March 25, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 583

Imperial Angina

March 25, 2024 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia, Palestinians, Yemen | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 583

If anyone ever wanted proof that America is a global empire, the last few days and weeks are illustrative. The Biden Administration told governments in Ukraine, Israel, and Niger to stop certain behaviors – in two of those cases behaviors during a war. In Haiti, the Americans endeavored to install a new interim government and secure some peacekeepers after the resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Meanwhile, the U.S. waged both war and diplomacy to disrupt the Houthi regime in Yemen from targeting shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Frederick the Great inspecting the potato crop in Prussia

On the surface, this seems impressive – almost simultaneously exerting your will, or trying to, at far distances and on multiple fronts, in Ukraine, Israel, Niger, Haiti, and Yemen. And while the United States struggles to deal with runaway debt and runaway illegal immigration, I agree with political analyst Niccolo Soldo that in many ways both the coercive "soft-power" and hard power of "Turbo-America" has never been more ubiquitous.[1] Certainly America is rife with problems, many more Americans are unhappy with the situation of the country than are happy with the way things are going, a 20-year trend of dissatisfaction.[2] But would-be rivals, movements, and hegemons, looked at individually – Russia, China, the European Union, Iran, the global Salafi-Jihadist insurgency – seem weaker and more vulnerable (a lasting alliance of China with Russia, Iran, and North Korea coordinating closely is a more formidable challenger) on a global stage.

But a closer look at American interaction with the five countries I mentioned – Ukraine, Israel, Niger, Haiti, and Yemen – does reveal the very real limits of imperial power.

On Ukraine, reports say that the Biden Administration urged that country to stop a "brazen" campaign targeting Russian oil refineries deep inside that country's borders using attack drones.[3] The American concern being not only that Russia could widen the war but that such attacks could cause a spike in global oil prices, igniting destabilizing inflation. Of course, both Russia and Iran would also benefit from a spike in oil prices. The Biden Administration finds itself in a strange position on the Ukraine War, it wants the war to continue, to "bleed" or "weaken" Russia (which in some ways is stronger than when the war began), it cannot give up in an election year. But it is also increasingly distracted and pushing the Europeans to pick up more of the financial and military supply burden. While much is made of delays caused by House Republicans in sending additional billions to Kyiv, Ukraine is running out of soldiers as many flee the country while others are kidnapped on the streets and sent to the front.[4]

If Washington wants Ukraine to keep fighting Russia – within limits – they want Israel to stop fighting in Gaza. Evidently the risk of a wider conflict with nuclear Russia is more manageable than a ground war with terrorist Hamas. As the Democratic Party drifts left, Israel has become a divisive partisan issue inside the United States more than ever before.[5] Far from being captive to Israeli interests, Washington is increasingly concerned with the reactions of Iran, Qatar, and the radical masses worldwide supporting Hamas.[6]

In Niger, the site of a major American drone base, Washington sent a high-level State and Defense Departments team to rein in the military junta in Niamey and warn it about ties with Russia and Iran. The maneuver seems to have backfired spectacularly as the generals initially announced the end of the military agreement allowing U.S. forces to be based in the country. Despite the announcement, the Americans have not been thrown out yet and some hope remain that Niger may be convinced to relent.[7]

On Haiti, the U.S. is exerting pressure for an interim ruling council to be set up quickly, something that is not happening. Not only does the country have no president or prime minister, it has no army and its police force is outgunned and outmanned by gangs that control most of the capital.[8] Everyone in the international community claims to want a "Haitian-led, Haitian-owned political process" while Haitians increasingly seem to want a strongman who can impose order and guarantee some security and normalcy.

Off the coast of Houthi-ruled Yemen, the U.S.-led air and sea campaign, which is putting American sailors and warships under sustained fire not seen since the Second World War, continues.[9] The Americans also met – indirectly – with Iran in Oman to try to get the Houthis' main patron to pressure them.[10] It does not seem to have worked. While Western airstrikes may have prevented some ships being sunk, Houthi Yemen seems empowered. While the outside world focuses on the threat to shipping, the Houthis not only portray themselves as the zealous protectors of Gaza, distracting from their own disastrous governance in Yemen, but are also working to mobilize, indoctrinate and militarize the Yemeni population they control (which is the majority of 33 million people who live in the entire country).[11] The military manpower the regime is raising is to be unleashed at the proper time against the Houthi regime's opponents inside Yemen, breaking a tenuous ceasefire and a sham peace process. After that, who knows where such a force – larger than all of Iran's other Arab proxies all put together – could be deployed? The Houthis' ideological vision of themselves and their role is dangerously ambitious and expansive.

An imperial metropole, blessed with wealth and military might can do a lot. It can project power from afar, especially through the air, through diplomacy and through either punitive sanctions or imperial largesse. It can certainly talk in idealistic and philosophical ways about rights and values. America's "megaphone" on the world stage is unmatched. But in Ukraine, Israel, Haiti, and Yemen real power and conflict resolution will come in the old-fashioned ways on the ground, often in ugly and brutal ways.

The war in Ukraine will end when either Russia or Ukraine wears the other down in combat, a question of numbers, spilt blood, and brute force. Israel will either crush Hamas in spite of the Americans or it will face a revitalized set of adversaries ringing it and the likelihood of another war in short order.[12] In Haiti collapse will continue until someone – a gang lord, politician, or a man in uniform is able to enforce a semblance of order through the use of violence. And in Yemen, the Houthi rebels will either succeed in creating a large ground force that will sweep their Yemeni adversaries and threaten the region or they will be stopped – on the battlefield.

America is powerful, but at times these days it seems that it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There is considerable, high-profile movement but not necessarily forward motion. America is forceful but will not or cannot concentrate enough force alone to bring about the resolution of these conflicts, they are instead managed or ameliorated, resolution postponed rather than decisively solved. One is reminded of King Frederick the Great of Prussia's dictum that "he that defends everything defends nothing."

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], April 21, 2022.

[2], January 31, 2023.

[3], accessed March 25, 2024.

[4], December 15, 2023.

[5], February 29, 2024.

[6], March 22, 2024.

[7], March 18, 2024.

[8], March 17, 2023.

[9], March 17, 2023.

[10], March 16, 2024.

[11], March 6, 2024.

[12] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 582, A Small Step For President Biden In Gaza, A Big Step Towards Total War, March 20, 2024.

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