People who recall how the United States and its NATO partners (along with their propaganda mouthpieces in the news media) generated public support for a proxy war in Ukraine may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. A similar effort is now underway with respect to Niger and other countries in West Africa. Washington is upset about a recent military coup in Niger, which was the latest ouster of a pro-Western government in that region. U.S. leaders are concerned not only because the coups have underscored the fading influence of France, the former colonial master, but because the insurgents have adopted a friendly stance toward Russia.
The Biden administration is especially agitated because Niger has been the linchpin of the U.S. military presence in West Africa. Washington has stationed more than 1,100 troops there, and maintains multiple drone bases, ostensibly to combat Islamist rebels affiliated with ISIS. The United States also has provided more than $500 million in security aid to Niger in recent years.
An essential prerequisite for securing American public support for a proxy war – much less for a direct U.S. military intervention – is to exaggerate the relevance of developments to America’s own security and other important interests. A related task is to generate a sense of urgency. That effort already has begun, with the establishment news media playing their usual role as the handmaids of government policy.
Michele Kelemen, an NPR correspondent, launched an early salvo. Her segment, titled “Here’s why Niger’s coup matters to the U.S.,” faithfully echoed the Biden administration’s position. “Niger is vital to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa. It’s one of the few countries in the region that has agreed to house U.S. drone bases and hundreds of American Special Forces and logistics experts, who are involved in counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram and ISIS affiliates.” But there was an even greater danger lurking in the background. “The challenge now for the U.S. is to ensure that Niger continues to be a partner in counterterrorism efforts and does not turn to the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, for security assistance, as others in the region have.”
Two officials of Niger’s ousted government also were immediately given prominent platforms for the propaganda offensive. Not surprisingly, the Washington Post, a reliable mouthpiece for the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, has played a leading role. Just days after the coup, Niger’s ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, was able to publish a column in the Post. His arguments seemed tailor-made to echo the allegations of interventionist Russophobes in the U.S. government. “In Africa’s troubled Sahel region, Niger stands as the last bastion of respect for human rights amid the authoritarian movements that have overtaken some of our neighbors.
While this coup attempt is a tragedy for Nigeriens, its success would have devastating consequences far beyond our borders. With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine.” The next day, Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to the United States, reinforced those arguments during an interview with the Washington Post. The ambassador asserted that if the recent military coup in his country was allowed to stand, the “whole world will be destabilized.”
Washington shows unmistakable signs of flirting with the option of a proxy war. Secretary of State Tony Blinken expressed support for Niger’s neighbors in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) when they stated that the bloc might forcibly intervene to restore the elected government. ECOWAS already had imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Niger, much to the approval of Paris and Washington.
There is a concerted, seemingly coordinated, campaign to emphasize Niger’s alleged wider importance – including its connection to important U.S. interests. Writing in the National Interest, François Baird, founder of The FairPlay trade movement and co-chairman of the international consultancy firm Baird’s CMC, presents a litany of potential horrors.Indeed, he manages to assemble all of Washington’s favorite bogeymen. “At present, it is likely that America and France will lose their investments and counterterrorism bases in Niger. Russians will fight in return for mining and other assets. Muslim extremist insurgents will gain ground. And China will make money and increase its influence, all thanks to declining stability in Niger and West Africa.”
Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor warns that “Niger is slipping away from the West.” He adds that “the ongoing crisis has invariably turned into a geopolitical conflagration.” An especially worrisome sign was that “especially on social media, backers of the coup have taken on a strikingly anti-Western line, casting both Bazoum’s government and its regional defenders as puppets of imperialist powers.”
For U.S. officials, Russia is the principal designated villain – continuing to play the role it has served in Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe to justify a new cold war. Both Blinken and Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland have stated that one of their main concerns is the possibility of Russia’s Wagner forces moving into Niger. There also was a clear desire to keep the country’s uranium mines (mostly French owned) out of the hands of Moscow or Beijing.
Washington has not hesitated to orchestrate proxy wars before – sometimes on a very large scale. It did so in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and the current effort in Ukraine is another prominent example. Indeed, the practice has had a long, dishonorable history going back to the early Cold War, when Washington used the technique to overthrow Guatemala’s left-leaning government and tried to do the same with a CIA-trained exile army to oust Fidel Castro.
A similar process may be taking place in West Africa. On August 10, ECOWAS announced the activation of a “standby force” for possible intervention in Niger. There is little doubt that the move has Washington’s backing.
The American people need to resist efforts to initiate another U.S.-sponsored proxy war. There is nothing in West Africa to justify an entanglement with unpredictable consequences. In particular, it is profoundly unwise to use Niger or other countries in the region as pawns for an ugly power struggle between the United States and Russia.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.