Skip to content

The Long Arm of the Law

On the rise of the global “good cop”

Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing by Stuart Schrader. University of California Press, 416 pages.

Always beware what everyone is saying but no one is talking about. It is often in these spaces of euphemism that the black magic of ideology casts its spell. George Orwell famously warned of how such language, what he called “question-begging” and “sheer cloudy vagueness,” becomes necessary “if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Every now or then a cliché bears some real wisdom and staying power, and Orwell’s counsel happens to be one. Take, for example, what has been said by various Democrats in the wake of the Trump administration’s assassination of Qassim Soleimani. Much of it has been encouraging for anyone interested in avoiding another full-scale bloodbath, but much has also begged additional questions or further clouded the semiotic landscape.

Consider the words of Senator Tammy Duckworth, who told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the fallout from the assassination is “what the Iranians wanted. They want this. They want Americans pushed out of Iraq. They want greater influence in the Middle East. And they got exactly what they wanted.” The interview began with Duckworth insisting that the American people are not safer now—that, in fact, we’re in more danger. The senator would go on to plead an identical case on The Rachel Maddow Show, and her Democratic colleagues hit similar notes about the cost of “security” and “stability” elsewhere.

I would be the last to deny that the assassination has encouraged more needless violence and tragedy, as we’ve already seen with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 people, or the fatal stampeding of at least fifty people at Soleimani’s funeral. But it is worth asking what U.S. involvement in Iraq Duckworth and her fellows are implicitly supporting, never mind what broader vision of U.S. influence in the region they’re defending. What mental pictures are being obscured by their language?   

A short answer to these questions can be found in a January 9 posting on Foreign Policy’s website, co-written by two senior fellows at the Middle East Institute, a reputable think tank known for producing bien pensant foreign policy opinion on the Chevron or United Arab Emirates dime, among others. The authors urge more “defense institution-building,” specifically a 60 percent increase in funding for programs like the Ministry of Defense Advisors and Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, venues where U.S. troops would continue to “actively mentor, advise, and train” Iraqi soldiers. The article focuses on military support, but it is likely these upgrades would be accompanied by a U.S. civilian police presence. Advisors to the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States have long pushed for increased police mentorship in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, including the repeal of Section 660, an obscure law that constricts the ability of the U.S. government to train police forces abroad.

Section 660, as it happens, was introduced in 1975, and was designed to prevent the kinds of human rights abuses that plagued mentorship programs in Latin America throughout the Cold War. This brings us to the longer answer to the question about what mental pictures are hidden by Duckworth’s verbiage. It is an answer that Stuart Schrader explores in his recent work of scholarship, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing.

Badges Without Borders tells the story of America’s post-WWII “global transit of police ideas and personnel.” Its critical framework is indebted to a rich legacy of thought centering on the racist underbelly of the international economic order, what Cedric Robinson called “racial capitalism.” It’s a legacy that can be traced from the oratory and writings of the Black Panther Party to the contemporary investigations of social theorists like abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore—one that continues to expose the connections between the military-industrial complex and the carceral state.

Throughout Badges Without Borders, Schrader seeks to combine this critical tradition with concrete, bureaucratic, fact. Joining a small but formidable band of painstaking researchers like Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton, Schrader has dug up or parsed an imposing sum of transcripts, recordings, videos, correspondences, and other ephemera on modern policing within and without the United States. His chief task has been untangling a congeries of alphabet-soup agencies invested in the surveillance, disciplining, and all-too-frequent termination of nonwhite subversives, guerillas, or “criminals” across national borders, the most central being the Office of Public Safety (OPS). Along the way, a crucial leitmotif comes to the fore.

The notion that anything worthwhile about law enforcement could be learned from a brutal war of occupation that claimed hundreds of thousands of indigenous lives is itself dark foreshadowing.

In the course of demonstrating why postwar anticommunist counterinsurgency efforts against postcolonial populations in the global South coincided with the suppression of black and brown communities and protestors across the United States, Schrader advances a theory of an “imperialism without imperialists” and a “racism without racists.” It is not that Bull “Look at ‘em run” Connors or Donald “We’re keeping the oil” Trumps haven’t existed. It’s that, until recently, they’ve been demoted to junior partners in a still shared (if publicly disavowed) project of maintaining fundamental—and fundamentally racialized—power relations across the globe. Their more refined associates, adept at communicating in the tongue of a race-blind, value-neutral social science, a procedural legalism, or even a soft but shallow humanitarianism and anti-racism, have taken the reins of the imperialist enterprise. It is the story of these more outwardly sympathetic but insidious figures, these good cops, that distinguishes Badges Without Borders.   

