The events in Niger over the past few months have been alarming to watch. What began as a military coup now risks spiraling into a wider war in West Africa, with a group of juntas lining up to fight against a regional force threatening to invade and restore democratic rule in Niamey.
The junta have explicitly justified their coup as a response to the “continuous deterioration of the security situation” plaguing Niger and complained that it and other countries in the Sahel “have been dealing for over 10 years with the negative socioeconomic, security, political and humanitarian consequences of NATO’s hazardous adventure in Libya.” Even ordinary Nigeriens backing the junta have done the same.
The episode thus reminds us of an iron rule of foreign interference: Even military interventions considered successful at the time have unintended effects that cascade long after the missions formally end.
The 2011 Libyan adventure saw the U.S., French and British governments launch an initially limited humanitarian intervention to protect civilians that quickly morphed into a regime change operation, unleashing a torrent of violence and extremism across the region.
There was little dissent at the time. As Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces battled anti-government rebels, politicians, the press and anti-Gaddafi Libyans painted an overly simplistic picture of unarmed protesters and other civilians facing imminent if not already unfoldinggenocide. Only years later would a UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report publicly determine, echoing the conclusions of other post-mortems, that charges of an impending civilian massacre were “not supported by the available evidence” and that “the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element” that carried out numerous atrocities of its own.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) all called for a no-fly zone. “I love the military ... but they always seem to find reasons why you can’t do something rather than why you can,” complained McCain. The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka said it would be “an important humanitarian step.” The now-defunct Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) think tank gathered a who’s who of neoconservatives to repeatedlyurge the same. In a letter to then-President Barack Obama, they quoted back Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he argued that “inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reportedly instrumental in persuading Obama to act, was herself swayed by similar arguments. Friend and unofficial adviser Sidney Blumenthal assured her that, once Gaddafi fell, “limited but targeted military support from the West combined with an identifiable rebellion” could become a new model for toppling Middle Eastern dictators. Pointing to the similar, deteriorating situation in Syria, Blumenthal claimed that “the most important event that could alter the Syrian equation would be the fall of Gaddafi, providing an example of a successful rebellion.” (Despite Gaddafi’s ouster, the Syrian civil war continues to this day, and its leader Bashar al-Assad is still in power).
Likewise, columnist Anne-Marie Slaughter urged Clinton to think of Kosovo and Rwanda, where “even a small deployment could have stopped the killing,” and insisted U.S. intervention would “change the image of the United States overnight.” In one email, she dismissed counter-arguments:
“People will say that we will then get enmeshed in a civil war, that we cannot go into another Muslim country, that Gaddafi is well armed, there will be a million reasons NOT to act. But all our talk about global responsibility and leadership, not to mention respect for universal values, is completely empty if we stand by and watch this happen with no response but sanctions.”
Despite grave and often-stated reservations, Obama and NATO got UN authorization for a no-fly zone. Clinton was privately showered with email congratulations, not just from Blumenthal and Slaughter (“bravo!”; “No-fly! Brava! You did it!”), but even from then-Bloomberg View Executive Editor James Rubin (“your efforts ... will be long remembered”). Pro-war voices like Pletka and Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz immediately began moving the goalposts by discussing Gaddafi’s ouster, suggesting escalation to prevent a U.S. “defeat,” and criticizing those saying Libya wasn’t a vital U.S. interest.
NATO’s undefined war aims quickly shifted, and officials spoke out of both sides of their mouths. Some insisted the goal wasn’t regime change, while others said Gaddafi “needs to go.” It took less than three weeks for FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly, the organizer of the neocons’ letter to Obama, to go from insisting it would be a “limited intervention” that wouldn’t involve regime change, to professing “I don’t see how we can get ourselves out of this without Gaddafi going.”
After only a month, Obama and NATO allies publicly pronounced they would stay the course until Gaddafi was gone, rejecting the negotiated exit put forward by the African Union. “There is no mission creep,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted two months later. Four months after that, Gaddafi was dead — captured, tortured and killed thanks in large part to a NATO airstrike on the convoy he was traveling in.
