Trump, disrespect and the US military in Africa

A political furore has erupted over the last few weeks regarding the deaths of four US Special Forces soldiers on deployment to Niger, West Africa. US President Donald Trump has caused offence – this time, for making off-handed and dismissive comments to the widow of one of the dead servicemen.

This row, revealing deep divisions within an already-factionalised and fractured Republican Party, has added to the woes of the current US administration. However, as Finian Cunningham writes in Sputnik News magazine, the ruckus over Trump’s conduct obscures a more important and deeper scandal – the increasing military operations of the United States across the continent of Africa.

Trump’s discourteous treatment of a US soldier’s widow has been discussed at length. However, disrespect for the widow of a slain solider is not the scandal we should be talking about.

We should be focusing on the larger and more serious scandal – the US wars that are secretly being waged in Africa. A number of critics are already asking – why are there American troops in Africa in the first place?

The deaths of the four US Special Forces soldiers – commonly known as Green Berets – should give us the opportunity to examine the largely secretive, yet constantly expanding, US military presence in African countries. As Cunningham discusses in his article, there are thousands of special forces, secret troops, surveillance drone bases and operations across African countries, and Niger is one of them. Indeed, as Nick Turse has documented in an article for The Nation magazine, there is a growing constellation of US military bases in Africa, organised within the US Africa Command, or Africom.

John Wight, writing in Sputnik magazine, asks his readers to consider the depth of imperial arrogance demonstrated by the United States in arrogating to itself the right to construct an empire of lily-pad bases across the African continent. Given Africa’s tragic history of colonial occupation and exploitation, this expanding military footprint must prompt us to consider the strategic and military ambitions of US imperialism in that continent. The US military’s activity in Niger constitutes only one part of an extensive network of bases and secret missions in Africa.

The counter-terrorism excuse obscures imperial motives

The ostensible reason provided by the United States authorities for the growing military presence in African countries is counter-terrorism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, this rationale has been become a catch-all term, an umbrella under which all sorts of military and strategic activities can take place. The focus of the US military in Africa is not nation-building or humanitarian goals, but on achieving military and economic preponderance.

Lee Wengraf explains in the Socialist Worker magazine that the Niger deaths are the outcome of a deepening US military incursion into African countries. There are Islamist, fundamentalist groups operating in several states in Africa – Boko Haram in Nigeria being the most obvious example. The region of Niger where the US special forces soldiers were killed in the near the border with Mali, a country wracked by a civil war between Islamist movements and the French-backed Malian government.

The counter-terrorism excuse is flimsy at best, and hypocritical at worst, given that the main imperialist powers – the US, Britain, France and Italy among them – have a long history of training, arming and financially supporting Islamist groups to achieve their political objectives. It was Britain and France that supported and armed the Islamist-based Libyan rebels fighting in the 2011 uprising. Cultivating ties to fundamentalist groups is a long-standing practice of the imperialist states. The regional imperialist-sponsored crises afflicting the nations of Libya and Mali have spilled over into Niger.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that the US military is building a multi-million dollar drone base in Niger. Located in Agadez, the drone base will have the capability to launch missions into neighbouring countries. The US military works closely with their Nigerien counterparts, transferring millions of dollars’ worth of military supplies and equipment. In the meantime, Niger remains one of the poorest nations in Africa, where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line – scraping together a living on less than one dollar a day.

Let us remind ourselves of the words of an Africa expert and commentator, who spoke at great length about the role of Western imperialism in that continent. He elaborated upon the underlying motives of the colonial powers’ interest in Africa. These words are quoted by John Wight in Sputnik magazine:

They are the ones who need Africa — they need its wealth. Fifty percent of the world’s gold reserves are in Africa, a quarter of the world’s uranium resources are in Africa, and 95% of the world’s diamonds are in Africa. A third of chrome is also in Africa, as is cobalt. Sixty-five percent of the world’s production of cocoa is in Africa. Africa has 25,000 km of rivers. Africa is rich in unexploited natural resources, but we were [and still are] forced to sell these resources cheaply to get hard currency. And this must stop.”

The author of the quote above was the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, brutally murdered by NATO-backed mercenaries in 2011. We would do well to heed his words.

The Niger story – for lack of a better expression – has demonstrated the corporate media’s capacity for self-absorption. The scandal is not the deaths of the soldiers, but rather why they were fighting in west Africa in the first place. The extensive military operations of the United States have received little if any critical examination in the major corporate media. The deaths of the Nigerien people, their casualties and back story, is virtually ignored while the suffering of American soldiers is dramatized in powerful ways.

This view of the world ensures that the United States sees itself as the only and perpetual victim, unfairly maligned and attacking while making military sacrifices overseas. This narrative disguises the predatory and criminal nature of America’s expanding military and imperialist ambitions in Africa. The American military footprint in Africa is not a liberating force, but rather an occupying army. The Niger fatalities draw a spotlight on the imperialist offensive of the American ruling class across the continent of Africa.

