conflict.
So those are the regions of Africa that I have explored.
Rogers: You’ve reported on several cases where the U.S. military has used its capabilities for nature-related missions, including the Air Force’s use of its “Hurricane Hunter” to collect data to better understand hurricanes and the use of C-130s for fighting wildfires. And I wondered, what opportunities does this afford the military as far as public and media perception goes?
Axe: Public and media perception. Well of course fighting a natural disaster can be a public relations coup because you’re not hurting anybody when you fight a fire or monitor a hurricane. The enemy is faceless and fairly apolitical. So it’s the best possible enemy – it doesn’t really fight back and nobody gets upset when you hurt it. Well not hurt it exactly. I mean obviously if the military were to – in cases where the military causes environmental damage that is a magnet for public ire. But deploying a Hurricane Hunter to fly through a storm, or dropping fire retardant on a wildfire in California - these things, they’re win-wins. The military wins by doing something that helps the public and the public wins, too by benefiting from firefighting and hurricane hunting – and everybody likes everybody, and it’s all great.
But that’s not to say that the military is an environmentally neutral organization – far from it.
Rogers: In your experience, when the United States engages in soft power missions, such as delivering food and medical assistances or participating in disaster relief overseas, have recipients of this assistance reacted differently to U.S. military engagement in different states and regions? For instance in Indonesia when the United States provided humanitarian assistance in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the United States caused many Indonesia’s to have a more favorable perception of the United States and the U.S. military in particular. Do we always improve our perception by engaging in these missions?
Axe: Right. No, it’s unpredictable sometimes. Or maybe it’s predictable but it doesn’t always play out the same way. Soft power missions – let’s see – we’ve deployed amphibious ships and hospital ships to Latin America on soft power missions carrying humanitarians – doctors, nurses and engineers – to give out free medical care and reconstruction assistance. And in some countries in Latin America that’s resulted in a backlash. You know these soft power missions – and here I’m thinking specifically of the Navy’s Operation Continuing Promise in Latin America which is a roughly annual affair – while it only goes to countries that extend an invitation and not all countries do extend an invitation – Venezuela for one – those countries and their leaders especially seem to believe or at least say they believe that these U.S. soft power missions represent some of the vanguard of increased U.S. military in the region. An invasion in other words – albeit an invasion cloaked in a humanitarian gesture. So every time the U.S. Navy sends a hospital ship or an amphibious ship carrying humanitarians down to Latin America, Hugo Chavez or some other firebrand in Latin America accuses the U.S. of invading or trying to spark a new Cold War in Latin America. And who knows why that’s not true – I mean soft power is a deliberate strategy for boosting national security, it’s not just about helping people. It is about helping people but for America’s benefit. The idea is you want to provide some security at the grassroots level and that will sort of trickle upwards and reinforce strategic relationships between the U.S. and various countries in Latin America and stabilize these countries to an extent that you head off conflict way down the line.
But in theory, soft power is suppose to benefit everybody. It benefits us by encouraging stability in a region that’s very close to us, very important to us. And it benefits the recipients by giving them a hand up toward more lasting security and prosperity. So that’s the theory. But we’ve also discovered lately that maybe guys like Chavez aren’t entirely wrong. Just a few weeks ago an Air Force general – and I’m struggling to remember his name – the 13th Air Force Commander in Hawaii (Lieutenant General Loyd S. “Chip” Utterback) gave an interview where he talked about how outreach is beneficial to his organization because it helps open up new access to bases – say in the Philippines or in some other country where the U.S. does not presently have a major military presence. In other words you make friends with countries and that can give you access to bases. So opponents of soft power aren’t always entirely wrong.
But we deploy these soft power missions all over the world and the reaction is different everywhere. I would say that the reaction in West Africa where we have another roughly annual naval soft power mission is less cynical. But that also is a region of the world where the strategic divides are a little less clear cut. I mean it’s – in Latin America the sides are clearly drawn. You have parts of Latin America allied with the U.S. and parts anchored by Venezuela that’s allied with Russia. So it would seem natural to expect a heightened reaction from that pro-Russia bloc when the U.S. Navy deploys even a humanitarian vessel to Latin America. But you don’t see that in West Africa. Those strategic divides are less clear. So I would say in West Africa the reaction has been more broadly positive. One of the major threats in West Africa really is political instability tied to deep, deep poverty – income disparity, a lack of public health – and these grassroots initiatives are aimed at boosting those things and improving those problems. So West Africa is ripe for these soft power missions.
Rogers: If the projected effects of climate change come to pass, including decreased water availability, desertification, severe flooding or increasingly intense natural disasters, will the U.S. military be tasked to handle the impacts of climate change in other countries, or will the need for more frequent humanitarian missions and disaster relief drive the creation of new American or international units to deal with these crises?
