Threat Inflation Is the Mind-Killer
The U.S. is guarding against a phantom threat that wouldn’t be all that dangerous if it were real.
The administration’s wooing of the corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea captures much of what is wrong with defining U.S. foreign policy in terms of “great power competition”:
Over the past year, the Biden administration has dispatched a stream of high-level officials to a small coastal country in Central Africa in a quiet campaign to convince the world’s longest-serving dictator to start shedding his ties to China. That effort will be put to the test this week, when President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea will attend President Joe Biden’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
The U.S. diplomatic campaign is meant to fend off China’s efforts to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, which would give Beijing a new military foothold in the Atlantic Ocean on the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa.
It is bad enough for the U.S. to strike bargains with abusive dictatorships in the name of some larger strategy, but to do it when it is unnecessary and the gains for the U.S. are paltry is a serious blunder. The report is appropriately skeptical about the administration’s justifications for courting Obiang, who just arranged his sixth term in office as president and has been in power longer than anyone else in the world. There is no good reason to believe that a Chinese base in the country is being seriously considered, and even if there were one it would not be nearly as significant as U.S. officials make it out to be. The U.S. is guarding against a phantom threat that wouldn’t be all that dangerous if it were real, and in the administration’s desperation to ward off Chinese influence they are playing into Obiang’s hands.
When Washington believes that another government is useful for opposing the influence of another major or regional power, that usually has the effect of making the other government more demanding in its dealings with the U.S. while causing our government to become more indulgent of their abuses. The U.S. tends to overvalue clients and would-be clients, and our policymakers convince themselves that we need the other state more than they need us. This encourages the other state’s leadership to try to extract whatever it can from the U.S. while it continues to hedge and keep Washington on edge. Washington predictably responds by showering them with even more attention. This appears to be exactly what is happening with Obiang:
Several current and former U.S. officials, two of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, bristled at the high-level attention Obiang has received from the administration, saying Obiang is transparently playing Washington off Beijing for more clout and influence from each country and Washington, for its part, is playing right into it.
The remarkable thing here is that Obiang has not had to take any real risks to get the extra attention. All he has had to do was wait for D.C.’s threat inflation machine to run amok and then take advantage of the ensuing panic. There is no Chinese base, nor are there any plans for one, but the anti-China obsession is so strong in Washington these days that Obiang can get a bidding war started over the mere possibility that there could be one some day.
The U.S. military has been hyping the possibility of a Chinese base on the Atlantic coat of Africa for the last year. The claim first appeared in the American press in a report from The Wall Street Journal that accepted the government line almost without question. That report’s framing was wildly misleading, and at one point it suggested that the base would allow the Chinese navy to rearm and refit its ships “opposite the East Coast of the U.S.” If the report’s intelligence sources wrongly believe that central Africa is “opposite” the U.S. East Coast, they have bigger problems than misjudging the threat from China.
As I have mentioned before, Africom has an incentive to exaggerate Chinese influence in Africa, since that will make it easier for them to appeal for more resources from Washington to “counter” the inflated threat. William Minter, Anita Plummer, and Daniel Volman noted this in their analysis from last December:
Hyping the threat of a potential Chinese naval base facing the Atlantic is designed, in part, to obtain increased funding from the U.S. Congress for American military operations in Africa.
The U.S. approach to African affairs has already been heavily militarized for decades, and every command wants to benefit from the “great power competition” gravy train. If China isn’t actually increasing its military footprint in a certain part of the world, it becomes necessary to issue warnings about how it might do that in the future. You can’t be too careful, right? After all, if politicians and policymakers back in Washington believe that the Chinese government is intent on dominating the world, they are likely to believe almost any claim about Chinese ambitions, no matter how far-fetched they may be. The Biden administration is wrongly inclined to believe the hype in this case, and they are acting accordingly.
“We can’t afford to lose X to the influence of Y” is a familiar argument, and it is often nonsense. The reality is that in most cases it truly doesn’t matter if Y gains influence in X, and the U.S. usually wastes a lot of energy and resources on trying to prevent this unimportant outcome. If the Chinese navy established a base in Equatorial Guinea, it would not matter very much to the U.S. or to much of the rest of Africa. As it happens, they’re not building a base there and our government should stop making decisions and taking actions based on fantasies.