A recent ambush on United States special forces in Niger, which left four soldiers dead, has perhaps metastasized into one of President Trump’s strangest controversies yet.
So many aspects of this story are not receiving any clarification. Foremost, the context of the ambush takes place in an enormous and growing U.S. military presence in Africa. A military project is seldom discussed with no public or legislative oversight.
The other development in this story is White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly’s press conference last Thursday, which should have sounded alarms for anyone concerned with the increasing consolidation of power in the Trump administration among U.S. generals.
The president’s love of spectacle has, like it has so many times before, brought this controversy more unwanted attention.
It started as an aggravation for fact-checkers when Trump claimed previous presidents hadn’t called the families of killed soldiers and a PR nightmare over the wording of his call to a fallen soldier's widow.
The controversy has now snowballed into an investigation into the ambush that now seems imminent.
The question at the center of this story remains the expansion of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, AFRICOM, that oversees U.S. military operations in countries like Niger.
France and the United States have long been the premier occupying military forces in Africa since the crumbling of France’s empire on the continent after World War II. Recent events, however, have seen the U.S. rise to preeminence.
Founded in 2006, AFRICOM’s first major operation was the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. In a classic case of action necessitating more action, the security vacuum caused by Gaddafi’s overthrow allowed AFRICOM to usurp the role of the North African security network run by Gaddafi himself.
The increased activity of terror organizations like Boko Haram because the invasion also necessitated AFRICOM’s involvement in the region as the only military protection available for nations like Niger.
When asked about the role of U.S. troops in Niger, Kelly succinctly described this very protection racket. He said U.S. troops were there to teach Niger’s soldiers “how to fight ISIS,” not mentioning that ISIS’ presence in that country is a direct result of U.S. policy.
As he continued to channel a Victorian colonial officer, Kelly justified the U.S.'s civilizing mission in Africa to teach Nigeriens “how to respect human rights.”
The rest of Kelly’s performance as a real-life Dr. Strangelove character was perhaps one of the most striking moments of the entire Trump administration. Kelly portrayed military sacrifice as an act unfathomable to mere civilians, as a form of martyrdom to the military as a divine organ of the State.
When requesting questions from the press, Kelly stipulated only those who know a “Gold star parent or sibling,” demanding associations with the military as a prerequisite for journalistic access.
When a reporter had the gall to question Kelly’s account of Rep. Frederica Wilson’s, Democrat-FL, association with the family of one of the killer soldiers, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders challenged “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.”
The message from Sanders, Kelly and the president is clear: the presence of military personnel in political positions puts them beyond criticism.
As evidenced by the controversy over NFL protests, this administration will use patriotism and the elevation of the nation to berate and suppress the opposition, one of troubling developments ignored by many.