Axe: Yeah well that’s sort of the same thing. With soft power for instance, we’re already seeing the U.S. military getting involved in humanitarian operations aimed at ameliorating the effects of global climate change. So it’s not an either-or-proposition. Maybe it should be. There are a lot of questions about the military – about the appropriateness of the military getting heavily involved in humanitarian operations. Those are very important questions that not enough people are asking. What’s the effect when aid work that was once done by Norwegians in non-profit organizations or the Red Cross or churches – you know what happens when you take work that was once done only by civilians and get the military involved? It can have the effect of politicizing aid work to an extent that it wasn’t politicized before and that has a way of siding aid work with one group in a conflict versus another. And you know aid work needs to be as apolitical and neutral as possible in order to reach victims of conflicts. When it gets tied to a side then it doesn’t get –you can’t get the access to all the victims that you would enjoy if you were perceived as being more neutral. So getting the military involved is risky. But the military is definitely getting involved. Soft power missions, reconstruction, development, all the stuff the military is involved in in everyplace where the U.S. military is deployed. Where there’s reconstruction in many cases but trying to help a local population deal with their own particular environmental problems – southern Iraq for instance. Reconstruction there – much of that is aimed at managing water and the availability of water resources is definitely tied to climate change.
There are places where we may see greater involvement – much greater involvement – U.S. military involved in dealing with the effects of climate change. And I think Central Africa is one of those. Central Africa is on a glide slope to much greater conflict – as if it weren’t bad enough already. As it stands we have overlapping civil conflicts in Chad, Sudan and Central African Republic that have so many facets that some people give them all unique names and consider them discrete conflicts. I mean Darfur is just one face of this. There’s so much more. There’s a Sudan-sponsored rebellion in Chad. There’s Central African-sponsored rebellions in Chad. There’s Chadian-sponsored rebellions in Sudan and Central Africa – I mean it all overlaps. So much of the fighting is sort of – like there’s strata to it. There’s the armed groups that are sponsored by one government or another in a bid to undermine neighboring governments. But then beneath that there’s tribal violence that’s tied to crop land, pastures and firewood. All these things being related to water. So tribes slaughtering each other over a watering hole. In fact just last week we saw 160 civilian refugees were killed in South Sudan – the breakaway province of South Sudan – by – it was just intra-tribal fighting over land and it had this sort of crazy domino effect. Like if there’s fighting over land in one place, that displaces thousands or tens of thousands of people who flee the fighting. They go settle somewhere else and by a massive influx of refugees put pressure on land resources in a new place so that sparks fighting there – generates more refuges who go somewhere else and create a new land problem. And this happens over and over and over and over. And it’s that kind of low-level – low-level for a nation but certainly a big deal for the people involved – it’s that kind of low-level violence that underpins all of the conflicts in Central Africa. That is one of the ground-level grievances that creates armed groups – that creates disaffected people who join armed groups – that fuels gripes between nations and that is only getting worse and worse and worse. And as populations grow displaced populations become bigger and more mobile.
Rogers: So given that climate change is going to make these issues more prevalent in places like Central Africa and the U.S. military does get involved – obviously the U.S. military can’t be all things to all people. So in a world where climate change has increased the frequency of humanitarian missions that the military has to engage in, how do you think the U.S. military will prioritize which countries it will provide assistance to and which it will not?
Axe: Wow – which ones will we prioritize? Well we already see a kind of ad hoc prioritization. It does seem to be necessarily guided by one overarching principle. But one thing is just feasibility. You know we deploy trainers on humanitarian missions to West Africa frequently because it’s possible to do that. Conflict and potential conflict in West Africa is still low-level and our allies there are strong. But the U.S. has very little presence in Central Africa because there’s a lot of shooting going on in Central Africa. You know wandering onto an active battlefield is much more complicated and harder to launch new operations, and the potential consequences of getting involved are much greater. So you know there are peacekeepers – there are militaries deployed to Central Africa. There are U.N. Peacekeepers in Sudan, there are U.N. peacekeepers in Chad, there was an E.U. force in Chad until quite recently but it changed names. There are French military deployed across Central Africa. So you see folks deployed there but those are folks who tend to have been there for quite awhile. We probably won’t see a major U.S. military presence in Central Africa because that conflict has metastasized in the sense that it doesn’t welcome new participants. I mean what would a U.S. military force do in Central Africa that somebody else isn’t already trying to do and probably failing at, but nonetheless trying? You know it’s not clear which niche we would fill and the logistics of it are hugely daunting. There’s just no existing U.S. infrastructure. The potential for bloodshed is massive. The Pentagon was really stung by experiences in Somalia for one in the early 90s. When a conflict reaches a certain scale and intensity it becomes very hard to intervene without major bloodshed. And I think Central Africa is at that point – Somalia is certainly at that point. The prospect of a major U.S. intervention like we saw 15 years ago is pretty much nil. I mean there are ways in which the U.S. is going to be involved in Somalia but we are not going to be deploying troops. So feasibility is one way we prioritize. Another is – sadly – it’s going to be about the immediate benefit – what’s going to be the immediate payoff? Obviously all these things are calculated to benefit our national security. But some of them payoff more quickly and more obviously and those are going to be the ones that we prioritize. Just like that Air Force general talking about base access. In places where base access might result from our involvement – well – you’ll probably see us more involved.
David Axe is the author of the graphic novel memoir, War Fix, and is currently writing his next graphic novel, War is Boring (2010).