The episode was considered a triumph. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton joked to a reporter upon hearing the news. Analysts talked about the credit owed to Obama for the “success.” “As Operation Unified Protector comes to a close, the alliance and its partners can look back at an extraordinary job, well done,” wrote then-U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder and then-Supreme Allied Commander in Europe James Stavridis in October 2011. “Most of all, they can see in the gratitude of the Libyan people that the use of limited force — precisely applied — can affect real, positive political change.” That same month, Clinton traveled to Tripoli and declared “Libya’s victory” as she flashed a peace sign.
“It was the right thing to do,” Obama told the UN, presenting the operation as a model that the United States was “proud to play a decisive role” in. Soon discussionmoved to exporting this model elsewhere, like Syria. Hailing the UN for having “at last lived up to its duty to prevent mass atrocities,” then-Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth called to “extend the human rights principles embraced for Libya to other people in need,” citing other parts of the Middle East, the Ivory Coast, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Others disagreed. “Libya has given [the mandate of ‘responsibility to protect’] a bad name,” complained Indian UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, echoing the sentiments of other diplomats angry that a UN mandate for protecting civilians had been stretched to regime change.
It soon became clear why. Gaddafi’s toppling not only led hundreds of Tuareg mercenaries under his employ to return to nearby Mali but also caused an exodus of weapons from the country, leading Tuareg separatists to team up with jihadist groups and launch an armed rebellion in the country. Soon, that violence triggered its own coup and a separate French military intervention in Mali, which quickly became a sprawling Sahel-wide mission that only ended nine years later with the situation, by some accounts, worse than it started. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the majority of the more than 400,000 refugees in the Central Sahel were there because of the violence in Mali.
Colonel Sidi Mohamed delivers a message as he stands with other Nigerien junta leaders while Nigeriens gather one month since coup, in support of the putschist soldiers and to demand French ambassador to leave, in the capital Niamey, Niger August 26, 2023. REUTERS/Mahamadou Hamidou
Mali was far from alone. Thanks to its plentiful and unsecured weapons depots, Libya became what UK intelligence labeled the “Tesco” of illegal arms trafficking, referring to the British supermarket chain. Gaddafi’s ouster “opened the floodgates for widespread extremist mayhem” across the Sahel region, retired Senior Foreign Service officer Mark Wentling wrote in 2020, with Libyan arms traced to criminals and terrorists in Niger, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria and Gaza, including not just firearms but also heavy weaponry like antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles. By last year, extremism and violence was rife throughout the region, thousands of civilians had been killed and 2.5 million people had been displaced.
Things are scarcely better in “liberated” Libya today. The resulting power vacuum produced exactly what Iraq War critics predicted: a protracted (and forever close-to-reigniting) civil war involving rival governments, neighboring states using them as proxies, hundreds of militias and violent jihadists. Those included the Islamic State, one of several extremist groups that made real Clinton’s pre-intervention fear of Libya “becoming a giant Somalia.” By the 2020 ceasefire, hundreds of civilians had been killed in Libya, nearly 900,000 needed humanitarian assistance, half of them women and children, and the country had become a lucrative hotspot for slave trading.
Today, Libyans are unambiguously worse off than before NATO intervention. Ranked 53rd in the world and first in Africa by the 2010 UN Human Development Index, the country had dropped fifty places by 2019. Everything from GDP per capita and the number of fully functioning health care facilities to access to clean water and electricity sharply declined. Far from improving U.S. standing in the Middle East, most of the Arab world opposed the NATO operation by early 2012.
Only five years later, Clinton, once eager to claim credit, distanced herself from the decision to intervene. “It didn’t work,” Obama admitted bluntly as he prepared to leave office, publicly deeming the country “a mess” and, privately, “a shit show.” The New York Timescollected the damning verdicts of those involved: “We made it worse”; “Gaddafi is laughing at all of us from his grave”; “by God, if we can’t succeed here, it should really make one think about embarking on these kind of efforts.”
Libya offers numerous cautionary tales about well-meaning U.S. military interventions, from the way they rapidly escalate beyond their initial goals and limited nature, to their penchant for unforeseen knock-on effects that are hard to control and snowball disastrously. As Obama’s “success” in the country now threatens to spark a regional war in Niger that could even drag the United States into the fighting, it should remind us that the consequences of military action and rejection of negotiated solutions last much longer than, and look very different years after, the initial period of triumphalism.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer with Jacobin magazine and the author of Yesterday's Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, In These Times, and others.
Hillary Clinton and Libyan soldiers claim victory after the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011. REUTERS/ Kevin Lamarque
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.