Prince’s Prerogative

Erik Prince’s strange journey to Senate run

From Iraq and Afghanistan to New Orleans, Somalia, and China's New Silk Road, there is scarcely a geopolitical pie that Erik Prince hasn't had his hands in. Now toying with a Senate run in Wyoming at the behest of Steve Bannon, has the implacable Michigander finally bitten off more than he can chew?

Erik Prince holds a photograph of the remains of a blown up vehicle in Iraq while testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 2, 2007. Blackwater, under investigation over deadly incidents in Iraq, defended its role, but lawmakers took aim at the company’s actions in a Sept. 16 shooting in which 11 Iraqis were killed.

Smartly wielded, wounded pride is a most powerful weapon.

And as one of the most widespread commodities in late capitalist America, it is something former chief White House advisor Steve Bannon has no shortage of.

Back at Breitbart after an early-terminated eight-month stint in the White House, he’s now using his old news platform, along with the wealthy backers who made possible its precipitous rise, to champion various “anti-establishment” Republicans against “mainstream” candidates backed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

As author and journalist Matt Taibbi has noted, there is a strong whiff of schadenfreude in the air as the battle lines are drawn for the soul of the Republican Party.

On September 27, for example, in a hugely emblematic Republican primary run-off to determine who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama Senate seat, Bannon and co. threw all their weight behind former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore—a man twice dismissed from that post for failing to adhere to federal laws on gay marriage and the separation of church and state—much to the ire of the national Republican establishment.

Moore cruised past McConnell and Trump’s candidate, Big Luther Strange, by nine points. Enthused by their victory, Bannon, Breitbart, and co. are now out for much more.

The dark-blonde horse

With their sights set on seats soon to be vacated by moderate anti-Trump Republicans Jeff Flake (Alabama) and Bob Corker (Tennessee), the biggest surprise came in early October when notorious security contractor, Navy Seal, and former CIA asset Erik Prince said he was considering running for Senate against John Barrasso in Wyoming.

As part of his promise to run candidates against every Republican Senator in the country, with the lamentable exception of Ted Cruz, Bannon had been pushing hard for Prince to run against incumbent John Barrasso, a Georgetown-educated orthopedist from small-town Pennsylvania whom he imagines too beholden to Mitch McConnell.

But does Erik Prince, a man with more baggage than Erika Badou, stand a chance of winning the “Equal Rights” state?

From Holland to the Moon

A native son of the small Dutch-American colony of Holland, Michigan, Prince comes from a long line of powerful Republican Party operatives.

Long donors to conservative local, state, and national candidates, his sister Betsy DeVos was chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party in the 1990s before becoming US Secretary of Education under Donald Trump earlier this year.

While the DeVos family is estimated to be worth USD5.4 billion, the Prince family firm, Prince Manufacturing Corporation, was sold for USD1.35 billion after their father Edgar’s sudden premature passing in 1995.

Shaken by his father’s death, young Erik left the Navy Seals that year after a brief but successful stint that had taken him to Haiti, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Two years later at the ripe young age of 28, he launched Blackwater, one of the most controversial companies of the 21st century.

With the stated aim of doing “for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service,” his firm promised training and support for military and law enforcement agencies across the world.

Much feared by liberals and realists alike, it has been the single most successful attempt to put guns-for-hire back into the heart of international statecraft since Britain deployed German-Hessian mercenaries to put down the American Revolution in the 18th century.

Out of chaos, cash

By 2000, Blackwater had won its first contract in the wake of the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Barely three years later, it had extensive contracts with the CIA and was heavily involved in protecting American installations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At its peak, not only was it the largest private security contractor for the US State Department in the world, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina it also secured a quarter million-dollar-a-day contract from the Department of Homeland Security to protect “government facilities” in Louisiana from “looters.”

In 2007, however, the company’s fortunes took a fatal dive. In what would become known as the Nisour Square Massacre, its guards open fired on an unarmed crowd of civilians in Baghdad, killing 17.

When four of its employees were convicted of voluntary manslaughter or first-degree murder, critics thought they saw a light at the end of the postmodern mercenary tunnel.

Thanks to Prince’s tenacity, they were wrong.

Jungle in the desert

Ever the slippery Seal, Prince switched up his tactics, changing the company’s name to Xe Services in 2009 and selling it in 2010.

With mounting legal and public image troubles in the US, Prince accepted a generous USD529 million invitation from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed to set up shop in Abu Dhabi later that year.

His task: to build a compact mercenary force capable of protecting the oil-rich Emirate from terror attacks, pro-democracy panhandlers, and potential unrest in its vast and overcrowded labor camps.

To be called Reflex Reponses (R2), the 800-man force was made up largely of Colombians and South Africans and reputedly only hired “Christian” mercenaries since Muslim ones “could not be relied upon” to fire on co-religionists if and when push came to shove.

Though R2 never quite lived up to expectations, bin Zayed had shown an uncanny ability to anticipate precisely what kinds of challenges such a force had been designed to face; but months after Prince moved to Abu Dhabi, the Arab Spring erupted.

