U.S. Defense Secretary Tours Africa
Austin touts U.S. as best alternative to Russia and China during visit.
By Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
By Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here, the first time you’ve seen our co-byline on this newsletter in a few weeks.
Well, kind of. Jack is aboard the E-4B “Nightwatch” aircraft on the way back over the Atlantic Ocean after a three-country swing with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, while Robbie is logging almost as many miles rushing around Capitol Hill for interviews as the government shutdown looms.
Quick reminder to our loyal readers: Word of mouth remains the best way to expand Situation Report, so if you’re finding this newsletter valuable, we’d appreciate you forwarding it to a colleague who might also find it useful. (New readers can sign up here.)
Let’s start off the week watching U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken jam out on the electric guitar. Here you go. OK, now back to business.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Austin wraps up trip to Africa, some government shutdown fallout in the Indo-Pacific, and the Menendez indictment roils the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Have feedback? Hit reply to let us know your thoughts.
SecDef Austin Wraps Up Major Africa Trip
LUANDA, ANGOLA—Usually, things are not supposed to work this way. But on his first trip across Africa, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had the first question for reporters.
“[D]oes anyone know what day it is?” Austin joked to a group of very jet-lagged reporters in Djibouti. “We just know it’s dark and light.”
Everywhere Austin went in his three-country tour of Africa—which began in Djibouti, the only U.S. military base on the continent, and ended in Angola, where the Biden administration seems keen to pull the once-Marxist nation off of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—the Pentagon’s clinical precision of motorcades and carefully massaged schedules met with underdeveloped infrastructure and distinct cultural norms.
And the usual diplomatic protocol that follows the Pentagon chief seemed to go out the window.
In Djibouti, the honor guard played an out-of-tune “Star-Spangled Banner” for Austin before his counterpart, Hassan Omar Mohamed Bourhan, used the public greeting ahead of their meeting—usually reserved for a simple “hi, hello”—to push the United States for more military aid. Guards at the presidential palace, who had never hosted U.S. reporters, pushed a Defense Department official in a tense moment that nearly ended in blows.
In Kenya, Austin signed a defense cooperation agreement that seems important, but which reporters haven’t seen more than two days after he left the country. An overzealous Kenyan soldier sweeping traffic away from Austin’s motorcade nearly made contact with the press van.
And in Angola, after protocol officers were irritated that there were not enough gilded chairs for the U.S. delegation in the first place, aides of President João Lourenço motioned to kick out the press before he’d even finished with his introduction—or Austin was allowed to speak.
Off the front pages. Austin’s visit wasn’t exactly front-page news in every country he visited, but the significance of the first Black Pentagon chief making the trip was not lost on him or the officials with whom he met.
“I am a child of America’s segregated South,” Austin said in a speech at Angola’s National Archives. “I grew up in a time of legalized racist segregation in America. And I stand here in Africa as America’s first Black Secretary of Defense.”
He then took a 45-minute drive to Luanda’s National Slavery Museum atop a rocky outcropping overlooking the city, from where European slave traders once took enslaved Africans to the Americas.
The Southern African country, which fought a 27-year civil war that lasted through Iran’s Islamic revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 attacks, had never hosted a U.S. secretary of defense. And Kenya hadn’t hosted a Pentagon chief since 1975.
If they were looking out of the windows of their black Chevy Suburbans, Austin and other U.S. officials could catch glimpses of the non-official sections of Luanda, the dirty roads and shanty towns, where some of the country’s 35 million people are living in a sign of how far Angola has to go in boosting its economy in an equitable way.
You deserve better. The United States isn’t asking African nations to choose sides in the era of great-power competition, Austin indicated, using a Biden administration talking point that he has often repeated on trips in Asia and elsewhere.
But the U.S. administration is at least trying to draw stark contrasts with Russia and China, even if it’s keeping some of it between the lines. In Angola, in particular, where U.S. officials have doted on Lourenço, there is a growing feeling that Luanda can be wooed away from China’s ambitious geopolitical Belt and Road infrastructure program. The United States is investing some $250 million in the Lobito Atlantic Railway Corridor project connecting Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mines and Zambia’s Copper Belt.
