America’s Theater

Nick Turse

Journalist Nick Turse on drone warfare, US intervention in Africa, and foreign policy in the age of Trump.

A US Army exercise with participating African armies in October 2009. US Army Africa / Flickr

Interview by
Eli Massey

There’s no getting away from Donald Trump. Journalist Nick Turse, reporting from South Sudan during the campaign, will tell you that. Out in the hinterlands, amid great violence, an African aid worker grilled him, hoping to make sense of the Republican nominee: “Is he going to win?” As the nightmare in South Sudan unfolded, the aid worker saw something just as terrifying on the horizon. “It can’t happen, can it?”

Donald Trump’s victory has created a lot of uncertainty — not just in the United States, but around the world. That an aid worker in South Sudan, surrounded by violence, fixated on the possibility of a Trump presidency is a testament to that fact.

To help make sense of this uncertainty, Eli Massey for Jacobin sat down with Turse, a managing editor at, investigative reporter, and the author of a number of books, including the recent Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead. We talked about Obama’s legacy, the significance of a Trump presidency, the South Sudanese conflict, and the importance of adversarial journalism.


Your book deals in large part with the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). In 2008, when AFRICOM came into existence, it inherited about 172 military missions and exercises on the continent. Since then, its missions and exercises have increased by more than 300 percent. What does the national security apparatus and military infrastructure that Obama will be passing onto Trump look like, both generally and specifically in Africa?


For the last eight years, Obama has pushed limits, established new norms, and pursued policies that many of his supporters would have been aghast if his predecessor had carried them out. If they’re pursued by his soon-to-be successor, his supporters will have a similar feeling. And yet he’s still pursuing policies that will strengthen the president’s powers.

For example, he just authorized a new secret unit within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This is the elite of the elite, the president’s man-hunting special operations force. They’ve set up a new “counter operations taskforce,” and it will conduct clandestine missions outside of war zones. Not just Iraq, Syria, and Libya. This is an anywhere, anytime strike force, and it’s been created just in time to hand off to Trump.

Obama’s also expanding the 2001 authorization for military actions against al-Qaeda to formally include al-Shabab, which didn’t even exist back in 2001. Granted, the United States has been making war on al-Shabab for years, but it’s been under hazy and specious reasoning. But this move takes away any possibility of debate and hands Trump a mandate for more war on firmer legal and policy grounds.

You asked about Africa specifically. Obama’s made fighting on the continent much easier for Trump as well. He’ll bequeath a constellation of military bases, outposts, and staging areas across the northern tier of the continent. This military pivot has been largely ignored in the mainstream, but it’s represented a major US military expansion during the Obama years. It’s an archipelago of outposts and drone bases that have been used for war-making in Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

And in January, President Trump will find himself with this plethora of bases and a military that is far more embedded in the African continent than it was during the Bush years.

Under President Bush, drone strikes were relatively rare, but President Obama has made them routine. He assassinates people he deems an imminent threat, even when they are far away from war zones. He orders strikes when he doesn’t even know who he’s killing. These are called signature strikes, where people are killed because they fit a profile.


In Jonathan Chait’s profile of President Obama, the president expresses concern about the drone program, noting that he could envision “a situation in which . . . you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.”


Rumbles came out of the administration year after year, and they promised they were going to put in more effective machinery, some sort of accountability. But they never did.

At the end of his presidency, he’s talking about the dangers this poses, the problems that can result if you don’t have this kind of accountability, if you don’t have full legal mechanisms in place. It was all left up to chance with the election.

And now he’s consigned all of us, and the rest of the world, to Donald Trump having these same powers. Life or death decisions; even American citizens are afforded no day in court.


Even on American soil, theoretically, according to Eric Holder.


It’s a frightening prospect. Now we’ll hold our collective breath and wait until this presidency begins, but I don’t expect any scaling back on this. These “Terror Tuesdays” are now institutionalized. This is what we’re left with.


In your other work, you’ve discussed the pivot to Africa, which began under Bush II but blossomed under Obama. Will this continue under Trump? Do his cabinet picks give us any sense of his foreign policy aims?


Predictions are dangerous, especially when it comes to Trump. He’s really ignored Africa, but with a National Security Adviser like Michael Flynn whispering in his ear, I don’t expect the pace of military operations to slow. Flynn is aggressive, to say the least, and I think he’ll push for military solutions to foreign policy problems.

Back when AFRICOM was created, the United States counted one transnational terror group on the African continent — the forerunner to al-Shabab. That was it. Today, the head of special operations in Africa says there are nearly fifty transnational terror groups. Causation isn’t correlation, but you could say that US policy hasn’t worked out the way it was supposed to.