Ready for deployment

Whatever his critics say, Prince’s longer-term plan was far from unambitious, or unoriginal; to build from scratch, from the hot sandy confines of the oil-rich emirates, a fully-equipped, mobile mercenary army readily deployable to any conflict zone in the world.

Yet as Kant once said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”— Prince’s Papa John’s private army would prove no different.

Call it hateraid, or institutional inertia, but the world of slowly decaying nation-states was not quite ready to swallow a fully autonomous, deracinated, guns-for-hire fighting force funded by petro- and other dollars.

That being said, the South Americans were still there, stationed in Abu Dhabi and ready to strike.

The remnants of R2 were the first to go when Abu Dhabi enthusiastically got on board with the Saudi-led war on Yemen in 2015.

By the end of that year, more than 450 Latin American troops were fighting on behalf of Abu Dhabi to overthrow the Sana-based Houthi rebel government south of the Saudi border. While the bulk of this mercenary contingent was Colombian, it also contained a smattering of Chileans, Salvadorians, and Panamanians.

Though a certain version of Prince’s vision was coming to fruition, it was not all he had once hoped for in the region.

Pirates and emperors

In the City of God, St Augustine recounts the tale of a pirate seized by Alexander the Great. “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth,” the captive laments. “Because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”

The beauty of Erik Prince is that he graves that line so mesmerizingly thinly. At the height of the piracy epidemic in the Horn of Africa, Prince worked with Abu Dhabi to develop the 2,000-strong, South African-trained, indigenous anti-piracy Puntland Maritime Police Force.

Though the UN issued a scathing report accusing “The Project,” as Prince cheekily referred to it, of flagrantly violating a 1992 UN embargo on arms shipments to Somalia, the UAE-funded project was thought to have tacit US-backing.

Sadly, not long after its creation, a Somali recruit killed one of his South African trainers, and the South African private security firm officially managing the contract, Saracen International, packed up and left.

What remained of the ragtag Somali Puntland army was left to its own devices; whether its arms are being turned on or in favor of local rivals such as Al-Shabaab no one knows.

Shaken but never stirred, Prince sought another patron.

Go east, young man

Vexed by negative New York Times coverage of his Arabian exploits, in 2013 he shifted his focus further east and founded Frontier Services Group (FSG).

A security and logistics firm focused on emerging African economies, it is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and 25% owned by one of China’s largest state-owned investment companies, CITIC Group Corp.

Openly citing the East India Company as his model, it is not all that surprising the renegade Midwestern Calvinist Rudyard Kipling now sees the Far East as his best bet for developing his rudderless mercenary force and deploying it elsewhere.

With plans to invest more than USD1 trillion in Africa’s roads, airports, and railways by 2025, Beijing, in Prince’s words, “has the appetite to take frontier risk”—and he’s got the thirst and thrust to protect them whilst they do it.

And the adventure doesn’t stop there.

Never one to miss a party, Prince is also seizing upon Beijing’s hugely ambitious plans to build a New Silk Road across all of Central Asia through its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project.

As part of that effort, in May it was announced that FSG had secured a 25% stake in China’s largest private security training facility, the International Security and Defense College (ISDC) in Beijing.

Designed to train the security firms who will deploy the thousands of personnel to protect OBOR’s rail, ports, roads, pipelines, and power plants, it has the potential to be the security detail of the century.

What is more, both the level of trust the Chinese are placing in Prince by backing FSG and the latter’s show of faith in OBOR signal more than a fleeting tryst: in China, Prince may have finally found a sovereign with the pockets, patience, and pugnacity to withstand pesky UN reports and NY Times reportages and press on with the task at hand: the strip-mining and private securitization of the planet.

Equal rights for all contenders

Back in Wyoming, where Prince has owned a home for 25 years but never actually lived, America’s rugged, mountainous, and least-populated state is unaccustomed to much national attention.

Dubbed the “Equal Rights” state for being the first to grant women the vote (1869) a quarter-century before any sovereign nation on earth (New Zealand, 1893), it has a long history of making maverick political moves (that it did so only to secure the minimum number of voting citizens required for statehood is beside the point).

Prince’s candidacy thus raises an extremely pressing question: how can the cosmopolitan, Chinese state-backed resident of Abu Dhabi win the state that gave Trump his most crushing margin of victory (68% to Hillary’s 22%) against an incumbent senator with the president’s explicit endorsement?

Granted, Prince did give USD250,000 to the Trump campaign in the early dog days of his notorious run; he is even reputed to have brokered a meeting between candidate Trump’s campaign and various representatives of the Russian government via Abu Dhabi backchannels.

Nonetheless, for the baby-faced former CIA assassin who once helped launch a videogame to “give players the chance to experience what it is like to be on a Blackwater mission,” the odds of out-seating a longtime Wyoming resident, medical doctor, and sitting chairman of the Republican Policy Committee are slim.

Yet with Bannon, China, Russia, and the Gulf potentially behind him, stranger things have happened.

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