After several weeks in central Florida, this writer finally ended up in Washington, DC, where in contrast to Florida’s geriatric society, virtually everyone seemed young. The subway, restaurants and high-concept coffee shops were filled with youthful multi-taskers using smart phones, tablet computers, laptops, Blackberrys or Bluetooth earpieces – or all of them at once. Washington’s weather was brisk and energising in the late autumn in the week after the Thanksgiving Day holiday and the city’s beautiful old buildings were glowing in the clear, crisp afternoon light. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
It looked like the opening scenes in one of those movies that will soon resolve into a complicated, international conspiracy and serious skulduggery in high places – but first the need to establish a sense of place. Effectively mimicking what could easily be a “New Yorker” cartoon, the writer had just settled into a chair in a crowded Starbuck’s Coffee for a mid-afternoon dose of caffeine and a quick look at the daily papers when a young couple came in and sat down at the next table. They opened up two matching laptops and proceeded to have a soundless e-conversation – laughing at each other’s jokes and bon mots. Really. Well, maybe they had joined some kind of larger electronic crowd in a group conversation spanning the world. But, regardless, the two sitting next to this writer kept keying in their thoughts and then reading each other’s responses, rather than speaking a single word to one another, even though they were less than a metre apart.
Although a major racial transition has been happening for a while now in the country’s capital, with the writer back in Washington for the first time in two years, it was increasingly obvious Washington has moved well away from being a city split uneasily between a large black majority and white minority – even though the city’s white population was disproportionately located at the apex of the national (as opposed to the city’s) power pyramid. Years ago, “Mayor for life” Marion Berry (yes, the same man who ultimately went to jail for drug offences caught on video during a police sting) used to call Washington “Chocolate City” – in recognition of its status as the country’s only major city populated and largely run by African Americans. Even the Cosmos Club, Washington’s answer to the Rand Club in its heyday, has black members who are themselves members of the city’s tribe of lobbyist-lawyer-fixer power brokers. It still is a tie-and-jacket-required place with a mean crab cake sandwich on the menu.
And it might be easy to argue the power equation in the city at the national level has also changed in more than just rhetorical terms, if for no other reason than the presence of Barack Obama at the very pinnacle of the US power pyramid. However, recent surveys note that black/white income disparities continue to persist in the capital’s population – even though this is significantly changing in the city’s surrounding suburbs, now with their own rapidly growing, increasingly professional class minority populations.
But the city now also has a large Hispanic minority, comprising recent migrants from Latin America as well as a cadre of second- and third- generation Latinos who have gravitated to Washington. Many are still the workers who clean the stores, offices and homes – but certainly not all of them. Washington is much more than just the preening politicians one sees so frequently on television.
And then there is the growing impact of Asian Americans in Washington, DC, and not just among some senior positions in the Obama administration. In contrast to only a generation earlier, one sees young Asian Americans – and more-temporarily-resident Asians – throughout the city. These range from immigrant Korean families who operate the ubiquitous “mom and pop” stores and dry cleaning shops in African American neighbourhoods, to Vietnamese restaurateurs throughout the suburbs, and high-visibility researchers ensconced in the city’s powerful phalanx of think tanks on virtually every aspect of public policy.
Here too the range is wide. There is the woman who creates those expensive designer coffees at the trendiest coffee bar on Dupont Circle, but there is also Peterson Institute for International Economics Research Fellow Arvind Subramanian, author of a much-talked-about new book, “Eclipse”. Subramanian’s book predicts the impending decline of America’s international economic position in the face of the oncoming Chinese economic onslaught.
Watching international television news, it is easy to get caught up in the upcoming US presidential election, but it remains true a majority of people in the US – even in Washington, DC itself – are only now beginning to focus their attention on the choices they will make concerning their country’s governance for the next four year period.
But if the election remains off the radar for many still, sadly, it may be even harder to find people in Washington truly excited by or interested in Africa. This is true even as a recent issue of “The Economist” leads with “Africa Rising” on the cover. One veteran analyst of African developments nodded his agreement with the image of the Obama administration as a man ticking off the crucial international issues on his fingers. Given the eurozone crisis, the rise of China, Iran’s nuclear potential, the Arab spring and its aftermath, as well as unrest in Syria and Yemen, George Bush’s leftover conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and the West Bank – plus all the rest – the man runs out of fingers well before he gets to Africa.
In a way, the Obama administration’s Africa policy has become a recapitulation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self Reliance” with a little Booker T Washington’s “up by one’s own bootstraps” ideology thrown in for good measure. This attitude, first offered in Barack Obama’s speech to the continent that he gave in Accra, Ghana, was amplified in Obama’s remarks to an African youth leaders meeting at the White House. And in fact, this parallels ideas in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope”, where he outlined his ideas about Africa.
