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USA/Africa: Paradigms of Foreign Intervention

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 30, 2019 (190130)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“[In her new book Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War, Schmidt´s] aim is not to provide a comprehensive narrative or advance an explanatory theory, but to introduce a series of case studies, taking into account global narratives and common factors as well as the particularity and nuances of each case. … As Schmidt explains, global narratives are both essential and misleading in explaining the course and outcomes of intervention in specific conflicts.” - AfricaFocus Editor William Minter

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains selected brief excerpts from the book, including from the foreword written by your AfricaFocus editor, from chapter 2 with an overview on the post-Cold-War context, and from chapter 12 on US Africa policy after the Cold War. Although the book includes a chapter focused on the role of the United States, the scope is far broader. Schmidt acknowledges the independent role of internal African actors, as well as of multiple external interveners. Multilateral as well as bilateral intervention came from both state and non-state actors. Eight regional case studies, each accompanied by a bibliographical essay with suggested readings, provide ample opportunity for readers to dig in more deeply. Like her earlier book on Foreign Intervention in Africa through the Cold War, this book is likely to be particularly useful for teaching.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today, and available on the web at, highlights the folly of identifying a single framework to analyze an administration´s foreign policy towards Africa, taking as an example National Security Adviser John Bolton´s December speech stressing the U.S.-China rivalry.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the USA and Africa, visit

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Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War

by Elizabeth Schmidt

Ohio University Press, October 2018

Foreword by William Minter

Chapter 1
Outsiders and Africa
Political and Military Engagement on the Continent (1991–2017)

Chapter 2
The Post–Cold War Context: Shifting Paradigms and Misconceptions

Chapter 3
Identifying the Actors : Who Intervened and Why

Chapter 4
Somalia: Conflicting Missions and Mixed Results (1991–2017)

Chapter 5
Sudan and South Sudan: Conflicting Interests and Inadequate Solutions (1991–2017)

Chapter 6
Rwanda: Genocide and the Failure to Respond (1991–94)

Chapter 7
The Democratic Republic of Congo: Outside Interests and Africa’s World War (1994–2017)

Chapter 8
Liberia and Sierra Leone: Regional War and License to Plunder (1990–2003)

Chapter 9
Côte d’Ivoire : Civil War and Regime Change (2002–11)

Chapter 10
The Arab Spring in North Africa: Popular Resistance, Backlash, and the Struggle for the Future (2011–17)

Chapter 11
Mali and Nigeria : Military Intervention and Unforeseen Consequences (2009–17)

Chapter 12
US Africa Policy after the Cold War (1991–2017)

Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War

by Elizabeth Schmidt

Excerpts from Foreword

by William Minter

Elizabeth Schmidt’s earlier work, Foreign Intervention in Africa (Cambridge, 2013,, focused on the period 1945–91, with a brief concluding chapter on 1991– 2010. This companion volume focuses on 1991–2017, with a final chapter highlighting the potential impact of the Trump presidency. Schmidt’s approach in the two volumes is similar. Her aim is not to provide a comprehensive narrative or advance an explanatory theory, but to introduce a series of case studies, taking into account global narratives and common factors as well as the particularity and nuances of each case.


As Schmidt explains, global narratives are both essential and misleading in explaining the course and outcomes of intervention in specific conflicts. Thus the grand narrative of the "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union, from 1945 to 1991, was decisive for interventions in African conflicts insofar as it motivated perceptions and policy in Washington, Moscow, and other capitals. Cold War perceptions conflating radical African nationalism and communism affected policy makers, the media, and public opinion, not only in countries such as the United States and South Africa, but also in transnational networks and multilateral organizations.

Even in this period, however, the Cold War paradigm was not fully hegemonic. The alternative framework of a united stand against Nazism, racism, and colonialism, linked to the common experience of World War II, was shared by Southern African liberation movements, governments and movements around the world, and among many in Western Europe and North America as well. An exclusive focus on the superpowers, moreover, ignores the distinct interests and roles of other external actors, including the European colonial powers and other communist states, most prominently Cuba and China. And finally, the interests of the African actors involved in conflicts, and the colonial and precolonial histories of specific countries, also shaped the outcomes. In some cases, African parties to conflict sought out foreign interventions—for their own reasons.