Understanding the rise of the “good cops” requires understanding their origins. The “grandfather” of police professionalization in the United States, August Vollmer, served as a soldier in the Philippine-American war at the turn of the century. The notion that anything worthwhile about law enforcement could be learned from a brutal war of occupation that claimed hundreds of thousands of indigenous lives is itself dark foreshadowing. But what’s notable about Vollmer is his liberal pretensions: he envisioned a modern police officer who functioned as a key agent in the social uplift and economic development of downtrodden communities. Police would be responsible for keeping the peace, of course, but much of that chore could be achieved by introducing newfangled accessories like the bicycle-based patrol or the teletype. That these seemingly benign novelties were intended to ensure an environment compatible with the most stringent of regimes—Vollmer advised the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, for example—came as an afterthought.

Vollmer’s most influential protégé, Orlando W. Wilson, spent more time emphasizing this latter part of his policing theory. As police chief of Wichita, Kansas and Fullerton, California and, later, police commissioner of Chicago, Wilson pushed for a militarized chain of command, code of conduct, division of labor, and demeanor, attributes he saw as solutions to the corruption and ethnic patronage of local precincts. Like Vollmer, he supported technical innovations such as the police car patrol, two-way radio, and crime laboratory. It was a commitment to scaling up his model of policing to the international arena, however, that would leave its most lasting mark. “It looks like the name of Wilson will go down in Arabic annals with the name of Lawrence,” his fellow reformer Theo E. Hall quipped after an Arabic translation of Wilson’s textbook, Police Administration, was disseminated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. 

But if there was one man most responsible for globalizing American policing, it was Kansas City wunderkind and architect of President Kennedy’s Office of Public Safety, Byron Engle. Vollmer was no doubt inspired by his grunt work in the occupied Philippines, and the same could be said for Wilson’s military stint in occupied Germany, but it was Engle, a veteran of occupied Japan, who thought the hardest about forging a world occupied by U.S.-minted police. If Vollmer saw the occupation of the Philippines as a humane improvement on the brutishness of the Spanish empire, and Wilson saw the occupation of Germany as a vindication of liberal governance over illiberal tyranny, Engle saw the occupation of Japan as a blueprint for an internationally integrated future—one defined by a combination of centralized, Washington-derived funding and training, and decentralized discretion.

Schrader describes Engle’s program as “locally grounded, because police had to patrol a beat.” But it was also

forever expansionary, ever seeking the next nation in need of development and modernization, the next imperiled by radicalism. It sought the nooks and crannies of villages or growing metropolises where subversion and crime, or some novel configuration in combination of the two rooted, germinated, and blossomed.

As Schrader reminds his reader, this project ignored the hellscapes lurking behind this kind of “development” and “modernization,” which guaranteed not only a chronically unemployed or underemployed criminal class but a constant stream of radical reactions. Engle, a Democrat for most of his career (he rounded out his life an NRA-affiliated Republican) whose worldview was nevertheless shaped by a slew of affiliations with the FBI and CIA, could never bring himself to consider, in Schrader’s words, “the decentralized despotism of policing that for African Americans in particular amounted to thousands of everyday micro-fascisms.”

Lest one think the phrase “everyday micro-fascisms” is overblown, consider that numerous ex-Nazi policeman and soldiers became not only intelligence assets for the United States, but public safety trainers in places like South Vietnam and Nicaragua. Prior collaborators with the Japanese empire remained in the U.S.-administered Korean police force, while the Korean police were encouraged to retain the same anti-left posture they had assumed under the Japanese. This posture was encouraged worldwide, and not just by supposedly forward-minded, post-racial, police-intellectuals. Many liberal Cold Warriors tolerated right-wing authoritarians while opposing their leftist oppositions, whom they saw as a graver threat to liberal capitalist stability. This Faustian bargain helped lay the ideological and material groundwork for the mass disappearances and murders of leftists throughout Latin America, specifically in Guatemala, where Engle’s OPS was directly implicated. It was this very implication that led, after considerable leftist agitation at home, to Section 660 in 1975.

Consider that numerous ex-Nazi policeman and soldiers became not only intelligence assets for the United States, but public safety trainers in places like South Vietnam and Nicaragua.

Whether WASPy mavericks like Vollmer, Wilson, and Engle, or progressive Jewish outsiders like Robert Komer—the man behind the pacification campaign in Vietnam—or Arnold Sagalyn—the counterinsurgency expert who established the blueprint for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime—the personalities chronicled in Badges Without Borders appear sincere in their devotion to what they saw as a post-racial politics of universal freedom and prosperity. This devotion manifested itself in myriad ways, from the promotion of “nonlethal weapons” to the championing of Title IX of the Foreign Assistance Act, the stipulation that demands democratic participation in the development and poverty reduction of all assisted nations. But given the men’s refusal to see that the institutions to which they had pledged their allegiance were responsible for perpetuating systemic modes of domination, they couldn’t predict where their favored reforms would lead—that CS (or CN and CR) gas, for instance, embraced by Lyndon Johnson in case “the Negroes started moving in [on] the White House,” would mark a mere addition to the extant repertoire of racist violence. The excessive use of such gas against peaceful protestors drove dissidents underground, only exacerbating racial turmoil. Police ended up killing more civilians after gas was introduced on American streets, since rather than using gas as replacement for violence, they deployed it as a supplement, mimicking tactics used in Vietnam.

