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On most things we can muddle through, for climate change that just won’t do

Foreign Policy Blogs - Wed, 10/11/2021 - 16:27

There is no planet B

When Congress makes a mistake in determining important economic policy like setting the tax rate or implementing a new trade policy, the results can be pretty awful. Unexpected inflation might take place, jobs might be lost, and personal savings might crumble. In the most severe cases, these disruptions might result in economic recession, or worse, a more sustained depression. It goes without saying, this can be devastating- on a personal, national, and even global level.

However, in the aftermath of even the most severe of these crises, individual people have proven resilient. We “Keep Calm and Carry On”, as the saying goes. Even when the most sensitive economic policy goes awry, the consequences are usually constrained to economic matters. A mistake in tax policy can certainly cause suffering, but it cannot result in the end of the world.

This principle applies for many of the most important matters in the American political landscape. Immigration, education, healthcare, and of course economic policy are critically important, but our collective resilience allows for politicians to gradually tweak policy to match the nation’s needs and mood. The American political system is designed to process these sorts of changes incrementally at the national level while giving local decision makers the ability to implement policy in a way that suits their constituencies. Put another way- for most things in American political life, policy makers have the opportunity to “muddle through” policy making decisions, honing and (hopefully) improving policy over time.

However, there are some policy matters where tinkering around the edges or “finding the middle ground” simply will not do. Climate change is perhaps the most obvious and most pressing of these. There is a strong scientific consensus, backed by the United Nations IPCC report, that in order to avoid reaching the point where climate change becomes self-reinforcing, the global community must become carbon neutral by the year 2050. This is only twenty-eight years away.

To the extent that the world’s governments and the individuals that they represent ignore these warnings, we are gambling with the fate of the whole of humanity. The idea that we can be protected from the worst consequences of climate change by making only incremental adjustments does not fit with intellectually honest political discourse.

Of course, there is still plenty of room for debate regarding the best course of action to address climate change. It is entirely reasonable to debate if the bulk of the responsibility for addressing climate change falls on nations that have emitted larger total sums of greenhouse gases over time but have already begun to reduce their harmful emissions, or if it lies with nations that are currently the world’s chief greenhouse gas emitters. In either case, it is appropriate to shame Russia and China for failing to attend the COP26 climate conference, and it is reasonable to question the follow-through of leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he pledges that India will be carbon neutral by 2070 despite currently working to expanding coal mining operations.

More than that, it can be wise to weigh the virtues of a carbon tax against those of a cap and trade system in our own country. Local decision makers will know far better than distant bureaucrats if subsidies for solar panels or a heightened focus on local agriculture suits your local community’s needs better.

These questions, however, ask which actions and policies are best suited to address climate change- they are elevated beyond the basic question of whether or not drastic action is necessary in the first place.

This is what separates climate change from the other important issues in American life. A failure to address growing inflation is bad, while a failure to appropriately address climate represents a potentially existential threat. More than that, the action that appears necessary to avert the worst of the harm done by climate change remains fully outside of the Overton Window. Forget actually curbing emissions, the United States gives something to the effect of $14.5 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to oil and gas companies- those subsidies outnumber investments in the renewable sector by 7 to 1.

Democrats and Republicans alike need to make dramatic progress in their willingness to take on climate change if they are serious about the current administration’s stated goal of achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2030. Additionally, American political discourse needs to commit itself to curbing climate change regardless of other important policy making, and regardless of our confidence in the follow through of other nations that are sometimes untrustworthy. Without the United States on board, there is little hope for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This is true for the United States even as it is true for Russia, India, and China- however, a failure by any of those nations to fulfill their responsibility does not excuse failure by the United States.

The time is now for us to fully shift the conversation from “do we need to address climate change” or “under what conditions should we make a full commitment to addressing climate change” to “what is the most effective way to address climate change”. Despite this somewhat liberal sounding call to action, this sentiment finds roots on both sides of the aisle. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “the [global warming] debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.”

The time for action is now.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association

Le Maroc pétrifié par son roi

Le Monde Diplomatique - Mon, 08/11/2021 - 18:17
Le royaume chérifien est confronté à un climat social difficile. L'opposition peine à défendre les maigres concessions obtenues avec la Constitution de 2011. Dans un contexte de mise au pas des médias, questionner le pouvoir du roi Mohammed VI reste un tabou. / Maroc, Monde arabe, Citoyenneté, Droits (...) / , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , - 2016/10

L'université américaine vampirisée par les marchands

Le Monde Diplomatique - Mon, 08/11/2021 - 15:25
Parce qu'ils relèvent du domaine public, l'éducation et la santé suscitent les plus grandes convoitises des entreprises privées. L'assaut d'une logique de profit se déploie avec une vigueur particulière dans l'université. Sous couvert de « marché des idées », la course aux disciplines qui « attirent (...) / , , , , - 2001/03

Les investisseurs chinois achètent-ils la France<small class="fine"> </small>?

