Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

On Board the USS Detention – Original

Posted by M. C. on December 21, 2018

Approximately 400-foot vessels, they are known as National Security Cutters and have been refashioned not as hospital ships but as prison ships.

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

I grew up in New London, Connecticut, watching many a military ship float by my window. New London was home to the Coast Guard Academy and sat across the river from a U.S. Navy submarine base. Uniformed guardsmen, sailors in training, and sub crews leaving port would regularly wave to my friends and me from the decks of their ships. It never occurred to me that, 50 years later, such ships would come to my attention again, this time because of the confusing messages they’re sending overseas, a reflection of the conflicting images embedded in Washington’s latest version of diplomacy and foreign policy.

We still want populations around the world to admire, appreciate, and respect this country as a democracy and a powerful protector. Some ships are used to make exactly that point. And yet, in the twenty-first-century version of war American-style, other ships have become the very image and essence of hardship and harm in ways that violate the most basic tenets of democracy and justice.

This mixed message is anything but new to American foreign policy. In 2003, seven months after the invasion of Iraq, Margaret Tutwiler, incoming undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, was assigned to deal with the sort of worries then being raised by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). He chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and so oversaw Tutwiler’s confirmation hearing, describing himself as “deeply concerned” and “anxious” about the country’s deteriorating image abroad.

“Americans are troubled,” he explained, “by examples of virulent anti-American hatred in the Islamic world and are frustrated by public opinion in allied countries that seems increasingly ready to question American motives or blame American actions for a host of problems.” Tutwiler responded with intrepid optimism. She understood the uphill battle she faced, she assured him, one that required “maintaining and in some respects regaining respect and understanding” for the U.S. around the globe. And she promised to do what she could “to contribute to the overall effort of trying to prevent any further deterioration in our nation’s image.”

Five months later, Congressman José Serrano (D-NY), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, would suggest just how implausible was Tutwiler’s task of convincing allies and enemies alike of the good intentions of the United States, in Iraq in particular. Though respectful of the idea of public diplomacy, he expressed extreme doubt about the possibility of applying it successfully in that war-torn land then occupied by the U.S. military. As he put it, he was cognizant of just “how difficult it has become for us on the one hand to try to change the image of who we are; and, on the other hand, you know, invade and occupy an Arab country.” Then he added, in a bow of empathy for Tutwiler, “I just wonder how my job would be if I had to tell people that I am a good guy, while, on the other hand, I hit them over the head with a hammer.”…

For a century, the U.S. Navy has used hospital ships to bring medical aid to those in need around the globe. In recent years, there have been two such vessels: the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort. The last two are still in operation as floating hospitals, transporting medical aid to communities around the globe. They provided medical assistance to Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2004, help to Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake, and aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island in the fall of 2017…

Unfortunately, this is not the only message that U.S. vessels are sending out these days. In the same hemisphere where the Comfort now sails, there are more than a dozen other ships on a shared mission of quite a different sort. These also fly the U.S. flag, although under the auspices of the Coast Guard, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), rather than the Navy. Approximately 400-foot vessels, they are known as National Security Cutters and have been refashioned not as hospital ships but as prison ships. They, too, are patrolling the southern waters of the Americas. Their mission is the apprehension and detention of drug smugglers, part of a multinational effort to stem the narcotics trade. They detain prisoners of the “drug war” on board, theoretically as a prelude to their future charging and prosecution, usually in the United States.

During the first 20 years of this drug interdiction program, the U.S. detained around 200 individuals per year on board such ships. Then, in 2012, Washington escalated its efforts by launching a Coast Guard-led multinational campaign. It would soon be overseen by Marine General John Kelly, who became head of U.S. Southern Command as that year ended. A further and more pronounced expansion of the program came when he was appointed secretary of DHS, the Coast Guard’s mother agency. In 2017, as shipboard detentions soared, Kelly described the policy as an effort to stem the “existential” threat to the nation that drug traffickers posed…

Even as unlawful detention on the high seas continues, other challenges to the image of the U.S. as a lawful nation capable of bringing aid and comfort elsewhere are multiplying. Consider it more than symbolic that the very position Margaret Tutwiler once held, undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy, remains unfilled in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s just one more sign of the State Department’s evisceration by a willful refusal to fill empty posts, including ambassadorships to Bolivia, Honduras, and Panama, countries central to the war on drugs. Worse yet, there are plans to retire either the Mercy or the Comfort by the end of 2019, reducing by half the U.S. Navy’s ability to care for those in need around the world.

It’s clear enough these days where the image of America is headed.

Be seeing you

drug war


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