The pattern moved in both directions. The first major implementation of CS in South Vietnam happened in 1966, and in a deliberate nod to anti-black subjugation, its perpetrators named it Operation Birmingham. As Schrader recounts, by 1969,

13,736,000 pounds of CS had been dropped on South Vietnam, an amount equivalent to a blanketing layer 80,000 square miles in size: 14,000 square miles more than the country’s total territory. Additionally, CS would have been used repeatedly in some areas and combined with defoliants. It leached into soil and ground water. The United States effectively tear-gassed the entire country, and then some.

As for Title IX, its developmentalist fruits were often consumed by the very national security state intended to protect them. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, trained local Guatemalans, many of them schoolteachers, in leadership programs. According to a study of this period, up to two-thirds of its trainees were murdered by the Guatemalan security apparatus. “They were killed because they were agitators in terms of the powers that be,” the study concluded. “In terms of development, they were the ideal change agent . . . but that was the kiss of death for them.”   

Mission creep, threat inflation, profit incentives, preexisting cultures of bigotry and cruelty, and the perceived need to manage the increasingly tumultuous blowback produced by decades of capitalist exploitation and neo-colonialist dispossession—all of these factors have conspired to build the monstrous infrastructures of surveillance and social control the United States exports across the world today. But so has modern liberalism’s failure to anticipate the natural trajectory of its own initiatives—that is to say, its failure to acknowledge the all-encompassing power relations of racial capital in which it has always been embedded. As Schrader writes, the “order police on American streets have created, the order OPS would propagate by proxy abroad, the order the War on Crime facilitated is the order of capital, the order of white supremacy, the order of empire.”

It is also, by its nature, an escalatory order. In the past twenty years alone, America’s wars in the Greater Middle East have claimed 800,000 lives or more directly through violence, and several times that number (at least another 1.6 million) indirectly, through disease, homelessness, forced migration, and the countless other fates borne from armed conflict. Those who have survived in the half-dozen or so countries reshaped by imperial American war, countries like Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, now trudge on inside transnational police states, amid killer robots buzzing from above, paid skeins of unaccountable mercenaries, secret prisons and detention camps, onerous and hazardous checkpoints, and other mundane but vicious routines. In Afghanistan, many must also count their blessings against CIA-trained death squads, a confirmed reality only a handful of journalists and politicians in the United States seem at all concerned about.

In Badges Without Borders, Schrader limns how this nightmare grew up alongside a parallel despotism stateside, one that has disproportionately targeted a not unrelated population of nonwhite disposables. He also shows how this ruthlessness within and without U.S. borders has been propelled forward by a need to oversee the expansion of U.S.-led capitalism while containing the unwanted secondary effects of its exploitation and violence. To be sure, the governments of countries like Russia, China, and yes, Iran, have oppressive workings of their own that are an affront to anyone dedicated to social justice and peace, and public officials like Senator Duckworth are right to be suspicious of their machinations. But to accept U.S. “influence” in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter, as a benign or preferable given, is to repeat the same fateful errors of the good cops profiled in Badges Without Borders.

Now, those good cops seem to be everywhere. Democrats have been fond of elevating prosecutors and district attorneys for some time now, and especially fond of rallying behind FBI and CIA figures in recent years. Many of the lawyers in Obama’s administration responsible for providing a thin legal or ethical veneer to its ugliest features, from the drone war to the surveillance leviathan, are now happy household names, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder foremost among them. (Holder, it should be noted, oversaw the implementation of “Operation Ceasefire” in the 1990s, which has been described as “basically stop-and-frisk of cars.”) Otherwise excellent broadcast journalists like Chris Hayes still feel a need to conduct softball interviews with unrepentant boosters of America’s imperialist footprint, like former soldier and Congressman Max Rose or Samantha Power, the latter of whom has barely been held to account for helping to turn Libya into a latter-day slave market.

On the other hand, there’s the launch of the well-funded anti-militarist think tank Quincy Institute, with one of the most eloquent critics of Pax Americana, Andrew Bacevich, at its helm. There’s Bernie Sanders and his millions of enthusiastic, anti-war supporters, many of whom are eager to start fighting for a more democratically organized world. There’s the Movement for Black Lives, which has not only widely publicized evils of police brutality and mass incarceration but connected these evils to America’s encroachments across the planet. And there’s the reemergence, in recent public discourse, of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only Congressperson to vote against the original Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) in 2001. These are all promising signs of an incipient anti-imperialist awakening, but as with the coming climate crisis, we are running out of time.