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sun, 07/11/2021 - 17:17
Les investissements français en Chine sont six fois plus importants que les investissements chinois en France. Tandis qu'à Pékin personne ne s'inquiète d'une invasion hexagonale, les convoitises de l'empire du Milieu effarouchent nombre de commentateurs à Paris. Cet afflux de capitaux étrangers (...) / , , , , , , - 2016/10

Les primaires, version russe

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sat, 06/11/2021 - 17:14
On ne compte plus les biographies de M. Vladimir Poutine, mais le système politique russe reste mal connu. Sait-on par exemple que le parti du président a organisé des primaires avant les législatives, prévues le 18 septembre ? En imitant ses homologues occidentaux, Russie unie cherche à convaincre (...) / , , , , , - 2016/09

Le Cachemire, aux confins de trois États

Le Monde Diplomatique - Thu, 04/11/2021 - 17:05
/ Asie, Frontières, Chine, Pakistan, Inde - Asie / , , , , - Asie

The Elected Monarchs No One Wanted

Foreign Policy Blogs - Thu, 04/11/2021 - 16:14


The Economist recently published an article on the overarching power of the European Council, a government body of the European Union that was designed to facilitate the discussion and application of policies throughout the EU. The problem that has always persisted in the European Union is how you can get consensus between so many differing ideas, cultures and interest groups that can be applied fairly and transparently throughout all 27 Member States. Part of the solution has been to reduce the number of voices in the process as not to make it so incredibly cumbersome, but many see this as a move towards systemically reducing democratic values in the process.

My experience studying the framework of the EU at a time when Accession was a major topic of the day was characterised by the expansion of the EU into Central Europe along with the addition of new cultures and former Warsaw Pact nations. These countries accepted entrance into the EU at the cost of what many see as an unfair burden on their agricultural sector and shared economic values. Many of those countries who over the last two generations overthrew the tyranny of fascism and the long slow decline of their societies under the Iron Curtain are naturally weary of outside pressures being put on their societies, and the top down structure of the European Council has the very real power of being able to tread on grassroots movements in Member States.

Countries like the United Kingdom always sat uncomfortably within the EU. This was always the case despite being at the top of its power structure and possessing parts of the UK that were happy to have the support of other regional Governments in the application of policies within the UK and EU. While The Economist article humourously compares the power of the European Council to that of a neo-Monarchic power structure, it was always the case that many English people saw themselves apart from Continental Europe, and were proud of their unique British cultural and democratic institutions and in some fashion had longed mourned their lost Empire. While the irony of the British Government having a Queen Monarch as Head of State would be lost on no one, the British Parliamentary system’s culturally based Constitution, assumed Customary Laws and invisible Constitutional etiquette would be hard to codify outside of British Society, and the grumbles against EU power within the UK was ever-present. One of the major factors that lead to Brexit that is often not spoken on is the feeling that democracy could not survive the whims of those not directly elected representing British citizens in a city with no connection to Britain’s culturally based democratic system. The Queen herself, while having the ability to technically apply Absolute power, culturally is at the sidelines and is well aware that interference in party politics may sour the public to the idea of having a Monarch altogether. This wise balance was not possible with UK representatives in Brussels, and it degraded the idea of Britain being in the EU for generations.

To see what the end result could be from those at the top ignoring grassroots politics and using their power to quell democratic traditions, you only need to look at how Canada’s Federated Government took to announcing policies that would greatly affect specific regions of its own country, in an international forum, and not within the region being affected or even Canada itself. The recent announcement of a cap on energy sales at a time where inflation hit record highs and cost of living is placing many in risk of losing their homes in winter is seen as needlessly aggressive policy. With a closed Parliament and no manner to answer to policy, the British Parliamentary system cannot function when Parliament is closed at a time of major policy development. In addition, ignoring the Customary laws of that traditional system means that people may feel their voices are muted, at a time when life is difficult and leadership is required. As the European Council slowly alienated British voters, no region of the world would tolerate a foreign power limiting their ability to produce an income, afford social programs and have an open voice in their own democracy. To keep a union of states or even a nation united, it should not be able to harm to itself as part of its own democratic system. As history has noted, then it is not really a full democracy.

Données personnelles, une affaire politique

Le Monde Diplomatique - Wed, 03/11/2021 - 18:12
Les traces que nous laissons sur Internet, les informations de nos smartphones et nos contributions aux réseaux sociaux ravissent les publicitaires et enrichissent les géants de la Silicon Valley. Pourtant, les données personnelles ne sont pas condamnées à ce destin. Leur usage à des fins d'utilité (...) / , , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

Aix-Marseille, laboratoire de la fusion des universités

Le Monde Diplomatique - Wed, 03/11/2021 - 16:12
Pour se faire une place dans le supermarché mondial de l'enseignement supérieur, les établissements rendus « autonomes » par la réforme de 2007 fusionnent. Les exigences scientifiques et pédagogiques fondamentales se heurtent alors à l'expansion d'une bureaucratie libérale. / France, Éducation, (...) / , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

Traduire Shakespeare

Le Monde Diplomatique - Tue, 02/11/2021 - 18:50
Permettre à ceux qui ignorent une langue de profiter des chefs-d'œuvre qu'elle a produits : une mission à la fois essentielle et impossible. Comment restituer l'œuvre de Shakespeare en français, idiome si éloigné de l'anglais élisabéthain ? Un traducteur expose ici quelques-uns de ses partis pris. / (...) / , , , , , , - 2016/09