I don’t think the United States has other strategies for dealing with what it sees as a growing terror threat in Africa. I assume that things will keep up at the same level if not ramp up.

They’ve also put in a tremendous amount of infrastructure; bases for drones in Africa from east to west, across the northern tier of the continent. They just sunk about $100 million in one in Agadez, Niger. I assume bases like that aren’t going away. Somehow, money will be found in the military budget to keep those going and to keep operations at least at the same pace.


The United Nations recently alleged that ethnic cleansing was unfolding in South Sudan. The president, Salva Kiir, denied these allegations. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people have died — nobody knows the exact number. Can you describe the country’s history for readers who know little about the conflict, and talk about the current situation?


South Sudan is the youngest nation on earth. Its independence day was in July 2011. The South Sudanese won their independence through very long, bloody struggles with the north of the country, today Sudan, that went back into the 1950s. But the United States played a significant part. There was a real bipartisan push in Washington.


We “midwifed” it.


Yeah. “Midwife” is the word that John Kerry used when he was in the Senate. Clinton used the term as well when she was secretary of state. It’s indelicate to some degree, but there’s a lot of truth to it. The United States put a lot of time, effort, and money into creating South Sudan. But by December of 2013, it had slid into a civil war, an exceptionally brutal war.

I travelled there in 2014, just after the war began, in 2015 again, and then earlier this year. It’s gotten progressively worse. The United Nations Special Envoy mentioned the possibility of genocide, a Rwanda-type situation.

This is what people were telling me even in 2015, when I did the reporting for my book. A lot of times people would whisper the word “Rwanda” to me, saying that that was their great fear. Looking at it from afar, this is what I really fear today. We’re right at the precipice now.

I spent several weeks earlier this year in a town called Leer, which could be a model for the bloodletting to come. This was a wasteland. The entire town was razed to the ground. I walked through a field that was strewn with human remains, skulls, rib cages, femurs, spinal columns. It was a horrorscape. People there were too afraid to even bury their dead.

This is starting to happen in other areas of the country as well; areas that for the last couple of years have been untouched by war. But it’s spreading.

We’re seeing ethnic killings, machete killings, village burnings. It’s looking exceedingly grim. I’m actually right now looking for an outlet to send me back, because there are stories that need to be told there.

And it’s exceedingly difficult for reporters. South Sudanese reporters who do this type of work — it’s a very dangerous environment for them. Reporters are threatened. They’re kidnapped and beaten. Some are killed. No one has been held accountable for these beatings, abductions, killings. It’s open season on reporters there.

It’s a sad situation, and it’s been one. I have a tough time understanding what the Obama administration’s modus operandi was with South Sudan. It resisted, for years, imposing an arms embargo on the country — something that seemed to be a no-brainer.


And there is a child soldier piece as well, right?


Under the Child Soldier Protection Act, the United States isn’t allowed to give aid to countries that have children under arms. But, year after year, we gave South Sudan a pass. This was all done with the thinking that somehow then we’d have more leverage over them. But instead they kept their child soldiers, kept importing arms, and kept killing their own people.

In the last couple of weeks the United States pushed for an actual arms embargo, but no one in the international community wanted to sign on to it. So it crashed and burned at the United Nations. When the threat of an arms embargo disappeared, so did any kind of leverage. The Kiir government now has a free hand.


Why has the United States been so involved in South Sudan? What does the Obama administration view as American interests in South Sudan?


I wish I had an answer for you. I tried asking State Department representatives, went to the National Security Council at the White House and tried asking these same questions, and it was always an incoherent answer. I could never quite make heads or tails of it.

They were always talking about leverage, that they didn’t want to foreclose the possibility. They thought engagement was better than cutting South Sudan off. But you have people that are dying at the hands of a government. The United States knew this full well.

At some point you have to say, “This idea of leverage hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s time to cut off the flow of arms.” It seems like a no-brainer, but they were playing some sort of long game that seems to have gotten away from them.


You recently visited the “second White House,” Trump Tower. What did you see?


Outside the Trump Tower there’s an armed-camp aesthetic: police lines, a maze of fencing, concrete barriers surrounding it. They’re turning it into a fortress.

Apparently, to get about twenty stories added to the tower back in the seventies, Trump cut a deal with the city to provide public space. I knew I could walk through that cordon, which a lot of people don’t. You can walk into Trump Tower, and there are places where you can sit. It’s public space.

There are two parks. One on the fourth floor, one on the fifth. There’s a bench in the lobby. There’s a public atrium. You don’t have to buy anything. You don’t have to eat at Trump Café, or the Trump bar, or buy any of the Trump tchotchkes that are for sale there. You can just go and experience the Manhattan White House in all its glory.