Unraveling the course of any specific intervention thus requires a high degree of granularity, at the risk of asking the reader to assimilate a potentially bewildering range of names and places. Political actors such as states, parties, and agencies are not unitary: each is made up of subgroups and individuals with distinct interests, ideologies, and analyses. Schmidt's clear writing style makes for a readable narrative that balances brevity with nuance. Readers who take their time and pay attention will be rewarded—not with definitive answers, which the author does not promise, but with a solid basis for asking more questions and pursuing further research.

In the post–Cold War period examined in this book, Schmidt identifies two distinct paradigms applied by policy makers. A specific intervention might fall primarily under the paradigm of a response to instability, some cases of which might also fit under the newly defined multilateral rubric of the "responsibility to protect." Alternatively, it might fit within the framework of the "war on terror." Or, as in the case of Somalia, both paradigms might be at work simultaneously. Characteristically, "war on terror" interventions were often counterproductive, increasing rather than decreasing the impact of movements defined as terrorist threats. Globally, these interventions were driven particularly by the United States, with accelerated militarization in Africa as well as around the world in the period following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Interventions in response to instability, including those of responsibility to protect, on the other hand, featured a far wider range of subregional, regional, and global actors. There was vacillation between indifference, leading to failure to respond in a timely way, and complex multiyear efforts in diplomacy and peacekeeping. The actors most consistently involved, for their own reasons, were neighbors of the countries beset by conflict, as well as African multilateral organizations such as the African Union and its subregional counterparts. And, as the cases considered in this book illustrate, the results, as well as the motives of outside actors, were decidedly mixed. The outcomes were difficult to evaluate, as were the possible alternative courses of action that might have produced different results (counterfactuals). While the United States was often a partner in multilateral efforts, consistent policy and commitment for multilateral engagement was in short supply.

Despite the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the shift of paradigms justifying foreign intervention in Africa, there were many institutional continuities in the international order in the following period. The "Western alliance" continued, with prominent roles for NATO and the United Nations. The UN Security Council, with its five permanent members, continued to dominate international peacekeeping policy. Africa remained at the margins of foreign policy making for the United States and other powers outside the African continent, with the exception of the North African region, given its proximity to Europe and close links with the Middle East.

Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War

by Elizabeth Schmidt

Excerpts from Chapter 2

Shifting Paradigms, Misconceptions, and Case Studies Africa after the Cold War


The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed economically and politically. African conflict zones that were once Cold War battlegrounds were increasingly ignored, and dictators who were no longer useful to their Cold War patrons were rapidly abandoned. Across the continent, nations suffered the consequences of depleted resources, enormous debts, dysfunctional states, and regional wars over the spoils. Weapons left over from the Cold War poured into volatile regions and fueled new competition for riches and power. Countries already weakened by economic and political crises descended into violent conflicts that often transcended international borders. In some cases, popular movements or armed insurrections ousted dictators who no longer were sustained by outside powers. However, because war and repression had stymied organized political opposition in many countries, warlords and other opportunists often moved into the power vacuums. Unscrupulous leaders manipulated ethnicity to strengthen their drive for power and privilege, sometimes unleashing ethnically based terror.

During the first post–Cold War decade, foreign intervention assumed a new character. Many Western nations that had been implicated in African conflicts during the Cold War turned their attention elsewhere. The United States, as the self-proclaimed Cold War victor, showed little interest in direct military intervention, and its economic assistance programs were severely reduced. However, in keeping with its call for African solutions to Africa problems, Washington initiated new programs to bolster African military capabilities and others that focused on free market economic development and trade. Recognizing that African’s enormous external debts, often incurred by Cold War clients, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic contributed to political and economic instability, the United States also introduced programs to address these problems. The policy shift meant that most military interventions during the 1990s were conducted by African countries—sometimes to reestablish regional peace and security, at others to support proxy forces that granted access to their neighbors’ resources.

Although extracontinental powers were less likely to intervene unilaterally during the 1990s, multilateral intervention by both extracontinental and African powers intensified and took shape under new auspices. The UN, OAU, and various subregional bodies intervened in response to instability—to broker, monitor, and enforce peace accords and to facilitate humanitarian relief operations. Peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions were viewed positively by many African constituencies, although disparities in power meant that African agents had little authority over external forces once implanted on African soil. In a striking deviation from Cold War trends, the international community was sometimes castigated for not acting quickly or boldly enough—as in the case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Liberian civil war that ended in 2003, and the Darfur conflict in Sudan that began in 2003. The UN Security Council, in particular, was reproached for its refusal to thwart the Rwandan genocide and to act more forcefully in Darfur. Under pressure from human rights and humanitarian lobbies and from African civil societies, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2005 that held countries responsible for protecting their citizens from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and granted the international community the right to intervene through UN Security Council-sanctioned operations if governments failed to fulfill their “responsibility to protect” (R2P).