Riposte culturelle au Cachemire

Le Monde Diplomatique - Tue, 02/11/2021 - 16:48
Depuis 1947, trois guerres ont opposé l'Inde et le Pakistan sur le Cachemire. La partie administrée par New Delhi vit sous un régime d'exception. Le 8 juillet, Buhrhan Muzaffar Wani, chef d'un groupe séparatiste, a été tué par des militaires indiens. Il était devenu un symbole de la résistance armée (...) / , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

Sondages : de la connaissance à la propagande

Le Monde Diplomatique - Mon, 01/11/2021 - 15:11
En septembre 1990, lors de son discours à Joué-lès-Tours, le premier ministre Michel Rocard vantait les mérites d'une « démocratie d'opinion » dont les sondages seraient la clé de voûte. Il allait ainsi contribuer à ce qu'ils deviennent progressivement l'un des principaux modes de désignation des (...) / , , , , - 2008/11

La Corne de l'Afrique dans l'orbite de la guerre au Yémen

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sun, 31/10/2021 - 19:03
Zone de contact avec la péninsule Arabique, la Corne de l'Afrique est une région stratégique : ports, puits de pétrole, trafics de marchandises, d'armes et de populations. Occidentaux, Asiatiques, multinationales, pétromonarchies et puissances locales — Éthiopie et Érythrée en tête — s'y livrent une (...) / , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

Cette France en mal de médecins

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sun, 31/10/2021 - 15:02
Entre 2007 et 2016, le nombre de généralistes en France a diminué de 8,7%. Plus de trois millions de personnes peinent désormais à trouver un médecin traitant. D'abord apparu dans les zones rurales, ce problème touche désormais de petites villes comme Lamballe, une commune bretonne gagnée par le désert (...) / , , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

Quand les tuyaux avalent les journaux

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 18:31
D'AT&T aux États-Unis à SFR en France, un mot d'ordre circule comme une traînée de poudre : la convergence entre télécoms et médias. Suivant cette stratégie, les propriétaires de réseaux numériques et téléphoniques rachètent des journaux ou des télévisions en difficulté pour remplir leurs tuyaux. / (...) / , , , , , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

«<small class="fine"> </small>Enchanter la vulgaire réalité<small class="fine"> </small>»

Le Monde Diplomatique - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 16:21
Longtemps vilipendés, les graffs, tags et dessins au pochoir ont conquis leurs lettres de noblesse. La reconnaissance a parfois conduit les artistes de rue à abandonner toute velléité de contestation, même si la plupart continuent à rejeter la récupération marchande. / France, Art, Culture, Histoire, (...) / , , , , , , , , - 2016/09

What if China Decided To Invade North Korea?

The National Interest - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 08:00

Kyle Mizokami

North Korea, Asia

The PLA might lack the institutional skill of the battle-tested U.S. Army, but it is certainly better than the Korean People’s Army.

Here's What You Need to Know: While North Korea has traditionally been a Chinese client state, ties between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years.

Amid the near-constant threat of a crisis breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, one major power is often left out of the discussion: China. The People’s Republic of China shares an 880 mile long border with its notoriously unpredictable neighbor, has a large army and values stable borders at any cost. In the event it deems military action necessary, what are Beijing’s options for dealing with North Korea and what kind of force could it bring to bear?

North Korea is both a blessing and a curse for China. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an independent state that is openly hostile to the United States and other regional powers. Pyongyang’s military is a deterrent to attack without posing a direct threat to China. As a result, nearly a thousand miles of China’s borders are occupied by a regime that finances its own defense and will never fall willingly within the U.S. sphere of influence.

The situation is far from perfect. While North Korea has traditionally been a Chinese client state, ties between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years. Pyongyang’s fiery anti-American rhetoric and nuclear weapons program have provoked the United States, making North Korea a major point of contention between Washington and Beijing. The country’s flagrant violation of international norms have tested Beijing’s patience.

There are persistent rumors that Beijing has long prepared to intervene in North Korea, whether in the aftermath of a government collapse or should the country’s leadership make credible threats against China. No one outside of Beijing knows what those preparations might be, but we can outline some scenarios. One thing seems reasonably certain, however: if China goes into North Korea, the presiding regime, whether of Kim Jong-un or someone else, will not survive.

One possible scenario is a military incursion into North Korea in response to regime collapse. An imploding economy, military coup, or Syria-like rebellion could all cause the regime to fold, and it will likely fold quickly. When it does, the national food distribution system will likely fail, causing refugees to flee the country. Given that the border with South Korea is notoriously fortified and the Russian border is relatively far and remote, the least difficult border to cross is into China.

Beijing, obsessed with internal stability, would almost certainly not tolerate millions of refugees crossing into northern China. From a Chinese perspective, it would be far better for those refugees to stay in North Korea. In the event of regime collapse, we could see the three People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armies in the country’s Northern Theater Command move south. One option is to create a buffer zone in North Korea, but that would not solve the problem of political and economic instability. If the PLA does move South, it would likely go all the way to Pyongyang in order to establish a puppet government and reestablish some level of stability.

The most likely scenario is that China launches an all-out invasion to topple the existing regime. Of the sixteen armored, mechanized, infantry and artillery corps that make up the Korea People’s Army (KPA), only two are deployed along the Sino-Korean border. Three more corps are stationed in and around Pyongyang. Nearly 70 percent of the KPA is south of the Pyongyang/Wonsan line, sited to support a cross-border attack against South Korea.

China’s Northern Theater Command ground forces consist of the 78th, 79th and 80th Armies. These armies are what would be considered corps in the U.S. Army, collectively controlling eighteen combined arms brigades supported by three special operations, three aviation, three artillery and three engineering brigades. This gives the PLA a powerful force equivalent, at least on paper, to roughly five or six U.S. combat divisions. Supported by the two air attack divisions of the Chinese Air Force assigned to the Northern Command, the three PLA armies could quickly cross the border and march south into the KPA’s strategic rear.

To what extent would the KPA resist an invasion? It depends. If the regime in Pyongyang is still in place, it China could face considerable resistance. A lack of fuel reserves, dictated by China, would likely strand many of the remaining fourteen army corps in place, rendering them unable to resist a Chinese invasion. If the government collapses the KPA could become part of the hungry, leaderless masses—masses with weapons. Ideally, Beijing would cultivate ties with the KPA leadership before a move South and persuade it to not resist and maintain order.

It’s difficult to foretell how well the PLA would do in wartime. The last time the Chinese Army engaged in such large scale combat was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Using inferior, outdated tactics, China’s ground forces suffered heavy casualties against their battle-hardened Vietnamese opponents, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping vowed never to repeat such a costly war. It is unlikely that Beijing would order the attack if it did not have full confidence in the PLA to carry it out without embarrassing failure.

The PLA of today however is a completely different beast. While the PLA lacks the institutional skill of the battle-tested U.S. Army, it is certainly better than the Korean People’s Army. The army has modernized both its equipment and military doctrine—Xi Jinping’s repeated calls to be “combat ready”, often interpreted as outwardly aggressive, are more likely to be exhortations toward general readiness and against corruption in the ranks. A recent and pervasive emphasis on high speed, mechanized warfare will pay the PLA dividends in a drive on Pyongyang.

The most dangerous aspect of a Chinese invasion of North Korea is if it is launched concurrent with a U.S. and South Korean assault northward from the demilitarized zone. While the U.S. and South Korea would operate with the same objectives in mind, they would likely be very different from China’s. The possibility of fighting breaking out between those armies marching north and those marching south would be very real.

Barring a total collapse of the Pyongyang regime, China is unlikely to invade North Korea any time soon. The economic, political, and military costs outweigh the benefits—at least for now. That having been said, if the calculus changes China maintains the forces, just over the border, to decisively intervene in its smaller neighbor. Whether China, South Korea, or anyone is ready for the outcome is a very good question.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This article first appeared several years ago.

Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Can America Learn Anything From Chinese Weapons?

The National Interest - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 07:00

Kyle Mizokami

China, Asia

China is willing to steal American military technology. Is America willing to do the same?

Here's What You Need to Know: These Chinese weapons highlight holes in U.S. capabilities.

We all know that there are plenty of U.S. weapons the Chinese military would like to get its hands on. The Arsenal of Democracy churns out some of the best, most technologically advanced and versatile weapons in service anywhere. China is willing to steal American military technology to help advance its own military research and development programs.

The United States on the other hand…well, there is probably not a single Chinese weapon that, in a direct comparison, is better than its American equivalent and that probably won’t change for another twenty years. So if we want to talk about Chinese weapons for the American military, we have to think about holes in current American capabilities. There aren’t many, but here are Chinese weapons that might make the American military a little better.

AG600 Seaplane

The United States made extensive use of seaplanes during the Second World War, where they were instrumental in rescuing downed pilots and providing long-range reconnaissance. It was a PBY Catalina seaplane that reported the location of Admiral Nagumo’s fleet, setting the stage for the American victory at the Battle of Midway.

If the United States is serious about fighting across the expanse of the Pacific, it will once again need a long-range aircraft that can land in the water. China’s new AG600 seaplane is the answer. The largest seaplane in the world, it’s as big as a Boeing 737. It can carry up to fifty passengers, has a range of 3,100 miles, and can stay aloft for up to twelve hours.

DF-ZF Hypersonic Vehicle

Washington has expressed interest in so-called hypersonic weapons—weapons that travel at more than five times the speed of sound. Several projects, including the X-51 scramjet—have undergone development, but despite the technical prowess of the United States no one system has reached operational status yet.

The DF-ZF hypersonic vehicle is seemingly farther along than its American equivalents. The DF-ZF, which travels at speeds between 4,000 and 7,000 miles an hour, has had seven successful tests. Although the Chinese weapon travels more slowly than its American equivalent, it appears much closer to operational status than anything in development in the United States.

ZBD-05 Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle

The U.S. Marine Corps attempt to replace the AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicle is now in its fourth decade. The original project, begun in 1988 resulted in the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a failed effort that consumed $3 billion dollars before being canceled in 2011.

The U.S. is pressing ahead with the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle initiative, but in the meantime what about the Chinese ZBD-05? Developed by Chinese defense contractor Norinco, the ZBD-05 has a crew of three, can carry ten passengers, and has a 30-millimeter cannon mounted in a turret. It has ballistic protection up to .50 caliber rounds and shrapnel, and has a water speed of up to eighteen miles an hour.

Type 072A LST

Amphibious capability is going to be key in any future standoff in the Western Pacific. As part of a broader switch to fewer, more capable platforms America’s amphibious fleet is concentrated in massive the Wasp, America, and San Antonio-class ships of the U.S. Navy. Always accompanied by a slew of escorts, these hulking ships attract attention.