And with the death of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, U.S. officials have been keen to go on the counteroffensive. “Africa deserves better than autocrats selling cheap guns, pushing mercenary forces like the Wagner Group, or depriving grain from hungry people all around the world,” Austin said in Angola.
But will you get better? There are limits to how far U.S. policy can go in Africa.
Sure, Austin signed agreements to strengthen U.S. presence. But to get to the last leg of the trip in Angola, the E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, which can operate as a command center above the clouds if the White House or Pentagon is taken out, took a nearly five-hour route, skipping over the southern edge of Congo that extends into Zambia—even though the Biden administration lavished star treatment on Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi when he came to Washington for the Africa summit last year.
Tshisekedi is one African leader who has asked both former U.S. President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden for more U.S. investment. But the United States, bogged down in releasing government dollars by regulations and red tape, still has no lasting answer for stopping the flow of Chinese money—or Russian guns—into the African continent.
“A lot of these governments would rather deal with the U.S.,” said Tibor Nagy, the State Department’s former top sub-Saharan Africa official during the Trump administration. “But the problem is, you know, we can’t order U.S. companies to all of a sudden go to eastern Congo. [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] definitely has that. He can absolutely order anybody to go anywhere.”
Let’s Get Personnel
Sen. Bob Menendez has stepped down from his perch atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while he faces bribery charges amid growing calls for him to resign. Sen. Ben Cardin is expected to temporarily take over the job, though he is due to retire at the end of this Congress. If Democrats keep control of the Senate and Menendez bows out, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen would likely become the next chair of the committee.
Emma Chanlett-Avery is the Asia Society Policy Institute’s new director of political-security affairs and deputy director of the organization’s D.C. office.
Matthew P. Goodman has joined the Council on Foreign Relations as a distinguished fellow for global economic policy.
Kevin Fleming is the new chief operating officer at Radio Free Asia.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Shutdown woes, far and wide. All signs point to a government shutdown as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy fails to find an agreement to continue funding the government with a small faction of far-right members of his party. That has big implications for U.S. domestic policy but also threatens to upend a crucial diplomatic arrangement between Washington and Pacific Island nations seen as key to countering China, as Robbie reports this week. The government shutdown will jeopardize renewing unique diplomatic arrangements with three Pacific Island nations that allow the U.S. military unfettered access to an area of the Pacific roughly the size of the contiguous United States. These nations—the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau—all rely heavily on U.S. money to fund their governments, and a shutdown in Washington could be bad news for them, too. The long-term fallout stands to benefit China, U.S. officials and experts warn.
Regrets, I’ve had a few. The United States has heard from several African countries that they regret letting the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group into their territories, current and former U.S. military and defense officials told Jack. “We are seeing a growing understanding that this is, at minimum, a double-edged sword but, at worst, a net negative for countries that have enabled Wagner presence,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon. One of the groups that regrets letting in Wagner is the eastern Libyan faction led by strongman Khalifa Haftar, according to one former U.S. military commander.
Back in American hands. Pvt. Travis King, the American soldier who lunged over the Korean Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, is back in U.S. custody. King taken from North Korea over China’s border to be transferred to U.S. custody on Wednesday, U.S. officials said. U.S. officials who briefed reporters on King’s release said King was ferried out of North Korea via China and that Beijing played a constructive role in facilitating his transport back stateside. Sweden, the officials said, played a key role in helping negotiate his release.
Put on Your Radar
Sept. 29: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosts Central Asian leaders in Berlin.
Sept 30: NATO begins a major military exercise dubbed “Joint Warrior.”
Oct. 5: Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Mexico.
Quote of the Week
“I had occasion to tell Sen. Romney that I thought he had been rather prescient.”
—Blinken, asked at an event organized by the Atlantic, on whether former President Barack Obama was wrong to criticize Sen. Mitt Romney on the 2012 presidential election campaign trail when he called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical foe.
This Week’s Most Read
- No, the World Is Not Multipolar by Jo Inge Bekkevold
- The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky by Stephen M. Walt
- How the U.S. Created Its Own Reality by Heather Cox Richardson
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Oops, forgot I left it there. An (unarmed) Israeli Merkava 2 tank was stolen from a military training zone and went missing, but luckily authorities later found it dropped off at a junkyard. This is why you always lock your tanks after you park them, folks.
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.