Obama and Africa: Much Room For Improvement
The Obama administration can do better on Africa policy.
The Bush administration transformed the way the United States dealt with the world.
It invaded two countries, began a war on terror that had no geographic or time limits, boosted military spending, acted unilaterally, and ignored international law.
Although his second term was more pragmatic than his first — with an important reversal on North Korea policy and rapprochement with Libya — George W. Bush generally emphasized military force over diplomatic negotiations and acted more like a cowboy than a statesman.
Barack Obama promised a different foreign policy: more diplomatic, more modest, more in keeping with international institutions and international law. On some issues, such as torture, nuclear weapons policy, and climate change, he has made an early down payment on his promises during his first 100 days in office.
But whether adding to an already gargantuan Pentagon budget or sending more troops to Afghanistan, the president has also maintained some disturbing continuities with Bush-era policies.
There has been a similarly mixed record in U.S. policy toward Africa. As the first African-American president, Barack Obama entered the White House with high expectations that he would promote a very different Africa policy. His reception, so far, in Africa has been quite positive.
After all, the new Administration has brought a new, more diplomatic tone to the White House. The president has reached out to the Muslim world, giving his first press interview to al-Arabiya and telling Turkish audiences in his first trip to a Muslim country that the United States "is not and never will be at war with Islam." In general, the president has shown a willingness to talk rather than fight.
In some cases, this new tone has translated into positive developments with respect to Africa. For instance, the Administration condemned the coup in Madagascar and supported the African Union’s call for sanctions against the coup leaders in Mauritania. This is a change from the Bush Administration, where U.S. interests in oil and other strategic resources often led to deal-making with undemocratic governments.
The administration has worked much more closely with U.S. advocacy groups campaigning for peace and justice in Africa. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration’s meeting with the Darfur advocacy community before a trip to Sudan was welcome. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson has already reached out to the Africa advocacy community before his confirmation.
The Administration has shown greater sensitivity to the hardships faced by the African Diaspora here in the United States. In one of his executive orders, for instance, Obama enacted Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians, which prevents the forced deportation of Liberians living in the United States.
In other respects, however, the Obama administration has made the unfortunate decision of continuing policies inherited from the Bush years. For instance, although the "global war on terror" has been retired as a phrase, the Administration continues to pursue many of the same counterterrorism strategies. It continues to use the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) as a vehicle for fighting terrorism, engaging with often repressive and corrupt militaries, and, increasingly, delivering humanitarian assistance.
On other war and peace issues, the Obama administration has been quiet. It has done little to address the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its remarks on Somali piracy didn’t address root causes or recommend positive solutions to the crisis.
Finally, the administration has relied too heavily on the International Monetary Fund to help countries around the world deal with the effects of the current economic crisis. Yet the IMF helped drag Africa into a debt crisis in the first place.
After 100 days, the Obama administration has righted the most egregious of the Bush administration’s wrongs in the realm of foreign policy. But in its policy toward Africa, whether it’s AFRICOM, increased funding for the IMF, or a reluctance to tackle the root causes of the conflicts on the continent, the new president hasn’t yet escaped the long shadow of his predecessor.