Appeals for humanitarian intervention in African affairs increased during the first decade of the twenty-first century; military intervention for other ends also intensified. The ongoing struggle to secure energy and other strategic resources and the onset of the war on terror brought renewed attention to the continent. Heightened foreign military presence, external support for repressive regimes, and disreputable alliances purportedly intended to root out terror resulted in new forms of foreign intervention in Africa. The continent, its people, and its resources again became the object of internal and external struggles in which local concerns were frequently subordinated to foreign interests.

Paradigm 1: Response to Instability and the Responsibility to Protect

The political, economic, and social upheavals that characterized the late Cold War and early post–Cold War periods resulted in severe instability in numerous African states and regions. Foreign powers and multilateral institutions took note when domestic turmoil was perceived to jeopardize international peace and security. In most instances, their involvement entailed brokering, monitoring, and enforcing peace agreements. Diplomatic and military interventions were often justified on the grounds that outside actors had both the right and the responsibility to guarantee international peace and security if individual states failed to do so. In such cases, intervention was authorized according to Chapters VI, VII, or VIII of the 1945 UN Charter. In instances where large civilian populations were at risk and refugee flows heightened regional tensions, the response to instability was bolstered by newer claims that the international community had a responsibility to protect civilian lives. In such cases, intervention was justified by a 2005 UN General Assembly resolution that bestowed on the international community the responsibility to protect civilians when their governments were unable or unwilling to do so.

Post–Cold War intervention in African affairs has been characterized not only by the increased involvement of multinational bodies, but also by changing notions concerning the right to intervene. Since the mid-1990s, when the international community largely ignored appeals to thwart the Rwandan genocide, growing constituencies in Africa and in the West have called for humanitarian interventions to end human rights abuses and to protect civilians, with or without the consent of the states in question. Such interventions might include military force, sanctions, or the forcible delivery of humanitarian aid. Although the notion of humanitarian intervention has gained support, it remains controversial. External interference in a state’s domestic affairs challenges a premise of international law that has held sway for more than three and a half centuries.

The contemporary system of international law is rooted in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties that concluded Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and laid the foundations for the modern nation-state. Enshrined in the treaties is the principle of national sovereignty, which granted monarchs control over feudal princes and inhabitants in their territories, as well as absolute power to maintain order within their realms and to protect the state from external forces. Deemed above the law, sovereigns were exempt from moral scrutiny. …

The mass exterminations of European Jews and other populations during World War II challenged the principles of international law that had allowed such crimes to occur, and the impunity of national leaders was called into question. The Nuremberg trials (1945–1949), which held key individuals in Nazi Germany’s political, economic, and military establishment accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, paved the way for increased scrutiny of national leaders. The postwar order witnessed an expansion of democratic values and institutions. Universal principles of human rights were enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights comprising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966). In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), which required member nations “to prevent and to punish” genocide wherever and whenever it is found. Emergent human rights and humanitarian movements gave primacy to individual over states’ rights and emphasized the protection of minorities and other vulnerable members of society. National laws were no longer off limits for international investigation. Subject peoples in Europe’s African and Asian empires embraced universal human rights claims and demanded equal treatment under the law and national selfdetermination. In the 1950s and 1960s, their efforts culminated in widespread decolonization.

The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 further undermined the seventeenth century notion that state sovereignty is absolute. Like the post–World War I League of Nations, the UN was founded to promote international peace and security. However, the UN’s mission, which was uniquely premised on respect for universal human rights and freedoms, led to a supplementary mandate. The UN was also charged with promoting “the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”

The end of the Cold War brought additional challenges to the state sovereignty principle. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, and the United States and other Western powers no longer felt the same need for strongmen to protect their interests. Newly critical of their clients’ corrupt practices and human rights abuses, they withdrew their support from longstanding dictators and called for accountability in governance. These momentous political shifts provided opportunities for new ways of thinking, and a cadre of public intellectuals in the Global North and South began to argue for a fundamental reconceptualization of the premises of state sovereignty, one that harkened back to the social contract that sometimes had confounded sovereigns’ ability to wield their power with impunity. These thinkers charged that to legitimately claim sovereignty, a state must provide basic conditions for the well-being of its citizenry, including not only peace, security, and order, but also adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, and employment. In some polities, dominant groups target populations whose race, ethnicity, or religion differs from those of those in power. In some cases, the state not only fails to protect vulnerable populations from gross human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, but is complicit in perpetrating those crimes. According to the new paradigm, a state that is unable or unwilling to fulfill its foundational responsibilities forfeits the right to sovereignty over its territory and people—and its exemption from outside interference.