The Type 072A landing ship is a frigate-sized amphibious vessel. Just 390 feet long and 3,400 tons empty, the ships can carry three hundred troops, a dozen tanks, or eight hundred tons of cargo. It has a helicopter flight deck on the stern and a well deck that can accommodate China’s version of the LCAC air cushion transport. The Type 072A could be just the thing for quietly slipping into an area, depositing a small company-sized force of marines, and slipping away—without sending in an entire amphibious ready group.

Type 056 Corvette

The United States needs a capable littoral combat ship. Despite more than a decade of ship construction and development of high tech “mission modules”, the Littoral Combat Ship program has created a growing fleet of minimally capable ships armed largely with a single 57-millimeter and two 30-millimeter guns.

In the “perfect is the enemy of good” vein of thinking, consider the Type 056 corvette. The Type 056 is a small, 1,500 ton general purpose warship. The Type 056 may not rely on robotics and fancy swappable mission modules, but it’s cheap and available. It has a 76-millimeter gun, two 30-millimeter guns, and four YJ-83 anti-ship missiles. It has a FL-3000N launcher for air self defense.

For antisubmarine warfare, it has two triple-tube 324-millimeter torpedo launchers and more recent versions have a towed-array sonar system. It has a helicopter flight deck but not a hangar.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boringand the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This article first appeared in August 2016.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

First Person: Telling the tragic story of mercury poisoning in Japan

UN News Centre - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 06:05
Masami Ogata is a survivor of Minamata Disease, a debilitating illness caused by industrial mercury poisoning, which originated in the Japanese town of the same name in the 1950s. As a UN conference on preventing future poisoning outbreaks gets underway, we hear Mr. Ogata’s story.

The Frenchman Who Pioneered the Modern Mercenary Industry

The National Interest - Sat, 30/10/2021 - 06:00

David Axe

Mercenaries, Africa

Before Blackwater there was Bob Denard.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Men like Denard but perhaps a little less theatrical—many of them South Africans—took the next logical step. They founded businesses with boring-sounding names but a deadly purpose: to fight Africa’s nastiest conflicts on behalf of corrupt, inept governments, and for profit.

In the early 1960s, the former Belgian Congo came apart at the seams. U.N.-backed Congolese troops battled the forces of the breakaway region of Katanga, which in turn was supported by hundreds of foreign mercenaries.

Surely no one realized it at the time, but the seeds of a new way of war were planted in the Congo’s rich soil at that time—a way of war cultivated in large part by one man.

Among the pro-Katanga fighters was a tall, handsome, 30-something French soldier-of-fortune named Gilbert Bourgeaud, better known by his nom de guerre “Bob Denard.” The Frenchman was notorious for fearlessly manning a mortar while under heavy attack.

The Congo crisis was the young Denard’s first war-for-hire. He would later take part in conflicts in Yemen, Benin, Gabon and Angola, among others.

The Katanga rebellion failed and Denard fled. In late 1965, the mercenary reappeared in Congo, this time fighting on the side of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, a one-time opponent of the Katanga regime.

Following the money, Denard had switched sides.

Mobutu consolidated power and declared himself president in November. Fearful of the mercenaries who had fought against him then for him and who still lingered in “Zaire,” as Mobutu had renamed the country, the new president asked Denard to help disarm one of the more notorious foreign fighters, a Belgian named Jacques Schramme.

Instead, Denard switched sides again. He joined Schramme in trying to overthrow Mobutu.

The coup failed when the mercenaries ran into a platoon of North Korean soldiers accompanying their vice president on a visit to Pyongyang’s African ally. The North Koreans didn’t hesitate to open fire on Denard’s men. Denard was shot in the head and lay paralyzed for two days, as a woman, later to be his first wife, tended his wound with ice and herbs.

Denard’s men then stole a plane and evacuated their wounded boss. Denard walked with a limp for the rest of his life. But the then-37-year-old Frenchman was not done fighting. He returned to Congo for one more (ultimately failed) coup attempt before drifting into other African wars.

Denard’s hasty attack on the leader of Benin in 1977 faltered after just three hours; he left behind live and dead mercenaries, weapons and other gear, and, most damning, documents describing his entire battle plan.

Families of victims of the attack filed suit in France and Benin. In France, Denard was sentenced to five years in prison. In Benin, he was given the death penalty.

But by then Denard was far beyond the reach of either court. He was on a boat, armed to the teeth at the head of a mercenary army, bound for the Indian Ocean island nation of the Comoros in the opening move of what would become a private war lasting nearly 20 years.

Denard’s army in the Comoros would breed an entire generation of mercenaries who, three decades later, would find gainful employment waging war on behalf of a much wealthier client.

The United States.

Mercenary king

A certain class of warrior deliberately obscured their origins, intentions and methods. They fought not for nation or state, but for money. More often than not, they didn’t even use their real names.

They were mercenaries. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Bob Denard was their king, and the East African island nation of the Comoros was their realm.

The three islands of the Comoros together represent Africa’s third-smallest country, with just 863 square miles of tropical forest-covered mountains and hills, beaches and dense, seedy, labyrinthine cities for its nearly 800,000 people.