Trump always adds insult to injury

Trump was disrespectful to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson – that is not in dispute. However, why is anyone surprised at the ability of Trump to offend? Trump is the president who has consistently disrespected ethnic minorities, frequently referring to Hispanic Americans as rapists and drug dealers throughout his election campaign.

Trump has disrespected the African American community on numerous occasions. One egregious example was his defence of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators at Charlottesville as ‘very fine people’. However, African American athletes who peacefully protest are dismissed as ‘sons of bitches’. If Trump does not have a view of the world that reflects white supremacy, then he is certainly doing an accurate impression of a white nationalist.

Trump was one of several ultra-rightist American politicians who routinely attacked former US President Barack Obama as an illegitimate occupant of the White House, advocating the lie of Birtherism. Obama was not a real president, you see, because he was not born in America, but he was actually a secret Muslim… African, no less. Trump recycled this ridiculous, disrespectful lie for years, and has never retracted it, even though it has been proven to be false.

Trump has displayed his misogynistic disrespect for women on numerous occasions, going so far as to brag about his ability to be a sexually aggressive pest. He boasted about how he ‘moved on her like a bitch’, gloating about his sexual conquests – and how he can ‘grab them by the pussy’ because he has wealth and celebrity – a social status that apparently allows him to be as obnoxious as he wants towards women.

Trump has disrespected millions of his own citizens – those living in the hurricane-ravaged dependency of Puerto Rico. The latter are American citizens – not by choice, but by force, with the United States conquering Puerto Rico in 1898. The 3.4 million citizens of that US territory are living without electricity, hundreds of thousands homeless, potable water is scarce, and the danger of disease and malnutrition hangs over the hurricane-damaged island. Trump’s response has been desultory at the very least, and obnoxious at worst.

While Puerto Rico’s people face apocalyptic conditions, Trump’s statements about the crisis involve complaining about the cost of the recovery – humanitarian aid has ‘thrown the budget out of whack’, according to the person responsible for organising the rescue effort. Dismissing the severity of the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico, Trump contended that the death toll was only low, because there were only 16 confirmed deaths, as opposed to hundreds in Hurricane Katrina. So Puerto Ricans are lucky that theirs is not a ‘real’ catastrophe, according to the Commander-in-Chief.

Trump disrespected and insulted the authorities in Puerto Rico, who swung into action as best they could in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Trump’s comments about the Puerto Rican situation? He complained that they were costing too much money. Puerto Ricans want everything done for them, Trump averred in presidential style as news about the true scale of the devastation was filtering out of the island. Danny Katch, writing for the Socialist Worker, wrote that Trump adds ignorant insults to Puerto Rico’s many injuries whenever he speaks. His complaints are not the insights of a political leader, but the whingeing ranting of an America-First financial speculator.

Whether he is shouting at the United Nations, or delivering a semi-fascistic tirade that was a poor excuse of an inauguration speech, Trump is revealing the underlying character of  the American ruling class. Gone is the rhetorical commitment to human rights, global cooperation and leadership; here is the ranting, white supremacist dotard, threatening countries with annihilation, and complaining that social services upon which poor people depend simply cost too much money.

It is time to stop the imperial arrogance and treat Africa with respect.

The world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is in Yemen – and the West is complicit

While the corporate media’s attention is focused on the humanitarian crisis gripping hurricane-ravaged nations in the Caribbean and regions of the United States, the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is in Yemen. There is no suggestion that the people of Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas are undeserving of full support, or that their suffering is to be negated. However, we must focus our attention on the entirely man-made disaster unfolding in Yemen; it is worsening, and it is the result of policies pursued by the United States and Britain.

Indeed, calling Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is not my own wording. That is the description applied to the situation in Yemen by the highly esteemed publication the New York Slimes. The authors of the article elaborate upon the horrendous conditions in that country since the March 2015 Saudi-led offensive;

Repeated bombings have crippled bridges, hospitals and factories. Many doctors and civil servants have gone unpaid for more than a year. Malnutrition and poor sanitation have made the Middle Eastern country vulnerable to diseases that most of the world has confined to the history books.

In just three months, cholera has killed nearly 2,000 people and infected more than a half million, one of the world’s largest outbreaks in the past 50 years.

You may read the entire article online. It makes for heart-wrenching, disturbing reading. It is very well written, accompanied by powerful images of the human suffering currently unfolding in Yemen. However, there are some serious omissions in the essay. Omissions that not only detract from the quality of the writing, but that indicate the political myopia, or unwillingness, of the authors to confront the political culpability of the powers enabling the Yemeni crisis. It is no exaggeration to state that the corporate media in the West have obscured, and downplayed, the responsibility of the United States and Britain in facilitating the ongoing Saudi assault on Yemen.

