Humanity has long shown its knack for developing belief in the validity of certain signs and portents as conveying a reliable prediction of the future. A comet, for instance, has often been interpreted as a signal that famine or war might soon make an appearance. Likewise, association of such things as the entry of one or more planets into a house of the Zodiac, or the patterns formed by sheep entrails or tea leaves, have also often been seen as good or ill omens.
No matter how well developed our science, there is seemingly nothing that superstitious humans won’t correlate with some prediction for the future. Seeking signs, we find them wherever we go looking.
If we were to start adding to this list of indicators of what may come, then one could do little better than listing the appearance of one Erik Prince, the would-be mercenary king of America, in a geographical location as a certain sign that things had truly gone to hell or were about to. Like a bad penny, he and his companies keeps turning up in the oddest locations and with the oddest people — usually to the detriment of all involved.
Indeed, for those who have been keeping track of him and his various endeavors, Prince’s resume reads like a laundry list of contemporary armed conflict and geopolitical disaster.
For those who haven’t, Prince is a former Navy SEAL and right-wing, Christian fundamentalist millionaire who inherited his money and made it his life’s mission to wield force, for a price, for the United States or, as it turns out, anyone else willing to pay him. He first appeared on the scene in 1997, when he and fellow Navy SEAL Al Clark formed Blackwater USA, a private security firm that billed itself as a provider of training and expertise for the complex security environment of the post-Cold War world. Like much of the rest of the “End of History” rhetoric bandied about in those days, Blackwater USA — currently known as Academi — came to be seen as a “faster, better cheaper” solution to the problem of armed intervention abroad.
Like every road to hell, the impetus for the formation of Blackwater was a good intention: providing a “middle way” for democratic powers like the U.S. to wield power in places where terrible things were occurring, but where a raw calculation of political interest didn’t point to sending in the Marines. For Prince, the Rwanda genocide served as a prime example of how a company like he wanted his to be might succeed where the United Nations could not: use force as a humanitarian catastrophe was taking place in order to ward off the bad guys and save thousands of lives.
The glory days
The devil was always in the details, though. When Prince and his company got the chance to put theory into practice after the 9/11 attacks they found themselves — at a significant profit, it should be noted — sucked into multi-sided civil conflicts they were ill-prepared to really operate in. Instead of having a simple mission and a clear mandate from some legitimate, authorizing power, Prince and his high-priced mercenaries went into these conflicts as the handmaiden of a great power determined to impose its will on a conquered country and an occupied people. Instead of being the adjunct of democracy that Prince had envisioned, employment of Blackwater personnel became a way for America’s pro-war elite to avoid accountability in an increasingly confusing, shadowy war that few could justify as time went on.
Yet Prince and Blackwater still managed to finagle nearly $1.6 billion from the U.S. government between the formation of his company in 1997 and its sale to a group of private investors in 2010. Of that, $600 million came in the form of clandestine CIA and military contracts, and the U.S. State Department made Blackwater the biggest provider of security to department personnel in Iraq until the company’s ouster from the country in the wake of a 2007 massacre of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. The shooting led to the deaths of 17 people. Several Blackwater employees were eventually sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the U.S. for their role in the incident, and the Iraqi government banned the company from its territory.
This isn’t the only example of company malfeasance in Iraq, of course. Prior to the massacre U.S. government investigators looking into the company had been threatened with death by company officials, and the military had long accused Blackwater of cowboy operations that endangered U.S. personnel. Indeed, in the early stages of the U.S. occupation of Iraq the ambush of errant Blackwater employees in the city of Fallujah led to a long, bloody battle there after U.S. forces were sent in to retrieve them.
To be sure, the U.S. military had an axe to grind with Blackwater. By the time the company had been tossed out of Iraq the political winds had shifted in the U.S., and Prince and his company, once seen as saviors by the conservative establishment, were no longer viewed so kindly.
From Blackwater to the UAE
With the Iraq War winding down and with the right wing out of power in Washington, the time must have seemed appropriate to sell. So, in 2010, Prince did, walking away from his company and netting a cool $200 million in the process.
After moving on from serving as Uncle Sam’s cat’s paw, he found himself in Abu Dhabi in 2011, where he began working with the United Arab Emirates to build, in the words of The New York Times, an 800-man “secret American-led mercenary army,” capable of “conducting special operations missions inside and outside the country, defending oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and putting down internal revolts.” This, of course, was in the midst of the Arab Spring, when Middle Eastern governments were being toppled like dominoes by pro-democracy demonstrators. For some cut of $530 million — the price tag for the UAE’s Wal-Mart foreign legion — Prince went from working for freedom and Uncle Sam to working for an oil-rich despotism right at the heart of the Middle East.