In that vision of Africa, a new generation will finally take charge of the continent’s future, dispensing with kleptocratic “big man in Africa” leadership. In their place, Africa’s best and brightest will want to live and work at home – as opposed to New York or London – and where foreign aid would no longer be the default lifeline. Self reliance is probably just as well as a metaphor for the continent’s hopes – American international attention, money and effort has been heading elsewhere in recent years – despite the good news starting to accumulate.
Regardless, America’s state department officials were eager to explain American policy towards Africa comprising five fundamental pillars. They were: nurturing democratisation and democratic processes; improving economic opportunities; supporting global health improvement; enhancing political security in places like the Great Lakes region; and supporting transnational objectives such as action on climate change, countering global drug trafficking, and counterterrorism – especially in the Sahel belt of vulnerable nations stretching across the continent.
Apropos those democratic processes, state department officers said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s recent presidential election has been of special importance, given the country’s size, its resources and its proximity to a large swathe of the continent’s other nations – as well as its difficult, violent history since independence. To highlight the success of this pillar, the officials briefing the writer also pointed to successful elections in Liberia, Zambia and Cape Verde as tangible demonstrations of the positive impact of American support.
Some outside observers countered this by arguing that America’s focus on measuring success through the mechanics of elections – so many ballot boxes filled, clear campaign rules, and electoral observer training – ran the risk of sliding by the more deep-seated challenge of building democratic traditions in states deeply fissured by conflicts. Bitter enemies don’t simply put down their weapons, link hands and work and play well once the ballots are counted. Especially in a place like the Congo, their political conflicts were about control over resources, and a successful election does not, by itself, bring those bitter conflicts to an end. As a result, the crucial need is for efforts that help societies bridge broader conflicts, rather than simply this focus on the formalities of elections.
As far as the pillar of economic support, US state department briefers explained current key areas of interest included energy development programs in countries like Zambia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania; support for the Kimberley Process that polices the international diamond trade; and, of course, Agoa – the African Growth and Opportunity Act – that gives the majority of African states essentially tariff-free access to the US market for many exports. Agoa has become a crucial element of America’s support African economies and it has become a key part of US economic policy in the region as part of a “trade not just aid” message.
The legislative mandate for Agoa currently exists through to 30 September 2015, but it is unilateral American law rather than an internationally binding treaty. When it is up for renewal, the US Congress could renew it, limit it more severely, change it dramatically, or even, in theory, end it through a congressional vote.
While in Washington, the writer picked up on the faint rumbling of some dissatisfaction with South Africa over trade issues that might even put its certification of eligibility for Agoa treatment under a cloud. In simple terms, there is a question of whether some of South Africa’s trade arrangements with European nations could be termed sufficiently discriminatory towards American exporters that American companies might conceivably bring their complaints to the US government on General System of Preferences (GSP) grounds. Should the determination go that way, it would automatically affect the country’s Agoa eligibility. While this may just be a proverbial cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, way off on the horizon, the earlier failure of negotiations to set up a US-Sacu (South African Customs Union) free trade zone by treaty may eventually prove to have a reach beyond the grave – if South Africa’s Agoa eligibility ultimately comes into question.
Meanwhile, another key element to this economic “pillar” is the Kimberley Process, the mechanism set up to tighten restrictions on the sales of “blood diamonds”. US briefers were keen to point out that the US is now the chair of this body, with South Africa as deputy chair, encouraging the view this represents an important mechanism for international cooperation transcending solely economic efforts. However, the Kimberley Process has just been shaken by the withdrawal of the NGO, Global Witness, a founder partner central to the Kimberley Process effort.
Interestingly, at no point in the briefings, did strategic competition between the US and China in Africa get much of a mention. Was this, perhaps, in some way a reflection of the fact that the US is returning to a reliance on petroleum from the Western Hemisphere, rather than the fulfilment of predictions of its sharply growing dependence on African oil? Or, perhaps, it was from a sense that China had been outflanked in South Sudan and Libya? Or perhaps even, that it just came from a sense that the other strategic issues now so outweigh a strategic economic competition in Africa between the 21st century’s status quo superpower and the world’s rising giant that the question was less important than before?
In the health cooperation pillar, officials called attention to a range of family planning and female health initiatives across the continent, such as the “Together for Girls” project that focuses on sexual victims. But, in the past half decade, the keystone of US international health cooperation in Africa clearly has become “Pepfar” or the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, initiated during George W Bush’s administration. While the programs it has assisted have proved to be vital in combating the spread of HIV/Aids and have become a major share of the effort in countries like South Africa, the program’s financial future is increasingly problematic. Pepfar funding is now in retreat, having already dropped from around $560-million in fiscal year 2011 to $548-million in the current fiscal year.
