“Africa is a Command” – Bush to Obama to Trump

By electing President Obama we got through with race and became post-racial.  Now that we have elected Trump we are surely done with “political correctness”, so lets us speak plainly.  What is “Africa” as seen from Washington?
Well, surely Africa is a playground for so many characters, but that is nothing new at all, and we don’t really like to focus on that.  From Trump children big game hunting to politically engaged ministers and ex-diplomats involved in unusual investment schemes, Africa abides.  With election campaigns to run and autocrats to lobby for in Washington.  And missions and aid and economic investment programs continuing apace with varying degrees of pep and power in accordance with the visions and priorities of policy makers.

The thing that is new from U.S. vantage in this century is the overriding common legacy of the Bush and Obama administrations: AFRICOM (recognizing that the new command was primarily planned by the Bush Administration but did not “stand up” until Obama was almost in office).

I never had strong opinions about whether having a separate combatant command for Africa would be better or worse than than the status quo under CENTCOM, et al, that existed in my time working in Kenya and Somaliand in 2007-08.  It has escaped my attention if there are many Americans who see our policies in Africa during the Cold War as a highlight of our better angels, and I think on balance our aspirations for our relations in Africa in this century are higher than back in the past; nonetheless, largely staying out of Africa directly with our own military during the the Cold War and its initial aftermath may have reduced risks that are now potentially at play.

I think it is fair to say that ten years in the December 2006 Ethiopian operation to remove the ICU in Somalia with our support has not over time convinced all skeptics.  In fairness, perhaps, as with the French Revolution, it is still too early to tell.

So did having AFRICOM as a separate combatant command from late 2008 (with a new “whole-of-government” flavor and hardwired entre for USAID and State Department involvement) result in wiser judgment and better execution in terms of US national security and/or related and ancillary command objectives in recent years?

It is hard to judge because it is a big command (aside from the answer being, in substance, classified) but the experience with regard to the Libya intervention in particular is not altogether encouraging.

Would having CENTCOM engaged from Tampa rather than AFRICOM from Stuttgart have made a difference in some way to our consideration of intervention and our planning-perhaps more hard questions initially to Washington from a more “war wary” perspective as opposed to input from an entity with the bureaucratic equivalent of the “new car smell”?  [If inexperience was not a factor, what do we need to change to avoid future repetition if we agree that something went wrong on Libya?]

One way or the other, Trump takes office with AFRICOM at his command, a vast range of relatively small training interactions of a primarily “military diplomatic” nature all over, large exercises and larger programs with many militaries, active limited and largely low profile (from outside) “kinetic” operations  across a wide “arc of instability” and the war in Somalia with a new legal opinion, for what its worth, tying the fight against al Shabaab more explicitly to 9-11 and al Queda.  Along with a real live emergency in South Sudan and several other critical situations from a humanitarian and stability perspective.

I have declined to be persuaded by a dark view of the intentions behind standing up AFRICOM (versus the status  quo ante and any realistic alternatives).  Perhaps this is merely self protective since I am, after all, American, but also worked for much longer in the defense industry than my brief foray in paid assistance work.  But it is my attempt at honest judgment from my own experience.  Regardless, we are where we are, and Donald Trump will be giving the orders at the top to AFRICOM and whatever anyone had in mind, the fact that it is a military command rather than a civilian agency makes a great deal of difference in terms of the latitude that he inherited along with possession of the American White House.

Needless to say I hope it turns out that he has a yuge heart and bigly wisdom however fanciful that hope might look from what he has said and done so far.

Carter Center release; Initial observations on the “Frazer v. Carson” controversy

The Carter Center 2013 EOM Pre-Election Statement was released today based on the work so far of 14 long term observers, who will later be joined by short term observers from 19 countries. Not surprisingly, the Statement has no particular revelations pro or con for those following the election situation. While it primarily exhorts good future behavior, the statement generally praises the IEBC on its internal preparatory work while stressing concerns about the adequacy of voter education to date. It praises the IEBC’s willingness to work with judiciary, while noting the huge volume of cases that might arise from election challenges. Discussion of security seems to me quite generic under the circumstances, but read it for yourself.