In addition to setting up this bought battalion for his new paymasters, Prince also helped train a force of 2,000 Somalis to help combat piracy along the coast of East Africa and, intriguingly, set up a new UAE company called Reflex Responses that used clever corporate legerdemain to avoid officially naming himself as being involved with the company. Among those recruited into the company’s ranks were former employees of the former South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes, which worked to secure oil and diamond concessions for African governments and corporate interests in the 1990s. What that company and the mercenaries it has recruited might be doing in the Middle East beyond standing ready to crush a rebellion in the workers’ slums of the UAE is a matter of speculation, but Prince has warned in speeches of the need to combat Iranian influence in the Middle East and it is no secret that the UAE has been involved both overtly and covertly in Syria.
Beijing gets a new Gordon
Although there is no proof connecting Prince with what the UAE may or may not be doing in Syria, surely it’s no coincidence that at the same time the former master of Blackwater began recruiting former members of Executive Outcomes into his new outfit, he began exploring opportunities in Africa — specifically, opportunities related to oil and the “logistics” needs of Chinese companies working there. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that the venerable Prince was now the chairman of something known as the Frontier Services Group: “an Africa-focused security and logistics company with intimate ties to China’s largest state-owned conglomerate, Citic Group.”
As explanation for why the freedom-loving Prince was now working with Chinese communists, Prince said, “I would rather deal with the vagaries of investing in Africa than in figuring out what the hell else Washington is going to do to the entrepreneur next.”
Why this desire to get into Africa should also mean shacking up with Beijing is not at all clear, but following Prince’s interview with the Journal it was further reported in May that Prince was planning to build a refinery in South Sudan — work that has now been suspended for, among other reasons, the civil war now taking place there. Coincidentally, the new country’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, was a personal supporter of the project. And what should Prince happen to have in addition to investment dollars that the struggling new country needed? Why, none other than the likely ability to field the combat-ready forces needed to secure the country’s oil-rich areas.
Indeed, it turns out that Prince and his Frontier Services Group have been hired by South Sudan to transport supplies and perform maintenance at facilities in the country’s war-torn oil fields. The company has also allegedly held discussions with Chinese oil firms deeply involved in South Sudan’s oil patch for similarly vague “logistics” work. So far, there have been no reports of combat forces being supplied by Prince to South Sudan, China, or the Chinese companies working there, but given his expertise and connections it is not outside of the realm of possibility that such a thing could occur.
For China, the use of a mercenary like Prince is a perfect solution to a pressing problem. Beijing has no military experience operating in countries like South Sudan, and it has few capable forces it could send and support that far away, anyway. What it does have is money — lots of money — and a desire to expand deep into Africa. Until it can support its proxies militarily in the same way the West does, though, Beijing will be at a disadvantage — and this is where Prince comes in. He supplies what China can’t: expertise in running complex operations in dangerous places and a Rolodex full of money-hungry and exquisitely trained Western ex-military types willing to work in said places.
Prince also conveniently supplies deniability, as what he and his company may or may not do at the behest of Chinese autocrats can be hidden through aid flows and corporate secrecy clauses.
At the price of a few tens of millions of dollars, Beijing can use Prince to exert armed force wherever it wants, and if the gambit fails, it will be Prince and his mercenaries — not China — which will take the blame. In other words, Prince may end up doing for China what he originally wanted to do for America: provide force on the cheap into areas needing security.
For those who know the history, that China should now hire a Christian mercenary to serve its ends in Sudan is an ironic homage to both its own past and the last great power scramble for Africa. Then, Charles George Gordon, known to history as “Chinese Gordon,” went down fighting for Britain’s colonial aims in Sudan after being overwhelmed by an army of 19th-century Islamic militants. Although Gordon died in Sudan, he earned his famous moniker in China, where he had worked as a hired gun loaned out by the British Empire to put down the Nien and Taiping Rebellions for the slowly dying Qing Dynasty.
From democracy to despotism
Twists of history aside, Prince’s journey from gung-ho supporter of American capitalism and foreign intervention to paid minion of the biggest authoritarian power on Earth is a fascinating one. Among other things, it speaks to the bankruptcy of his ideology: In pursuing business opportunities, he has increasingly turned to despots instead of the democracy he in theory once loved.
Of course, earlier generations of right-wing fanatics also had a certain fascination with the dictators of their day. Hitler and Mussolini ran countries that were great for businesses to operate in once they got past working with fascists. Even IBM — Big Blue itself — sold the computing machines that helped the trains to the death camps run on time.
Prince’s new African venture, it would seem, is merely a new chapter in that long, ongoing story. As for how it might turn out, watch this space.