I decided to go to the park, and I went out and took a seat. Then I took a little walk around out there, and that aroused the Secret Service’s attention. First they sent out a younger guy in full tactical gear, ballistic vest, dressed all in black. He had a carabineer submachine gun filled with clips. And he just eyeballed me for a while. I think the idea is to intimidate you away. But I just stood there taking notes.

Then they sent out a guy more from the managerial track to interrogate me. We had about a thirty- to forty-minute conversation.


People talk a lot about Trump like he’s sui generis. But plenty of policies, similar to the reprehensible ones Trump is proposing, came from previous administrations. Obama has deported more people than all past presidents, for instance. To what extent is Trump building on prior policies and strains of political thought? Is he really something new altogether?


There are a lot of new things about Trump, or at least he does things in new ways. But the foundations of a lot of these policies, as you’re suggesting, are firmly in place.

Trump said he’s going to create a deportation force. First to move eleven million undocumented immigrants out of the country, then he softened that on 60 Minutes to say two to three million.


Which is what Obama has done.


Right, 2.5 million for Obama, and there’s no need to create a deportation force, because the Department of Homeland Security has become the largest law enforcement agency in the country under Obama.

It’s all in place. It’s there. It’s been happening. Trump frightens people by the way he says things. Obama is a lot more judicious in the way he speaks, but he’s deported millions. He has this force, and now it’s being handed over to Trump.

Take, for instance, the NSA spy apparatus that’s been set up. It’s so powerful and invasive that East Germany or the former Soviet Union couldn’t have dreamed of a surveillance apparatus like this.

Even look at the FBI under Obama. We know they have a network of fifteen thousand paid informants. The FBI has a record of spying on mosques and activists, and this is passed along to a president-elect who calls for Muslims to be registered, some to be deported.

I didn’t mention Guantanamo either. This is a great Obama pledge. If there was any pledge he made, it was to close Guantanamo.


Right, and end the Iraq War.


Yes, those were the two. And he hands Trump an offshore prison camp, which Trump has already promised to fill up with what he calls “bad dudes.” What goes along with Guantanamo, of course, are the CIA black sites and the torture that was carried out there. Obama, at least reportedly, shut down the black sites, and torture was officially banned, although it wasn’t ever legal.

Obama thwarted efforts at accountability. No one was ever held to account for this. So Trump says he’ll do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He says he doesn’t care if it works as an interrogation tool, because its victims deserve it. All we have are these vague assurances that the bureaucracy will end up thwarting him, that people in the CIA will say no.

But last time they said yes. It gets back to the question you were asking: did this stuff exist before? People were aghast at what Trump said, but this country has been waterboarding people since at least the intervention in the Philippines and has never stopped.


Transparency is another policy where Obama set a precedent that Trump can exploit. You very entertainingly recount the Department of Defense’s lack of transparency and your necessary reliance on FOIAs. How much worse can things get?


Things can get worse. This was supposed to be the sunlight presidency, the most transparent administration in history. But an AP investigation last year found that the Obama administration set a record for denying FOIA requests and censoring documents. And the Obama administration has used this draconian law from 1917, the Espionage Act, to prosecute more whistleblowers than all of his predecessors combined.

It can get worse, but I don’t think there’s been quite an appreciation for how bad it’s been under Obama. It can get worse, and I expect it to.


As someone who has reported under adverse conditions and from places where press freedom is under attack, do you have any advice for how journalists should cover a President Trump?


There’s always going to be reporters out there covering tweets, but we need what we’ve always needed: tough-minded reporters digging into difficult stories.

Here in the United States and all across the globe, watchdog journalists take on power, military, economic, social, in all its forms. That’s been our job. And it remains our job. Whether we do it well is another question.

For me, it’s tiny American outposts that we don’t know about, it’s special ops missions that fall below the radar, it’s a horrific civil war in a country that our secretary of state says we “midwifed” into existence. For all of us in the media, we need to dig deep.


Donald Trump has regularly railed against the press, calling them liars, suggesting journalists should be arrested, and even inciting violence against them. He’s called for loosening up libel laws. Do you think he represents a serious threat to journalism in this country?


He makes it a more dangerous environment. Looking at press freedom organizations around the world, I’ve seen a few of them issue press releases on the United States. Investigative journalism here has always had some low-level risks, sometimes not low-level. But generally it’s been a fairly free place to report.

There are other mechanisms in place that sideline reporting, but you didn’t have to worry about your safety. When you have a president that uses that type of language, who incites supporters against the press, it does make it a more dangerous environment, more difficult to report from. But it makes tough reporting more important than ever.