The environment for comment from “outsiders” is difficult given the growing tension in the closing days of the campaign. With yesterday’s incident with an American academic/investor who was a George W. Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs accusing the serving American Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs of “essentially meddling” in the Kenyan election for noting that while Kenyans should freely elect their choice of candidates such choices did have “consequences” in their external relationships, I would think it becomes that much more challenging for the Carter Center or other observers to push on any particular pre-election issues.

My initial reaction to Jendayi Frazer’s high profile “denouncement” of her successor is to say that while I would strongly defend Ms. Frazer’s right as a private citizen in the United States to dissent from and critique American foreign policy (as I have done myself), I personally think her comments were quite unfortunate under the circumstances. To me, if her concern was to try to improve on American performance by criticizing current officials’ actions, she would have done better to hold her tongue in public for less than two weeks until the vote was over. The timing of her attack on Johnnie Carson, combined with her specific characterization of the ICC’s case against Uhuru Kenyatta, in the context of her own highly controversial role in 2007-08 in the last election, could suggest that perhaps Ms. Frazer herself was seeking to be a public player in the Kenyan campaign rather than advocating for “non-interference”.

Part of the situation here is that Frazer has a bully pulpit by virtue of her time in the government position before Carson was appointed to serve the current administration. When she speaks in this way, as a practical matter she is identified in the media and otherwise primarily as a recent former senior appointee in the State Department, rather than as someone launching business enterprises, as a professor or any other role or roles that she may play as a private citizen in the context of East Africa today, as opposed to her role five years ago.

More to the point for me is how disappointing Frazer’s statement is for people in Kenya who have supported the rights of the victims of the 2007-08 post-election violence and supported “the reform agenda” and the long, hard and dangerous work of seeking some small measure of justice in whatever legal venue. Kenya is in fact a member of the ICC even if the United States is not; the ICC is involved only because Kenya’s parliament, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, voted “don’t be vague, go to the Hague”. Kenya’s government committed to cooperate with the ICC before what Frazer calls a weak case was in fact confirmed to go forward to trial by the Court.

Given that the United States is again the leading donor in the $100 million effort to support the Kenyan election process, I personally don’t think that Carson’s statement was outside the boundaries of appropriate diplomacy in the context of the characterization of the President’s immediately proceeding statement being given in the Kenyan campaign, vis-a-vis the statements of the European donors. There is really no precedent that fits the situation with the Kenyan election and the candidates facing ICC trial and I doubt anyone is very clear about what the consequences of electing an ICC indictee as president would be — but it doesn’t seem controvertible to me to note that there would certainly be some.

Timing is Everything: Are We Too Late in Promoting Democracy in Egypt? [Updated and Expanded]

We shall see.  I hope not, for the sake of Egyptians and for my country as well.

I know that some of my friends will say that “Bush was right” to emphasize democracy in the Middle East in his second inaugural address and otherwise.  I agree that much of what President Bush said was right.  Unfortunately he forfeited his credibility, and that of the United States to some substantial extent, by what he did.  He made the decision, at least in the some final sense, to invade Iraq, instead.   I do not doubt that many of the people involved in this subjectively wished for the best for democracy in Iraq, it’s just that they were way over their heads in terms of even understanding the implications of what they were doing, much less controlling them–both for the United States and for Iraq.

Seeing what has happened in Tunisia and what may be happening now in Egypt should remind us of what can happen to change regimes and systems of government without war.  Just as in Eastern Europe, South Africa and many other places.   Likewise, Bush turned his back on traditional American values by associating American exceptionalism with a purported privilege to get involved in torture if it seemed important enough to the United States  in the short run.

I firmly believe that the invasion of Iraq and “the torture problem” are both aberrational behavior for the United States and I am optimistic that we are in the process of recovering our standing in the world and our voice.  Barak Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize for being an American President who simply was not Bush.

Just like Bush, Obama has come into office with essentially no foreign affairs experience, although he is obviously a more worldly person in certain ways, at least in the sense of having spent some time living overseas as a child and having a “multicultural” background.  Has Obama been too reticent in speaking about democracy in his first two years?  I don’t know–everyone is entitled to an opinion about this, but there is no clear answer.  I will say that it is both entirely fair, and vitally important that he be judged as a leader  by what he has in fact said.  I voted for George Bush in 2000, even though like everyone else I knew deep down that he was not really qualified to be President, because I liked a lot of what he said, “compassionate conservatism” and all, that he either did not mean or changed his mind about.

I remember what Obama said in his inaugural address about democracy and our relations with the rest of the world.  I liked it and was inspired by it.  I certainly hope he meant it and will live up to it.

Update: The purpose of this is not to engage in gratuitous “Bush bashing”, but rather to speak against revisionism that makes Bush into something he wasn’t and fails to take into account the fact that Obama took the helm of a country that was weaker and less influential, and more uncertain of its future, because of the substantive mistakes of his predecessor.  It is not just the invasion of Iraq itself, it was the aggressive dismissal of the opinions of those who knew better; the failures represented by Abu Ghraib and the weak response and failure to take responsibility in its aftermath; the mistrust and fear generated by rendition and associated failures to live up to our human rights and rule of law standards–all weakened our standing and influence.  Relatedly, the choice to initiate and run up large deficits made the U.S. more vulnerable as the finance sector bubble led to a near-catastrophic crash.

It seems to me that the greatest state exponents of repression and Islamist extremism across the greater Middle East region have been Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Bush unwittingly, presumably, facilitated Iranian influence regionally, and if anything seemed to draw closer than ever to the Saudis even in the wake of 9-11, including through his energy policies.  While the secret arms-for-hostage deals in the “Iran-Contra” fiasco were the conspicuous low point vis-a-vis Iran, no American president seems to have found his footing on dealing with that regime.

I think Obama and his administration should speak with greater moral clarity on democracy in the Middle East, because it is the right thing to do and because the rhetoric of American Presidents can matter more than we often appreciate.  But in fairness, it should be recognized that he almost had to try to recalibrate our tone and go for a fresh start because what we had been doing in sum was not working.

This is how Michael Hirsh has put it in the National Journal:

The irony for U.S. officials is that while President Bush devoted vast amounts of the country’s blood and treasure to establishing democracy in the Arab world — and devoted many speeches to it, including his second inaugural address — he achieved very little progress toward that goal during his eight years in office. Indeed, the places where Bush openly supported democracy, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, have grown only more troubled, their politics ever more intractable.

By contrast, President Obama has seemed to play down democratic themes in the Middle East, openly supporting the Arab autocrats and waxing lukewarm at best in supporting democracy in those countries and in Iran. Yet the Arab and Iranian democracy movements have taken off on his watch.

The developments of the past few weeks have thus done much to resurrect questions about the so-called neoconservative program. In the lead-in to the Iraq war, many critics questioned whether democracy could really be imposed by force or even outside pressure, or whether instead it had to flow organically from the people in order to stick.

Perhaps we will soon find out.

Obama, the Midterms and Africa–some thoughts from the hinterlands

G. Pascal Zachary has a very interesting take at Africa Works on the possible impact of the US midterm elections for Africa: “For Africans, an Obama defeat at polls can bring help”:

For Africa, an Obama presidency has been a disappointment. Rather than pay attention to the sub-Saharan because of his Kenyan heritage, Barack Obama has gone the other way: giving less attention to Africa than any other region of the world. Partly Obama’s inattention to African affairs reflects the crises of his presidency. Urgent problems are elsewhere. But the situation may be about to change and because of an unlikely reason: the defeat of Obama’s Democratic Party allies in Congress.

