Africa Handshake, Part Nine: Skeptics

With two expensive land wars draining the treasury, the Pentagon wants to prevent future conflicts without spending a lot of money. Two years ago the Navy launched its first, roughly annual Africa Partnership Station, sending ships on solo cruises up the West African coast to deliver training and humanitarian aid. The idea: to win new friends and re-assure old ones, and boost their ability to handle security crises on their own. Our own David Axe joins the landing dock USS Nashville for APS 2.0 in Gabon.


Last summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. “Broadly speaking, when it comes to America’s engagement with the rest of the world, it is important that the military is — and is clearly seen to be — in a supporting role to civilian agencies,” Gates said.

Does USS Nashville’s smart-power deployment to West Africa represent this militarization of what should be strictly peaceful, civilian functions? After all, Nashville is delivering forms of assistance not normally associated with the military. Scientists are aboard to deposit ocean buoys that are part of a global-warming warning system. At every port, Nashville hands over small batches of humanitarian aid. Various U.S. ambassadors have embarked for brief stints in order to accompany Commodore Cindy Thebaud on high-level meetings with local elected officials.

Two civilian diplomats integrated into Nashville’s crew said not to worry. “The core of what we’re doing is fundamentally military,” one said. Both asked not to be named for this story.

He was referring to the military training programs that comprise the heart of Africa Partnership Station. It’s a traditional military job, using strictly military tools, and doesn’t represent an armed usurping of any civilian organization’s mission.

But what about all those “tertiary” activities: the humanitarian assistance, the science, the diplomacy? “We’re sensitive to that balance,” one of my sources said. In other words, in its current mix, Nashville’s mission is still military enough that anything else the ship might be doing feels, to the State Department, to be a side project rather than an intentional invasion of State’s space.

“I see Africa Partnership Station as a vehicle for ‘whole-of-government’ efforts,” said one of the diplomats. And besides, the other added, “our diplomacy has been historically under-funded and under-staffed.” The 500-strong Nashville crew is equal in size to “10 percent of our entire foreign service.”

So we don’t have much of a choice. If State is going to perform “expeditionary” outreach missions at all, it’s going to have to rely on the military for transportation and logistics, while keeping an eye on that “balance” between military and civilian functions.

(Photo: David Axe)