It was in this new context that the UN moved toward a broader definition of international responsibility for the protection of human rights. In June 1993, governmental and nongovernmental representatives from 171 nations met at the UN-sponsored World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, where they endorsed the claim that “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated….While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In theory, state failure to protect its citizens could warrant UN intervention.

After the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the splintering of states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and challenges to others elsewhere produced millions of refugees and spawned untold numbers of armed insurgents who crossed borders and fomented instability. Because the UN’s purpose is “to maintain international peace and security,” and because massive human rights violations have ripple effects that affect entire regions, rectifying such wrongs increasingly was understood to be within the UN’s purview. However, UN actions did not keep pace with the expanded understanding of the organization’s jurisdiction. Prioritizing their own domestic and foreign policy agendas, permanent members of the Security Council opposed measures that might have thwarted the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003–2004. Continued pressure from nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists pushed the UN General Assembly to pass the 2005 resolution that held countries accountable for protecting their citizens from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and granted the international community the right to intervene through UN Security Council–sanctioned operations if governments failed to fulfill their “responsibility to protect.” Supported by 150 countries, the R2P resolution upended an understanding of state sovereignty that had been one of the fundamental tenets of international law since the seventeenth century. In theory, deference to “state sovereignty” no longer could be used as an expedient to allow ethnic cleansing, genocide, or other crimes against humanity to proceed unhindered.

Once again, the reality was far more complicated. New principles of international intervention had been endorsed, but enforcement remained problematic. Governments were reluctant to set precedents that might be used against them in the future, and powerful members of the Security Council rarely committed the resources or personnel necessary to implement the R2P resolution. If a culpable state opposed external involvement, outside powers ordinarily persisted only if their own interests were at stake. Action was likely solely in the case of weak states without powerful allies on the Security Council—that is, in states that could not effectively challenge foreign intervention.

As calls for multilateral diplomacy evolved into appeals for military intervention under the mantle of responsibility to protect, there was sharp disagreement over the motives of those intervening, the means they employed, and whether the outcomes provided increased protection or insecurity for the civilian populations at issue. Some governments reacted to international scrutiny by invoking the old principle of national sovereignty. Others charged that international human rights laws were based on Western capitalist norms that give primacy to the rights of individuals over those of society and thus were not applicable to their cultures or conditions. They argued that Western claims to the universality of their human rights definitions were yet another of example of cultural imperialism and neocolonialism. Still others claimed that humanitarian intervention was simply a guise for Western powers’ pursuit of their own economic or strategic objectives and warned that Western countries were attempting to recolonize the Global South. In countries and regions affected by conflict, governments and citizens were divided on the merits of outside intervention, whether by international organizations, neighboring states, or extracontinental powers. Many remained skeptical of outsiders’ motives and their capacity to bring peace, even when their actions were part of an approved multilateral initiative.

Paradigm 2: The War on Terror

If the roots of the first paradigm can be traced to post–World War II reflections on the need for peace, justice, and human rights to ensure a stable international order, the seeds of the second paradigm can be found in the Cold War struggle between capitalism and communism. From the outset, the United States recognized the power of religion as a weapon against its atheistic opponents, and it mobilized conservative religious groups to fight the communist menace. In Europe, it supported Christian parties and organizations that opposed the Italian, Greek, and French communist parties that had gained strength during World War II and its aftermath. In the Middle East, it backed conservative Muslim organizations and regimes that sought to suppress both communism and radical nationalism. When the pro-Western Shah of Iran was overthrown in January 1979 and replaced by militants who embraced the Shi’a branch of Islam, Washington rallied extremists in the rival Sunni branch to counter Iran’s growing prominence. Saudi Arabia, a staunch American ally, promoter of fundamentalist Sunni teachings, and competitor with Iran for regional dominance, joined the United States in its patronage of Sunni militants.

