America has a long history of involving itself militarily around the world. Our primary justification for military action is always the protection of the citizens of the United States from harm from external forces. We also justify wars by claiming to protect the rights and wellbeing of citizens of other nations who cannot successfully fight for themselves.

By providing ethical motives for our military presence abroad, our government rationalizes most everything we do. Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project, recently spoke at John Hopkins University here in D.C. and argued quite effectively that we may need to question these motives.

Mr. Volman studies the evolution and activities of AFRICOM, the U.S. military command in Africa. He believes that a significant amount of why we are militarily present in Africa has to do with our reliance on African oil supplies. He notes the correlation between our increased military action in Africa in the last decade and our increased need for African oil. (The U.S. intelligence community predicts that the U.S. will be receiving 20% of its foreign oil supplies from Africa by 2015.)

Until about 10 years ago, Africa was quite marginal from the point of view of the Pentagon. As it became clear that we would come to rely on resources from the continent much more heavily than we had in the past, the need to protect those resources, and our access to them, became increasingly vital.

AFRICOM has attracted a great deal of negative attention in recent years (particularly in the wake of US intervention in Iraq), as Americans have begun to call for more transparency and accountability in U.S. military activities. As I see it, the main ethical dilemma with AFRICOM is the U.S. government’s justification of the program. Officials argue that AFRICOM is a tool for development, diplomacy, and conflict prevention, a means by which “Africans can be helped to help themselves.” Theresa Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs is quoted as saying, “the first [goal of Africom] is civil control of the military and defense reform, which we see as sort of two sides of the same coin. The second is military professionalization, and the third is capacity building.” These objectives, however, are not always supported by AFRICOM’s activities.

In large part, AFRICOM is used as a means to fight terrorism and extremism in places like Somalia, and is therefore an investment in the future security of the United States. There is also very likely an interest in maintaining US access to Africa’s natural resources, as Mr. Volman pointed out. The problem is, neither of these objectives are openly articulated.

If we agree with Mr. Volman that AFRICOM exists primarily to protect access to oil and other foreign resources, government excuses for the program are simply unacceptable. AFRICOM is not the first (nor likely the last) controversial assistance program justified on the basis of development, partnership, and capacity building—objectives that are hardly reflected in their day-to-day activities. It is the responsibility of the American public to hold government leaders accountable for programs like AFRICOM and ensure that tax dollars are first contributing to development and diplomacy, and not to covert military positioning as a primary foreign policy tool.