Ben Norton, writing in Common Dreams magazine, wrote that since the Saudi-led coalition began its relentless bombing of Yemen in March 2015, the casualties and fatalities caused by the aerial assaults are routinely downplayed as just simply the sadly regrettable but necessary fact of the war. Responsibility for the air strikes that kill Yemenis is constantly obscured as a disembodied tragedy with no single party to blame.

A corollary of this practice is to place the Saudi military, and the opposing Houthi militia, on an equal footing. This false equivalency obscures the culpability of the US-and-British-supported Saudi offensive for the resultant deaths, but also conveys the false impression that this conflict is between two equals, much like a boxing contest. If they are both responsible, well, we can dismiss it is just another Middle Eastern tragedy, and no-one will be held accountable. The Saudi war on Yemen, and the Houthi resistance, is not a war of equals.

There is no moral equivalence between invaders and the invaded. When the Saudi military bombs hospitals, schools, medical clinics, the electricity power stations and the civilian infrastructure which sustains Yemeni society, they are guilty creating a humanitarian catastrophe. The Saudi planes that launch these raids are refueled with American and British help. American and Britain made ammunition is being used by the Saudis to kill Yemeni civilians. When medical and sanitation workers can no longer perform their jobs keeping the streets clean and hygienic, the resultant loss of life is predictable.

In August this year, the Guardian reported on the cholera outbreak in Yemen. Cholera is a bacterial infection, and it can be treated effectively and easily with the proper medication and public hygiene and sanitation measures. However, when civilian infrastructure is destroyed, and the airports and ports of Yemen are blockaded to prevent supplies reaching the nation, the civilian casualties will inevitably rise. Trapping civilians and starving them into submission is one tactic of the Saudi military in its war on Yemen. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that at the time of writing, there are 750 000 suspected cases of cholera, with 2119 fatalities.

There is no question that the Saudi offensive against Yemen would not have begun, or have had such devastating consequences, were it not for the unstinting military and political support Saudi Arabia receives from its principal patrons; the United States and Britain. The hypocrisy of the Western powers is astounding – given that the US and Britain have only this year approved further arms sales to the Saudi petro-monarchy. If you wish, you may listen to a short snippet of video where Sir Michael Fallon, the current British Secretary of Defence, is justifying the billions of pounds worth of armaments sales and trade that Britain has with Saudi Arabia. If you can follow his reasoning, please be my guest.

There is a flip side to that coin. Supporters of the Saudi war on Yemen, portray the Houthi rebel movement as a puppet of Iran. This is quite simply, inaccurate. In an article for the Washington Post, Thomas Juneau, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate school of public and international affairs, examines this claim in extensive detail. Juneau addresses several concerns.

Firstly, while the Houthis are routinely described as being Shia, and therefore religiously aligned with Iran’s leaders, this is not strictly accurate. The Houthis practice Zaydi Shiism, which is a distinct branch, and theologically different from the Twelver Shiism practised by the majority of the world’s Shias.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is not religious affiliation that brought Iran and the Houthis together, albeit in a very limited manner. Iran’s influence over the Houthi movement is marginal at best. It is political dissatisfaction with the current regional order that unites these forces. Iran has long opposed the predominance of the American-backed Saudi monarchy in the region. The Houthis, currently fighting the Saudi-supported Yemeni government, have found that their interests correspond closely with Tehran, for the time being.

To reduce the Houthis to Iranian proxies, and therefore interpret the conflict in Yemen as a cartoonishly simple ‘Sunnis versus Shias’ is a huge mistake, and obscures the political and economic grievances that have driven this conflict. There are numerous Yemeni army units, loyal to ousted long-term dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, now fighting alongside the Houthis against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The Houthis are fighting not as an extension of Iranian influence, but because they oppose the lack of meaningful political change since the 2011 removal of Saleh. They claim that the changes since the 2011 uprising have been cosmetic, and did not result in a resolution of any political and economic grievances which drove the initial uprising. In fact, the removal of Saleh, and installation of his former colleague Hadi, was an initiative undertaken by Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to limit democratic reforms, while maintaining the bulk of the Yemeni regime in place.

Ending the cozy military and business relationship between the imperialist states and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would not only expose those who profiteer from war-making and armaments-trading, but also undermine Saudi Arabia’s ability to prosecute the Yemen assault, bringing much-needed relief to the people there. We must expose the quiet support of the United States and Britain (with Australia closely in tow) for the Saudi war on Yemen, and highlight the destructive hypocrisies that have produced this catastrophe.

The criminal silence surrounding the humanitarian disaster afflicting Yemen must be broken. It is time to take journalistic responsibility, and expose the crimes of the imperialist elite. Those responsible for enabling this carnage to continue must be held accountable in a Nuremberg-style tribunal.