Most relevant for this study is the CIA-led multinational coalition that recruited, trained, armed, and financed Sunni militants from all corners of the globe to challenge the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). After ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan, the fighters returned home, where they founded new organizations and spearheaded insurgencies, primarily against Muslim states they deemed impious. The Afghan veterans played prominent roles in most of the extremist groups that emerged in Africa and the Middle East in the decades that followed. ….

After the Soviet departure [from Afghanistan] , the foreign fighters carried their terror tactics and sophisticated weapons to new battlegrounds around the globe. Afghan War veterans were at the forefront of guerrilla insurgencies in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, the West Bank, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Philippines. They engaged in terrorist activities in Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, France, and the United States. CIA-backed drug lords and allies, including Osama bin Laden, funded the new networks—joined by Muslim banks and charities.

One of the most significant terrorist networks was alQaeda (The Base), which was established from the database of fighters and other volunteers who had passed through Osama bin Ladin’s camps. Founded in 1989 with bin Laden as its primary organizer and patron, al-Qaeda advocated jihad against apostate Muslim regimes and their supporters worldwide. … The United States—bin Laden’s onetime ally—would become an important al-Qaeda target.

The First Gulf War also precipitated the 1991 transfer of al-Qaeda’s headquarters and training camps to Sudan, where the organization launched a network of cells and allied organizations that radiated into the Greater Horn—a geographic region that included Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. In May 1996, under pressure from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UN Security Council, the Sudanese government asked bin Laden to leave. He moved al-Qaeda’s headquarters back to Afghanistan, where the organization allied with the Taliban. Blaming the United States for his ejection from Sudan, bin Laden focused new attention on this distant enemy. In August 1996, he issued a declaration of jihad against U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia and called on all Muslims to expel Americans and Israelis from Muslim lands.

Al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. were preceded by a number of other assaults against American citizens and infrastructure. These included the 1995 World Trade Center bombing and thwarted attacks on New York bridges and tunnels and the UN and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; a failed attempt in 1999 to blow up Los Angeles International Airport; and in 2000, a successful attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, which was docked in Yemen. Although al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks on the United States opened a new chapter in the war on terror, the United States had been fighting the terrorist organizations it had helped to create since the mid-1990s.

Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War

by Elizabeth Schmidt

Excerpts from Chapter 12

U.S.-Africa Policy after the Cold War (1991–2017)


Although U.S.-Africa policy went through several transformations after the Cold War, the approaches of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations exhibited more commonalities than differences. All three presidents expected other states or multilateral organizations to assume the premier role in resolving African crises. All three touted the notion of African solutions to African problems, but in fact used African soldiers to implement American solutions to protect American interests. Only if U.S. partners and proxies failed, and American interests were threatened, did Washington reluctantly get involved. During all three administrations, political or military intervention as a response to instability or humanitarian crises was more likely in areas of strategic or economic concern or in those menaced by international terrorism.

African crises were largely ignored during the first post–Cold War decade. However, the continent returned to the American radar screen after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and the war on terror became a focal point of U.S.-Africa policy. During the second post–Cold War decade, American policy-makers increasingly viewed impoverished African nations with dysfunctional states as potential breeding grounds for violent extremism. Mimicking American Cold War strategies, they strengthened U.S.-African military alliances and reinforced African security enforcement capabilities. In choosing its partners, Washington focused primarily on countries that were endowed with energy resources or critical to the war on terror—although these countries were often governed by corrupt, oppressive political and military elites. Despite rhetoric that promoted human rights, democracy, and accountable and responsive governance, American assistance frequently strengthened authoritarian, kleptocratic regimes. The failure of the counterterrorism approach was evident when Americantrained security forces targeted political opponents and civilians and staged coups against democratically elected governments. Blowback resulting from governmental abuse and foreign support for unjust regimes sometimes strengthened local insurgencies. After September 2001, the increasing securitization of American relief and development assistance blurred the lines between humanitarian and military endeavors, putting at risk the credibility—and sometimes the lives—of foreign aid personnel.

The expansion of extremist influence and the intensification of extremist activities in countries targeted by the United States and Western-led coalitions underscored the flawed premises of U.S.-Africa policy after the Cold War. As the Obama presidency drew to a close in 2016, the hope for a transformative Africa policy that stressed education, economic development and opportunity, government accountability, and respect for human rights was undermined by deepening American involvement in local conflicts in partnership with abusive governments. The election of the Donald Trump as president in November 2016 rendered the prospects for such a policy even less likely.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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