An expert's point of view on a current event.

Does Obama Have a Strategy for Africa?

Not yet.


Africa responded with joy when Barack Obama was elected. There was dancing in the streets of Liberia. Kenya declared his inauguration a public holiday. When Obama visited the continent in July 2009, far earlier in his term than the handful of other U.S. presidents that had actually traveled to Africa while in office, expectations only continued to rise. Obama’s major address on Africa policy, delivered in Ghana, was generally well received, with African politicians across the spectrum broadly reassured by its themes of self-reliance and good governance. Many Africans (and many American Africa experts) assumed that, with a father born in Kenya, Obama’s approach to Africa would be transformative.

Yet a number of forces, and some of the president’s own decisions, have conspired to make this president’s approach to Africa look a great deal like business as usual. Notably, Obama has put capable career officers in charge of the Africa bureaus at both State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Putting career officers rather than hand-picked political appointees in these plum slots was a curious move, and virtually ensured that caution would be the watchword of our approach to the continent. (U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice certainly counts as a heavyweight political appointee with loads of Africa experience, but her portfolio on New York is so broad that she is no position to manage day-to-day Africa diplomacy.) The assistant secretary for Africa, Johnnie Carson, is a seasoned professional, as is Earl Gast at USAID. Carson was certainly a vast upgrade from Bush’s assistant secretary for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. Frazer, a political appointee, all but left the bureau in smoking ruin, according to a highly critical Inspector General report issued shortly after she had left office.

But here is the rub: Political appointees tend to gravitate to the extremes in the bureaucracy. They can be either really good or really bad at their jobs. Able career officers like Carson and Gast run the show well, avoid obvious mistakes, and make sure they don’t get so far out in front on any given policy that it will be a career-killer when the next administration rolls around. It is not a bad formula for governing, but it is not a recipe for delivering new or entrepreneurial policy, and particularly not in a region that struggles to get the attention of senior policymakers even on the best of days.

The lack of political muscle at State and USAID on Africa has come at a time when the Pentagon is increasingly active across the continent. The Pentagon’s Africa Command, known simply as Africom, is well-resourced (established in 2007, Africom already has more personnel than the total number of USAID international staffers working on the continent), and wading into policy debates in ways that the Pentagon rarely did in the past when it came to Africa. Private discussions with military officials from both countries suggest that Pentagon encouragement was key in prompting Kenya to break from its traditional practice of regional military non-intervention last year and invade Somalia as part of an open-ended commitment to crush al-Shabab militants using that country as a base. Just this last week, the Washington Post ran a front-page feature on the Pentagon’s disquieting practice of relying on private contractors "to spy on huge expanses of African territory."

Again, we bump up against some of the limits of the president putting career appointees in his key Africa slots. Few career officers are going to lock horns with the behemoth that is the Department of Defense over Africa policy, even at moments when that policy appears to be driven more by short-term security imperatives than a long-term vision for economic and political growth on the continent. The U.S. military has done a superb job hunting down extremists in Africa, but as a sometimes eye-popping six-part feature in the Military Times made clear, the Pentagon brass often acts with only a very limited understanding of the continent’s complicated history and local politics. (As one military officer in charge of targeting in the Horn of Africa told the author: "We didn’t understand the culture, we didn’t understand the people … in a real sense we didn’t understand the players and how they related in the various organizations inside the various cities in the Horn.")

That also underscores a broader point about why Africa has been less of a focus for the administration. With ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen; a eurozone still on an economic knife’s edge; the Iranian nuclear program; and deeply unsettled transitions across the Middle East, the administration has not had a great deal of extra bandwidth with which to work. Coming up with a sweeping new policy vision for Africa has doubtless felt like a luxury in the daily grind of waking up to multiple front-page international crises. No administration will ever admit to being distracted, but this one has better reason to be than most.

The administration did release a new Africa policy last week. You can be forgiven if you did not notice; its rollout was discrete to the point of stealth. Some water cooler speculation posited that the policy had been rushed to press to help mitigate fallout from the aforementioned Washington Post report on contractors conducting surveillance across the region. Others noted that Africa is the only region in the world where a U.S. president could wait until June of his re-election year to announce a new strategy without setting off howls of protest or attacks from rival campaign surrogates. The policy itself, with its emphasis on trade and democracy, is sensible and bland (sample: "The United States will partner with sub-Saharan African countries to pursue the following interdepen­dent and mutually reinforcing objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development"). It sounds a great deal like similar policies announced under Presidents Clinton and Bush.

Obama’s request for expedited authority from Congress to consolidate and reform the six U.S. trade promotion agencies and create a one-stop-shop for American businesses looking to do more business abroad probably would have more impact on Africa than any other region. That proposal, however, appears to have disappeared without a trace into the fevered partisan swamp that is Capitol Hill these days. U.S. companies, some of which view Africa as primed for explosive growth despite its many market inefficiencies, worry that America is simply not looking far enough over the horizon and providing an attractive alternative to the Chinese capital that is flooding the region in mercenary exchange for access to natural resources.

Africa’s continued growth has been a good news story in an era of grim economic news. At least 12 African countries have seen their economies expand by more than six percent a year for six or more years, according to the Economist. That, more than anything, argues why a truly transformed approach to Africa is vital. The continent is accelerating toward enormous change even as America’s instruments of diplomacy, development, and defense still lack a master plan for assisting this change.

That said, continuity in America’s approach to Africa is not the worst thing in the world, and the Obama administration has done a solid, workmanlike job on the continent. But truly transformative diplomacy will have to wait for another day.

John Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.