The Comorans are poor people in a poor land. They hunt, they fish, they grow vanilla for export. A quarter of the countries country’s external trade is in the form of old, frequently toxic, decommissioned ships that the desperate Comorans dismantle and recycle or throw away—for a fee.

The islands were French until July 1975. Ahmed Abdallah, then 56 and the founder of his own political party, became the first president of the newly independent nation.

But not for long. In August he was overthrown. And so began one of the most bizarre, and grotesque, political successions in modern history. Abdallah’s overthrower, Said Mohammed Jaffar, was himself overthrown in January 1976 by Denard, acting on behalf of a man named Ali Soilih.

Soilih’s agents had found Denard in Paris, where he was bored and despairing. Africa’s wars of decolonization in the 1960s had been pretty good for the old “dog of war,” as the press liked to call Denard. But several of the Frenchman’s most ambitious gigs had ended in disaster. He found his reputation, and demand for his lethal services, waning.

The future Comoran president’s men offered Denard a $15,000 advance in exchange for his help raising an army against Abdallah. Denard called in some old cronies from Gabon and France, purchased 10 tons of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; and caught a commercial flight to Moroni, the Comoros’ biggest city.

There Denard equipped some overeager Comoran youths with unloaded weapons and sent them racing across the island in a show of force. There was one fatality: a young relative of Soilih who was decapitated by a machete-wielding guard.

Denard and his mercenaries flew to a neighboring island and laid siege to Abdallah in his villa. The president surrendered. Soilih handed him a passport and a million dollars and made him swear to never re-enter politics. Abdallah left for Paris.

Soilih held on for two years, himself surviving no fewer than four attempted coups.

He was a terrible leader. His drug and alcohol abuse, and his tendency to look to his witchdoctor for strategic guidance, compounded his policy failures. Soon the treasury was empty, and the country was growing hungry.

When the witchdoctor told Soilih he would be killed by a white man with a black dog, the increasingly mad president sent men to kill all the dogs on the island—an obviously fruitless task.

Deposed former president Abdallah watched Soilih’s implosion from the comfort of exile in Paris. Abdallah allied with two wealthy Comoran businessmen. Together they came up with a surprising plan. They would hire the man who had overthrown Abdallah two years ago to restore the former president to power.

They called Denard.

Back to the Comoros

The old mercenary was a desperate man. His attempted coup in Benin the year before had left him with a bullet in his skull and prison and death sentences in France and Benin. He accepted Abdallah’s contract—thus switching sides in a conflict for at least the third time in his career—and quickly spent millions of dollars of the conspirators’ money recruiting and arming his troops.

When the money ran out, a determined Denard sold a garage he owned and became a shareholder in “Abdallah, Inc.”

Denard bought a 200-foot trawler he renamed Masiwa, stocked it with weapons, and brought aboard 50 of his best men and a pet German Shepherd—the black dog of Soilih’s nightmares.

They sailed from France in March. On May 13, 1978, they slipped ashore wearing black uniforms, prophetic dog in tow. Killing four guards and cops en route to the presidential palace, they found Soilih drunk in bed with two young girls. “I should have known it would be you,” Soilih said to Denard.

Abdallah resumed his interrupted presidency. Sixteen days later, the imprisoned Soilih was shot dead, allegedly by Denard’s men.

And Denard reaped the rewards. Installed as chief of the 500-strong presidential guard—in effect, the military of the Comoros, equipped with machine gun–armed jeeps—Denard was widely considered the real power in the Comoros.

He recruited friends and fellow Europeans as guard officers. With his salary of more than $3 million a year, he built a luxurious estate on 1,800 acres. He married a hotel receptionist, his sixth wife, and had eight children. He converted to Islam. Or claimed to, at least.

Denard also claimed to have the support of the French government, which had been keen to retain some influence over its former colonies. But if that claim was true, Paris never publicly confirmed it.

But it seems Abdallah resented and feared Denard’s power. The Frenchman had, after all, helped overthrow rulers in Nigeria, Angola and Yemen. After 11 years of unofficial joint rule, in 1989 there were rumors Abdallah planned to replace Denard as chief of the guard.

The timing seemed right. All over the world, old alliances were weakening. The poor nations of the world were throwing off the chains of superpower conflict, ejecting its agents and realigning their interests.

But Abdallah never got the chance for his own version of the Soviet Union’s perestroika, or “reform.” On the night of Nov. 26, the president was shot and killed in his bedroom.

Newspaper accounts, what few there were, varied wildly. At least one breathless article described a mercenary firing a rocket-propelled grenade into Abdallah’s bedroom. The scant press actually paying some attention assumed Denard or his men killed Abdallah. Everyday Comorans believed it, too. They rioted in the capital city Moroni, chanting, “Assassin! Assassin!” when Denard appeared.

But Denard, who fled to South Africa after Abdallah’s death, later told a French court he was in the president’s bedroom when Abdallah’s personal bodyguard, Abdallah Jaffar, burst into the room and fired at Denard. Abdallah was hit by accident. Denard said he shot back and killed the assailant.

“I was a soldier,” Denard said tearfully. “I was never a killer,” he told the court.

Said Mohamed Djohar, former head of the Comoros Supreme Court, succeeded the slain Abdallah and ruled until 1995, when he was overthrown by … Denard, again, out for one last adventure.

