Around election time, several knowledgeable Africanists wrote pieces lamenting Obama's disappointingly thin first-term record on Africa. (This article by the Center for Global Development's Todd Moss is an excellent representative of the genre. For more, follow the links here.) Unlike a lot of observers, I myself wasn't terribly surprised that Obama hadn't done more for the continent. I never expected him to. If there's one thing he couldn't have afforded, politically, it was expending resources and political capital on what would have been billed, inevitably, as a Kenyan, Muslim, anti-colonial, America-neglecting agenda.
But it's not quite correct to say that Obama hasn't pursued any major new initiatives toward Africa. He has--just not on the trade, diplomatic, or humanitarian fronts. On the military front, Obama's administration has gone gangbusters. Indeed, the faster the US declines as a major political and commercial player in Africa, the more intent it seems on turning the place into a garrison continent, secured and patrolled by elements of America's national security apparatus.
Three news stories in the past couple of days reinforce this impression. Yesterday's New York Times reported on AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham's recent assessment of al Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups in Mali, which it termed "detailed and sobering"--national security speak for "something we need to spend lots of money on." The Washington Post featured a long article about how the Pentagon is establishing a new spy network to rival the CIA in size and scope, focused inter alia on the Middle east and Africa. And today's Defense News, which also summarizes Ham's assessment, informs us that AFRICOM has at last acquired its own Commander's in-extremis force, more commonly known as a special operations company. (For earlier reporting on US militarization of the continent, see here and here and here and here and here and here.)
During the Cold War, US foreign policymakers seemed unable to distinguish between genuine ideological opponents and groups that were merely nationalist, anti-colonial, or pro-social justice. Everything was seen through the lens of a globalized, Manichean struggle: A sparrow couldn't fall in Managua but that it was the sinister work of the Soviets. Today's policymakers seems equally unable to understand how America's increasingly numerous and widespread interventions abroad fuel rather than diminish antagonism toward the US. (In my more cynical moments, I wonder if that isn't the point: after all, the more we treat others as potential enemies, the more real enemies we'll make, and more real enemies we have, the more money flows into the military's budget.) But how wise can it be, really, for the US to be expending vast new sums militarizing Africa when China, our geo-political rival in the region, is doing stuff like this or this? Not to get Maureen Dowd cute here, but do we want to be trying--and failing--to transform the continent into a military satellite, or do we want to be building it new communications satellites?