While Biden keeps pushing his human rights narrative, his latest airstrikes are part of a great power competition.
On July 20, the US carried out an airstrike in Somalia against al Shabaab militants – the first one in Somalia under President Joe Biden. It struck again on July 23 and August 1. Last week, it was reported Biden seeks to host a “Summit for Democracy”.
According to a White House statement, this will include civil society figures and political leaders to galvanize initiatives “against authoritarianism”, “corruption”, and also “promoting respect for human rights”.
These two topics are somehow connected. During the cold war, the US espoused the rhetoric of being the “leader of the free world”, although the record shows it backed some of the most ruthless dictators and promoted several coup d’etats worldwide. To this day, most of the US “humanitarian interventions” have brought chaos and destabilization, and its attempts at “nation building” have been major humanitarian disasters. One only needs to look at Libya and Iraq or even Afghanistan – and yet Washington insists on being the only player that can deliver stability to Somalia in its counter-terrorism effort.
Amid the narrative wars, this is the one the US has always pushed: they are the champions of freedom, democracy, and now, in Biden’s parlance, human rights. This is the stuff American wars are made of, if we are to believe it – and there usually is a great battle for democracy somewhere. One could in fact argue that Trump was the first US President (since at least Carter) not to lead its own large and long military campaign.
While the Chinese presence in Africa is widely discussed, the US has maintained a kind of “invisible” presence in the African continent for a while, with a network of US special forces and private contractors – and this includes a covert war on the Al-Qaeda connected al-Shabab jihadist organization in Somalia: since 2007, thousands of people have been killed there by US drones and this includes civilians.
Trump removed most of the American troops from Somalia in the final days of his term, relocating them to nearby countries to remotely assist Somali forces against al-Shabab. This move was criticized by some American experts that argued Biden should redeploy the troops back to Somalia, and the Defense Department has been considering doing precisely that, according to a June 29 US Air Force Magazine piece. This is ironic, considering that the troops removal was completed less than 7 months ago, and considering that Biden has just withdrawn troops from Afghanistan – this also makes one wonder how long will it take before discussions about bringing troops back to Afghanistan begin.
In a January piece – published in the US FPRI website – former US Ambassador to Somalia Stephen M. Schwartz argues that the US “hasty exit” from Somalia would open “the door to a greater role for the People’s Republic of China”. According to him, the fight against al-Shabaab is a “classic counter-terrorism” effort, at a time when Washington’s attention is turning to great power competition with Beijing and Moscow. After all, Somalia, he argues, is “more” than al-Shabaab.
Somalia itself is part of the so-called Horn of Africa, a region that historically has been at crossroads and remains one of immense geopolitical importance: one of the main global trade routes lies off its coast and connects the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and to the Mediterranean region and Europe through the Suez Canal.
It is well known Beijing currently seeks to employ its Belt and Road Initiative to enhance its position as the main investor in Africa. This can be clearly seen in the case of a small but strategic Horn of Africa country, namely, Djibouti – where Beijing also has its own permanent military base.While Chinese military presence in the region and in the continent cannot rival American presence, China remains the largest investor in Africa and has been so for the last 10 years, according to a report by the Swiss-African Business Circle. For the 2010-2019 period, it has created an average of 18,562 jobs in Africa, while the US has created an average of 12,106. Moreover, according to Deborah Brautigam (Director of the China Africa Research Initiative), Beijing has been building long-term relationships in the continent, while Washington’s approach has a short-term time horizon.
There is yet another issue: Africa has been largely neglected by the US foreign policy – and Biden has not been an exception.
For example, in February 2021, the G5 Sahel held its N’Djamena meeting. While Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov stayed three days in Burkina Faso (prior to the summit), and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by video conference, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken merely sent a pre-recorded five-minutes talk and dispatched no official in his place. In April, Niger celebrated, for the first time, a peaceful transfer of power between elected presidents, and neither President Biden nor Blinken sent a delegation.
Meanwhile, both China and Russia have maintained good diplomatic relations with many African countries since at least the Cold War period, when both powers supported several African independence struggles.
Apparently, for the US, having a presence in Africa is all about bombing insurgent groups with drones, maintaining military bases and special forces in covert undeclared wars, while insisting on its rhetoric of human rights and democracy. If the US wishes to compete with China and Russia for geopolitical influence on the Horn of Africa (as well as on the whole continent), it will need to improve its diplomacy.