That time, French troops swooped in to restore order. The old dog of war Denard, née Bourgeaud, was arrested and jailed. He died of Alzheimer’s in Paris in 2007, at the age of 78. The truth concerning that bloody November night died with him.

The same year that Denard died, one of his former lieutenants, a man who had served under the self-styled warlord as an officer in the Comoros presidential guard in 1985, flew to Mogadishu, where he was to fulfill the destiny denied Denard.

Richard Rouget, a.k.a. “Colonel Sanders,” was 47 years old when he helped conquer an African nation with the full but largely unspoken support of the U.S.

Rouget fought for his own personal gain. But America was happy to benefit. And it didn’t hurt that almost no one called Rouget a “mercenary.” Decades after Denard’s bloody heyday, mercenaries had learned to go by other names.


Guns for hire

In the late 1990s there was a seismic shift in the way governments waged war in Africa and across the globe. Bob Denard’s bloody antics in the Comoros had established a precedent.

Men like Denard but perhaps a little less theatrical—many of them South Africans—took the next logical step. They founded businesses with boring-sounding names but a deadly purpose: to fight Africa’s nastiest conflicts on behalf of corrupt, inept governments, and for profit.

They found willing customers in governments and international organizations increasingly unwilling to, or incapable of, waging war alone—inhibitions that only deepened following the Somalia bloodletting.

“In the post-Cold War era … this cross of the corporate form with military functionality has become a reality,” security expert P. W. Singer wrote in Corporate Warriors. “A new global industry has emerged. It is outsourcing and privatization of a 21st-century variety, and it changes many of the old rules of international politics and warfare.”

In 1989 former South African commando Eeben Barlow, a lanky, hook-nosed man with one blue eye and one green one, founded Executive Outcomes, a U.K.-based company offering security training services to the South African military and businesses. Barlow was in his mid-30s at the time. For five years he was Executive Outcomes’ sole employee.

Then, in March 1993, Angolan rebels seized Soyo, a major state-owned oil facility on the country’s lawless coast. The Angolan army was busy battling rebels elsewhere, so the government approached Barlow with an offer the former commando could not refuse: $80 million to oversee the liberation of the captured oil facility.

Barlow quickly assembled a strike team of 50 of his old Special Forces colleagues. With Angolan helicopters flying top cover and two chartered Cessnas shuttling in supplies, the Executive Outcomes strikers assaulted Soyo.

In a week of hard fighting, the mercenaries liberated the facility. Three of Barlow’s men were wounded.

The Angolan government was impressed. In June they offered Barlow an even more lucrative contract to train up an entire army brigade to fight the rebels. For this task Barlow recruited 500 former South African commandos and chartered a small air force, including 727 jets.

Executive Outcomes’ responsibilities gradually expanded. Soon the company was also providing pilots for Angola’s Russian-made helicopters, propeller-drive attack planes and MiG-23 jet bombers.

In November the Angolan brigade Barlow’s men were training attacked the rebels, initiating what would be an 18-month campaign fought in equal parts by Executive Outcomes and its Angolan trainees, but with the South African company providing all the expertise and air power.

The Angolan brigade was a front for a mercenary army. Two Executive Outcomes aircraft were shot down and several employees killed.

The battered rebels sued for peace and in January 1995 Barlow pulled his men out of Angola. They were not idle for long. The government of Sierra Leone, under pressure from rebels of its own, was Executive Outcomes’ next client.

In April, a hundred of Barlow’s mercs, led by a South African ex-commando named Duncan Rykaart, flew into the tiny coastal country in a chartered 727. Their plan: to evict the rebels from the capital Freetown and the country’s diamond fields, then locate and destroy the rebel headquarters.

Again with native troops fronting and Executive Outcomes’ aircraft in support, Barlow’s fighters advanced. A year later the rebels sued for peace.

Riding high, Executive Outcomes alongside another security firm began negotiations with Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of the Congo facing a determined rebellion led by Laurent Kabila. “Neither firm took the contract, as the regime was on its last legs,” Singer wrote.

Instead, Executive Outcomes waited until after Mobutu fell … and signed a contract with Kabila, now president of the Congo and facing rebellions of his own. In a daring operation, Barlow’s commandos captured the strategic Inga dams. But Kabila failed to pay up, and so Executive Outcomes abandoned Congo, leaving Kabila and his ragtag army to fight on alone.

In the wake of Executive Outcomes’ successes, so-called “private military companies” sprouted like weeds. Nowhere were they thicker than in South Africa. The government in Cape Town moved to regulate the merc companies, and in 1998 Executive Outcomes folded. Its chief officers went to work for other PMCs or founded companies of their own. “Rather than truly ending its business, it appears EO simply devolved its activities,” Singer wrote.

Rykaart joined NFD, a security company with strong ties to Executive Outcomes and which was allegedly helping the Sudanese government in its battle with U.S.-allied southern rebels.

Later, Rykaart worked in American-occupied Iraq for Aegis Defense Services. In 2009, while working in Somalia for yet another security company, he was killed when the plane he was riding in crashed shortly after takeoff.

The company’s name was Bancroft Global Development. Among its roughly two- dozen mercenaries was Richard Rouget, former lieutenant of Bob Denard in the Comoros.

Private war

If the bush wars of the 1990s sparked the explosive spread of private security companies, then the U.S-led invasion and subsequent eight-year occupation of Iraq starting in 2003 was fuel poured directly on the fire.

