Saturday, June 16, 2012

Obama's Africa Policy: A Whole Lot of Meh

Sandwiched as it was between the Washington Post's two-part expose on Obama's outsourced spy program in Africa and the State Department's red carpet welcome of Teodoro Obiang, the moral grotesque running oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, the White House could hardly have picked a more unintentionally revealing worse time to unfurl its new Africa Strategy paper. ( In an accompanying brief, the White House touts its accomplishments in Africa here.)

Clinton emphasized two aspects of US policy toward Africa as she introduced the paper at this year's annual African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum on Thursday. The first is commercial. The president believes "passionately" in Africa's future, she said, noting that the continent is home to six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies over the past decade. "I want all of my fellow American citizens, particularly our business community, to hear this: Africa offers the highest rate of return on foreign direct investment of any developing region in the world."

The other dimension of US policy toward Africa, she said, is its commitment to democracy promotion. Obama's own lofty, bear-any-burden meet-any-challenge rhetoric is worth quoting here, if only because it reveals how little policy makers have to fear from serious observers of US policy toward the region:
Our message to those who would derail the democratic process is clear and unequivocal: the United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes, and we will stand in steady partnership with those who are committed to the principles of equality, justice, and the rule of law.  

Reactions to the paper were almost universally subdued, with most commentators noting how little new it had to say. Sarah Margon at ThinkProgress was one of the first to publish, noting that the most remarkable feature of the paper was "the absence of many new policies." Coming near the end of Obama's first time, "the main policy agenda closely mirrors the one Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson articulated many times over the last three and a half years." David Shinn agrees that the paper is more of "a solidification of existing policy rather than a statement of new policy." The one promising initiative is a campaign to mobilize the U.S. private sector to invest in Africa. But even that modest initiative may not accomplish much: "There is no indication that new resources are being made available to support the program within Commerce or by the U.S. Export-Import Bank."

Tom Murphy at A view from the Cave provides a helpful cliff notes version of the strategy paper, but ultimately concludes that "the strategy itself says very little. The US wants to support economic development, democracy, trade and peace. They could have saved a lot of paper and time just saying that."

Howard French notes the gap between the policy's stated commitments and the Administration's actual behavior: "In policy briefings for the press... and in Clinton's own statements, the promotion of democracy was given pride of place in a new American agenda for Africa, and this is where the rub comes between rhetoric versus reality." The Post's two-part series on US security  highlights America's continuing reliance on two African leaders, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda,who have been in power respectively for 25 and 26 years. French is underwhelmed:
Both came to power by force. Both have resisted real democratization in their countries. And both have been prolific and mischievous meddlers in neighboring countries, where their adventures have sown death and havoc, routinely employed child soldiers for themselves or for allies within their regimes, and have involved lucrative arms trafficking as well as the organized pillage of natural resources.
French suggests that if the US is genuinely committed to democracy, it ought to privilege leaders with more democratic credentials than these, as well as lend greater support to democratic institutions at every level. If, on the other hand, "American policy is really about fighting an endless succession of enemies," then "candor should require admitting that building democracy is really important only when it is convenient."

Ironically, even the US spy program comes in for criticism, with Spencer Ackerman at complaining that AFRICOM's decision to outsource many of its routinized spy missions  from non-descript African airfields could lead to embarrassing fallout if anything goes wrong.

Given its obvious deficiencies, its absence of any new or fresh thinking, and the fact that it is coming at the tail end of Obama's term of office, it's difficult to understand what the Administration was thinking in publishing the Strategy Paper now. The whole thing almost makes you nostalgic for an otherwise un-lamented recent president, as this article from the Dallas News reminds us:
LUSAKA, Zambia — On a beautiful Saturday morning, Delfi Nyankombe stood among her bracelets and necklaces at a churchyard bazaar and pondered a question: What do you think of George W. Bush?
“George Bush is a great man,” she answered. “He tried to help poor countries like Zambia when we were really hurting from AIDS. He empowered us, especially women, when the number of people dying was frightening. Now we are able to live.”

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