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Has the White House Bungled a Historic Africa Summit?

More than 50 African leaders will descend on Washington in less than a month for the White House’s first-ever Africa Summit, which the administration has billed as a historic opportunity to promote its own Africa initiatives, identify trade partners, and foster much-needed counterterrorism cooperation across the continent. But as the administration scrambles to put the ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

More than 50 African leaders will descend on Washington in less than a month for the White House’s first-ever Africa Summit, which the administration has billed as a historic opportunity to promote its own Africa initiatives, identify trade partners, and foster much-needed counterterrorism cooperation across the continent.

But as the administration scrambles to put the finishing touches on the event, individuals in and out of government worry that the summit, held when little of official Washington is even in town, may end up doing more harm than good. African leaders won’t be getting any one-on-one meetings with President Barack Obama, which could leave them feeling snubbed by a leader they’ve long seen as unusually invested in the continent’s future. More importantly, critics say the three-day summit, which begins Aug. 4, may represent a missed opportunity to narrow the growing gap between America’s economic ties with African countries and those of China, which has spent years building new commercial relationships across the continent.

J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center for the Atlantic Council in Washington, says the White House still sees Africa through a decades-old framework in which it is viewed as an impoverished continent with country leaders traveling to Washington hat in hand rather than as nations with robust and growing economies. He said the administration’s focus on democracy and human rights also risks pushing African leaders into the waiting arms of China, which doesn’t let those issues impact its dealings on the continent.

"The bigger picture of course is that Africa has seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the world, and numerous other countries are engaging with them on a bilateral basis," Pham said. "China has surpassed us as Africa’s biggest trading partner."

According to the State Department, the summit’s agenda includes a "U.S.-Africa Business Forum" that will bring together U.S. and African business executives and African leaders "to discuss African trade and investment opportunities and showcase positive new economic realities on the African continent."

But that forum, according to Pham, is being hosted separately and has not been organized to bring American chief executive officers together with specific African leaders to cut deals. Instead, he said, it’s more of a loosely organized event taking place on the sidelines of the broader summit. He and other experts say they’re not expecting any major deals to be announced during the event.

"Having this big cheerleading session isn’t going to drive deals," Pham said. "No one makes a deal based on a meeting that one has for a day."

The administration also plans to focus on the importance of education and human rights — exactly the sorts of issues China doesn’t raise when it comes to business opportunities. On Aug. 6, African leaders will meet with Obama at the State Department, where the president will moderate a panel on "Investing in Africa’s Future," another on "Peace and Regional Stability" and a third on "Governing for the Next Generation."

"The discussion will allow us to highlight areas where African governments are registering progress while also providing an opportunity for a candid exchange about how we might deepen our relationship to tackle obstacles to development and the full achievement of fundamental rights," according to a State Department description of the third planned panel.

That could be exactly the wrong approach to take. Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said African leaders will inevitably compare their treatment at the American summit with the way they are received by China’s leadership.

"When the Chinese do this, it’s red carpet, big money, investments and loans, and many bilateral conversations," Cooke said. "They sort of pull out all the stops, and they invite everybody, and there’s no talk about human rights and democracy."

For example, the United States has not invited Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, or Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, all of whom are seen as having deplorable human rights records that make the White House cringe. China, on the other hand, has shown no compunctions about meeting with — and doing business with — countries despite their human rights records.

At a summit China hosted for African leaders in 2012, for instance, the Chinese premier essentially "speed-dated" with dozens of African leaders in back-to-back, 15-minute one-on-one sessions with translators. The Obama administration’s summit, in contrast, won’t have any such meetings.

"I would guess that some U.S. ambassador has had some pretty difficult conversations with heads of state to say, ‘sorry, you will not have a private meeting with the president,’" said one former government official who is paying close attention to the planning effort. "In some countries, those were probably some pretty difficult conversations."

The idea for a summit was first generated inside the White House and then announced by Obama shortly thereafter after the president visited Africa last year. Experts said that visit underscored the importance of the relationship between the United States and Africa. But critics of administration policy also said that it served as a reminder of how countries like China were making economic inroads into those nations and the degree to which the United States needed to play catch-up.

The former government official, who asked to speak on background due to the sensitive political nature of the White House-hosted event, said that there could still be a lot of good to come out of the summit and that African leaders would likely "swallow hard" and attend anyway since the alternative — not attending — would pose political challenges at home.

But the former official and others interviewed were surprised that the White House doesn’t want to put Obama or other top administration officials in the same room for private discussions with at least some leaders. Such meetings could go a long way to putting those bilateral relationships on much more solid ground, they said, and the United States could benefit greatly by talking directly with the leaders of countries as diverse as South Africa and Nigeria. Personal ties to those leaders will be particularly important going forward as the United States expands its counterterrorism operations against Islamist militants across the continent.

But Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that focusing on the lack of bilateral meetings misses the point of a historic event in which Obama is participating heavily.

"The fact that we are organizing a summit of this scale underscores President Obama and the broader administration’s focus on deepening our partnerships with African countries," he said.

And on Wednesday, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, defended the administration’s approach, saying that "logistical challenges" prevent the bilateral discussions.

"We’ve made the decision that there will not be one-on-one bilats between the president and the heads of state," she said at a briefing with reporters Wednesday. "There are 54 of them, and what the president plans to do is spend a tremendous amount of quality time during the three days of the summit."

Todd Moss, chief operating officer of the Center for Global Development in Washington, said he thinks the summit is a good idea that could improve key bilateral relationships across the continent even if the event could have had a broader focus to appeal to African leaders.

"If the messaging is right and the process goes well, we can feel good about our bilateral relationships; that is hugely beneficial," Moss said. "But if they walk away thinking they feel as if they got the short end of the stick, if they come away with the message that Americans aren’t interested, that is very, very bad."

Pham, meanwhile, said the summit isn’t designed to have any formal declaration at its conclusion or action plan for future engagement. A lack of formal outcomes, he said, could leave U.S. and African leaders with a "nice memory of a signature event, but we won’t have something concrete and we won’t really have moved the needle that much."

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold