The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject a bill that would have mandated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Niger, where a coup has left the country in crisis since July.
The 11-86 vote followed a heated floor debate in which Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made an impassioned speech in favor of bringing U.S. soldiers home from the country.
“Does it make sense to station over 1000 troops in a country ruled by a military junta?” Paul asked. “We're in the middle of a potential war with 1100 troops in Niger where the democratically elected president has been deposed, and they're being ruled by a military junta and still our troops are there.”
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), who voted against the bill, argued on the floor that “a swift withdrawal from Niger, as proposed in this resolution, would weaken our regional reconnaissance efforts” and open the door to Russian influence in the country. Sen Ben Cardin (D-Mary.) also argued against the measure, contending that U.S. troops are not engaged in active hostilities and that American soldiers are there with the permission of local authorities.
Paul led the bill alongside co-sponsors Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Kennedy (R-La.), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) also voted in favor of a floor vote on the bill.
The proposal was endorsed by Just Foreign Policy, the Friends Committee for National Legislation, the Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, and the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS.
The news comes amid growing pressure to reevaluate America’s war on terror, which has quietly hummed along in places like Somalia, Niger, and Syria in recent years with little attention from the U.S. public. Most deployments are justified under the broad authorization for the use of military force passed by Congress just days after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“Using an AUMF from 22 years ago, an authorization to get the people who attacked us on 9/11, to justify a war in Niger is a ridiculous notion and should be rejected out of hand,” Paul argued.
While these operations are largely confined to training and intelligence gathering, American soldiers have been involved in recent skirmishes in Somalia, and Islamic State fighters killed four U.S. servicemen in Niger in 2017. The father of one of those soldiers recently pleaded with lawmakers to reconsider America’s presence in the country.
“If a conflict is not worth the death of your own son or daughter, if you are not willing to send your own son or daughter to death’s door to return home in a flag-draped coffin, don’t send ours,” he wrote.
Observers initially speculated that the coup in Niger could make it more challenging for the U.S. military to operate, especially given the junta’s decision to expel French troops from the country. But U.S. officials reportedly struck a deal with coup leaders that has allowed the 1,100 American soldiers deployed in the country to return to their regular intelligence and surveillance work.
Further complicating the issue is the State Department’s decision earlier this month to officially designate the takeover as a coup, restricting the extent to which U.S. forces can provide security assistance to and coordinate with the Nigerien government. It is unclear whether the U.S. military continues to arm and train the Nigerien military.
Paul has previously raised questions about the secretive nature of the U.S. presence in Niger. As he noted in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, it remains unclear what authority underpins the operations, which must be authorized legally by an act of Congress.
Recent presidents have largely justified such operations using the broad authorization for the use of force passed in the days after 9/11. But legal experts have recently raised doubts as to whether that law remains applicable after more than two decades of global war.
New threat assessments “raise the question of whether the United States has passed the ‘tipping point’ such that U.S. counterterrorism efforts are no longer considered an armed conflict,” noted Brian Finucane of the International Crisis Group and Heather Brandon-Smith of the FCNL.
In the case of Niger — a country that, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks — Paul argues that operations “circumvent our constitution, which was designed to ensure that the decision to engage in hostilities would be made only after serious deliberation in the legislature.”
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. (Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)
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 a 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%.
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Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns prepares for a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 10, 2022. After the House passed a late night government funding bill with more than $13 Billion in additional funding for Ukraine, the Senate is expected to take up the measure and pass it before a government shutdown deadline.
The White House’s messaging on the Ukraine war is built around two simple-yet-powerful adjectives: “We are united in our condemnation,” said President Joe Biden almost two years ago in a joint statement with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “of Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The “unjustified and unprovoked” line has been used numerous times by a chorus of top U.S. officials and allies, quickly becoming a rhetorical mainstay of Biden’s maximum pressure campaign against the Kremlin.
This messaging conflates two important, yet fundamentally different issues. There is little question that Russia’s invasion has wrought a horrific human toll on Ukraine and upended European security in ways that few anticipated prior to February 2022. But it is also not without its context, which includes a litany of grievances that — however unjustified from the perspective of the West — constitute what the Kremlin saw as sufficient provocation to initiate the most destructive war in Europe since 1945.
An explosive New York Times exposé by Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz sheds light on major developments preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the report, the Ukrainian government entered into a wide-ranging partnership with the CIA against Russia. This cooperation, which involved the establishment of as many as 12 secret CIA “forward operating bases” along Ukraine’s border with Russia, began not with Russia’s 2022 invasion, but just over 10 years ago.
Within days of the February 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that culminated with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a firmly pro-Western government, the newly appointed head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, reportedly proposed a “three-way partnership” with the CIA and MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service. Ukrainian security officials gradually proved their value to the U.S. by feeding the CIA intelligence on Russia, including “secret documents about the Russian Navy,” leading to the establishment of CIA bases in Ukraine to coordinate activities against Russia and various training programs for Ukrainian commandos and other elite units.
A graduate of one such CIA training program, then-Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, went on to become the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence.
Kyiv routinely pushed this relationship’s boundaries, violating the Obama administration’s red lines around lethal operations by carrying out assassinations of high-profile Russian fighters on territory controlled by Russian-aligned separatists. The Kyiv-CIA partnership deepened under the Trump administration, yet again putting the lie to the baseless idea that former President Trump was somehow amenable to Russia’s interests while in office.
As Budanov reportedly put it, “It only strengthened. It grew systematically. The cooperation expanded to additional spheres and became more large-scale.” This cooperation, as painstakingly outlined by the Times, went far beyond helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia in a narrow, technical sense — rather, Ukraine was drawn into a Western coalition for the purpose of waging a broad-based shadow war against Russia.
The New York Times’ exposé offers no shortage of disturbing implications. Ukraine is, needless to say, a sovereign state in charge of determining its own security arrangements. The underlying issue is not whether Ukraine is within its rights to enter into this kind of relationship with the CIA, as it obviously is, nor is it whether the Maidan Revolution put Ukraine on a certain path toward political cooperation with Western entities.
The problem, rather, is one of basic security perceptions. Moscow repeatedly warned — for many years before 2014 — that it was and remains prepared to take drastic action to prevent Ukraine from being used by the West as a forward operating base against Russia. Yet that, as recounted in lurid detail by The New York Times, is precisely what has happened over the past 10 years.
The fact that Ukraine has not just willingly but enthusiastically submitted to this arrangement is immaterial to Russia’s core concerns. Nor can this issue be entirely reduced to NATO membership: Ukraine can play the role of an anti-Russian outpost on NATO’s eastern flank without ever formally joining the alliance, and this, too, is unacceptable to the Kremlin.
Justification is by nature a subjective exercise, but there can be little question that the activities described in this exposé constitute, from the Kremlin’s perspective, a dire provocation and would be seen as such by the United States if the situation were reversed and a rival superpower established such bases in Mexico. This perception is an inseparable part of the military and political context that shaped this war’s outbreak. It can be dismissed as paranoid, but if so it is a paranoia common to all security establishments.
It is unclear what concrete U.S. interests these joint intelligence activities served. They certainly did not facilitate de-escalation between Moscow and Kyiv or promote regional stability, goals ostensibly shared by the Obama and Trump administrations. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how Kyiv’s deepening relationship with the CIA needlessly fed into Moscow’s worst security fears and precipitated its conclusion — whether justified or not — that it must act decisively in the face of an implacable conflict with the West over Ukraine.