Next Tuesday’s polls could deliver a big setback to Obama: loss of control by the Democrats of at least one house of Congress. With the Republicans back in command, Obama will face new pressure on his administration to intervene directly in African affairs, and in ways the president has so far avoided.

A glimpse of the future direction of U.S. policy towards Africa can be seen by looking backwards — to the policies of former President George Bush. For complex reasons, the Bush administration engineered an increase in financial assistance to Africa, chiefly in the form of an enormous outlay — an estimated $80 billion over 10 years — to cover the cost of treating Africans with HIV-AIDs. In addition, President Bush engineered a peace deal in Sudan that effectively brought an end to one of the region’s oldest civil wars.

Much of the impetus for Bush’s activism in Africa came from the Christian right, which saw the Sudanese conflict through the prism of religious freedom; the conflict to Republicans was between a militant Islam and a persecuted Christian minority. Evangelicals flocked to the defense of south Sudan and, even now, are among the loudest advocates for legal partition of the country — and a more muscular U.S. role in overseeing a planned election next year that could lead to the creation of Africa’s newest nation.

Obama’s studied restraint towards African issues has permitted him to ignore the liberal wing of his own Democratic party, which would like his administration to push Sudan on the thorny question of the Darfur region as well as the country’s Christian south. With Republicans in control of the House, for instance, pressure for dramatic action will grow.

Nigeria is another large, troubled country that Obama has essentially ignored but his critics say he has done so to the detriment of long-term U.S. interests. Nigeria is the fifth largest source of foreign oil for the U.S., and the country of origin for the largest group of African immigrants in America. As most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has an economic weight that warrants American attention. But the country also contains the largest number of Muslims in any African country. And one of those Muslims last December was caught trying to blow up a plane, raising the profile of militant Islamic groups in Nigeria — and their potential connections with anti-American factions throughout the Muslim world.

President Obama has done little thinking about how to support the progessive in Nigeria. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly warned that Nigeria’s government is dangerously derelict, but she’s offered no concrete proposals on aidiing the country, whose presidential election is only months away.

Thus, the possibility exists that Obama will face two African crises — in Sudan and Nigeria — and a Congress who wants his administration to take an active role in engaging the continent. Africans, frustrated privately with the president’s lack of attention to their region, likely will welcome a new approach, even if the approach comes in the wake of Obama’s political retreat.

While what Zachary says is accurate as far as it goes, it seems to me that African expectations for Obama were always misplaced and failed to account for both Obama’s main focus as a politician and the realities of the American political system and the American electorate.

In particular, in Kenya, I never thought that Obama’s decision to make a quick visit to Ghana rather than to Kenya should be seen so much as a criticism of Kenya’s political failings as a reflection of Obama’s needs as President of the US. Obama has been under vigorous, and quite effective, attack since the early part of his campaign from the right in the US for being too “Kenyan” and too much associated with Islam–and of course as actually both Kenyan and Muslim rather than American and Christian. This has only gotten worse as it has crawled out of the e-mail networks and blogosphere and into open discussion by current and former elected officials, the cover of Forbes and Glenn Beck. A state visit to Kenya with a riotous outpouring of welcome from Kenyans has always been the last thing he has needed in America, and has become more and more politically untenable as his popularity has slipped.

Beyond that, while Obama obviously has a personal connection to his African heritage, it has simply not been a big part of his direction as a politician. In general, Obama has been more involved and identified with domestic issues, working as a “community” poverty activist in Chicago and then going to law school to come back to Chicago to go into politics there. He was an American law professor teaching US Constitutional law and a lawyer working in civil rights areas. Aside from having little record in foreign policy in general, he did not chose to spend any length of time visiting, much less living, in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa.

There are a lot of American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who have been more engaged over a period of years in African affairs and American policy in Africa. Even though his first foray into politics was in speaking in favor of divestment as a tool against South African apartheid as a student at Columbia this was not a deep engagement or a primary path he followed subsequently. Continue reading