“In the early days of the Iraq war, there weren’t enough troops,” Steve Fainaru explained in his book Big Boys Rules. “As the situation deteriorated, a parallel army formed on the margins of the war: tens of thousands of armed men, invisible in plain sight, doing the jobs that couldn’t be done because there weren’t enough troops.”

In just the first 18 months of the war, the U.S. government spent $766 million on security contracts with private companies. The governments of Iraq and various U.S. allies added untold millions to the total.

In July 2005 the Government Accountability Office estimated there were at least 60 major security companies operating in Iraq with 25,000 employees. In those first two years of the war, no fewer than 200 contractors died in combat.

It was apparent that the Pentagon could no longer—or would no longer—fulfill its national security responsibilities without the assistance of mercenaries. That raised some profound questions,. Not the least of which: accountability.

On Sept. 16, 2007, private soldiers from Blackwater, a North Carolina firm that provided security for the State Department, gunned down 17 civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad.

The mercenaries later claimed they had come under attack, but the U.S. Army found no evidence of insurgent fire. “The incident almost certainly would have been buried but for the sheer number of people whom Blackwater killed,” Fainaru wrote.

The Iraqi government protested. Blackwater attempted to settle the issue with payments to victims’ families. In the U.S. criminal and civil suits were filed. At least one of the shooters got off on a technicality. Another pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

As of late 2012 four cases were still open, with the defendants facing manslaughter and weapons charges. Blackwater was barred from Iraq but held onto its State Department contract. The company changed its name twice in an attempt to distance itself from the killings.

The Nisoor Square shootings shone a light on the shadowy world of security companies but did nothing to reverse the trend towards more and more corporate involvement in America’s wars. Nor did the killings and the subsequent legal cases necessarily resolve the confusion over accountability.

At worst, a few of Blackwater’s employees could go to prison for manslaughter. But the business itself survived and even thrived, as did other companies like it.

“Public militaries have all manner of traditional controls over their activities, ranging from internal checks and balances, domestic laws regulating the activities of of the military force and its personnel, parliamentary scrutiny, public opinion and numerous aspects of international law,” Singer explained. Security companies, he added, “are only subject to the laws of the market.”

“Who can and should be punished for these crimes?” Singer asked. “It is very clear that privatizing security actions only complicates the issue.”

But that was the point. The more the Pentagon relied on hired guns, the greater the distance between the government and the conduct and consequences of the wars it waged.

Mercenary playground

Michael Stock’s family had made a fortune in banking. In 1999, shortly after graduating from Princeton, he used a portion of that fortune to found, in Virginia, a non-profit organization called Landmine Clearance International.

Its mission statement: to “rehabilitate populated areas in the aftermath of armed conflict through land-mine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal.”

In 2007 Landmine Clearance International got a new and fancier-sounding name—Bancroft Global Development—and new headquarters in a $4-million mansion on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.

And in 2008 Bancroft scored a new client: AMISOM, the 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, staffed mostly by Ugandans and funded by the U.S. to the tune of several hundred million dollars a year. With American money AMISOM hired Bancroft to provide training for peacekeepers in close combat and bomb disposal. By 2010 Bancroft would be taking in $14 million in a year.

It took Bancroft four months and “a lot of lawyers and money” to set up facilities at the A.U.-controlled seaport-and-airport complex in Mogadishu, according to Somalia Report, an online publication run by adventurer and war correspondent Robert Young Pelton.

The new digs would expand to include rooms for rent for $155 a night plus a bar popular with military advisers, journalists and visiting government officials.

Stock’s approach was careful, deliberate. “You better know the rules,” he said. After 17 years of war, those Somali bureaucrats who had survived were a hard and dangerous bunch. There were negotiations, mountains of paperwork, and not a few bribes to be proffered.

To staff its Somalia ops, Bancroft recruited two dozen veteran mercenaries—a mix of Europeans and South Africans. One of them was Richard Rouget, formerly of the Comoran presidential guard.

After a stint organizing safaris, Rouget had returned to the gun-for-hire business. In 2005, a South African court convicted him of illegally recruiting mercenaries to fight in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.

His fine was just shy of $9,000. But Rouget was evidently broke. He reportedly borrowed some money from a friend and raised some more leading a safari to Mozambique. Clearly badly in need of cash, in 2007 or 2008, it seems, Rouget signed on with Bancroft and flew to Mogadishu.

He was assigned to teach Ugandan troops, long experienced in forest fighting, how to do battle door to door, building to building. Though unarmed, Rouget routinely accompanied his trainees into the dust and clamor of urban fighting.

In five years of hard combat, the Ugandans and their allies, funded by the U.S. and trained by men like Rouget, steadily pushed back Islamic militants, gradually restoring an internationally-backed regime to Somalia after more than two decades of bloody warfare.

It was one of the first widely-sanctioned modern wars led, and in large part won, by mercenaries. The guns-for-hire helped Washington to keep its distance from Somalia and still wage war there.

Honoring the spirit of his mentor Bob Denard, that famed dog of war, Rouget told The New York Times he relished his work. “Give me some technicals”—gun-armed pickup trucks—“and some savages and I’m happy.”

David Axe served as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This article first appeared in April 2020 and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.