No one in Washington was prepared to argue that Pepfar funding, or, indeed, any type of aid funding directed towards Africa would increase any time soon. Moreover, growing pressures on the government budget, the clamour by Republican presidential candidates and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, as exemplified by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, all point towards cuts in foreign assistance. For the foreseeable future, at least, this will make efforts by aid proponents to hold the line on foreign aid that much more difficult.
Meanwhile, the various elements of the US’ transnational goal for Africa, like dealing effectively with narco-trafficking, are taking an increasingly central role for US foreign policy. However, they are not specifically focused on or about Africa – or American relations with the continent. Rather, the African aspect is a function of problems that transcend one country or region but has African elements as well, as with drug trafficking. Certainly Mexico and the rest of Latin America remain more important – and more critical for the US in this area.
While the “war on terror” no longer goes by that moniker, and despite the Obama administration’s interest in differentiating itself from its predecessor in this area, in discussions, state department officials took pains to couch the US government’s strategic concerns for Africa in terms of the goals and missions of Africom, the Pentagon’s regional command structure for African issues, but headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. For them, the most important issue was the challenge of religiously inspired non-state actors (or, less politely, fundamentalist terror groups) operating in an arc that sweeps across the continent from the Sahel region through to eastern Africa.
The stability of nations like Mali, Kenya and Nigeria are now seen as under threat, as well, of course, the perennial problem of Somalia. Newer to the list, however, is Uganda and its effort to cope with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Uganda is sufficiently worrying that the US has dispatched about a hundred Special Forces troops to train local forces – even though the LRA doesn’t quite fit the description of an insurgent army fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism and inspired by Al Qaeda.
Even as this writer repeatedly heard about America’s support for democratic processes, there was a curious angle in these discussions. Some of these conversations actually took place the same day an opinion piece by Nic Dawes, Judith September and Zackie Achmat forcefully attacking South Africa’s impending Protection of State Information Act, appeared in the New York Times. When he asked why the US government was not joining the chorus of criticism of this proposed legislation, the writer was reminded that the US does not routinely criticise domestic policies of other nations – and especially friends and strategic partners. Nevertheless, in that same week, the US government did make a sustained response to African governments engaging in or contemplating new policies persecuting LGBT-I individuals and groups. LGBT-I of course means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – and inter-sex.
Precisely why the US government felt compelled to comment sternly on human rights violations in this arena, including a forceful speech by the secretary of state, but less so regarding threats to free speech and expression – initially at least – might be puzzling. Reasonably enough, repression on the grounds of sexual orientation is repugnant to many Americans as a violation of the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law. But so too would be the democratic precepts of free speech and cultural expression, along with the protection of the media in exposing malefactors in office.
And then there is the realisation – akin to that famous line in “Casablanca” when the French prefect of police says: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” – there is a presidential election in less than a year. Now, clearly this is not the same as saying there is a cynical calculation that a statement or two about African persecution of gays is a simple vote harvesting mechanism to save Obama from being defeated in November 2012. Nevertheless, it is also true that gay and lesbian groups and individuals were a visible part of the broader social coalition that brought Obama to power in 2008. This population segment, just like every other ethnic, religious, racial minority and interest group in America, seeks to bring its front burner issues to the fore in American foreign policy more generally. At this point there is even a special office in the state department that deals with these questions. Because this issue coincides with a more basic democratic ideal of equal protection means proponents have been able to gather some headway within the current administration, and thereby have an effect on the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda as that administration faces its re-election bid.
And that, of course, brings us to the larger question of how Obama’s foreign policy – its successes, failures and directions – may ultimately affect the results of the upcoming election. In the writer’s discussions in Washington, one senior think tank analyst, for example, explained that the consensus view among virtually all his professional colleagues (except perhaps those at the right wing ones like Heritage or AEI or libertarian groups like Cato) is that Obama has gotten it “just about right” in shifting the prime focus of American policy attention towards East Asia and the Pacific region, as opposed to anywhere else. The bulk of the country’s trade and business future clearly is there – as well as its prime strategic challenge in the coming years in the rise of Chinese military strength and influence.
Concurrently, the Obama administration successfully participated in ending Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, began to carry out its roadmap for withdrawal from Iraq and then Afghanistan, and has effectively shattered the larger impact of Al Qaeda (even if copycat groups may still operate in the Sahel) with the death of Osama bin Laden and numerous deputies – taking much of the steam out of global terrorism. Given the Obama administration’s apparent success in seizing security and foreign policy from Republicans as its signature achievement, as reflected in the results of numerous public opinion polls, Republican would-be presidential candidates have focused their criticisms on just two foreign policy topics.
These are: that the Obama administration has offered a less than forceful response to Iran’s on-going efforts to develop nuclear devices; the assertion Obama has offered inconsistent support for Israel (in a direct appeal for Jewish American support and the consolidation of right-wing fundamentalist Christian support for the eventual Republican nominee) and that he has stumbled in dealing with the aftermath of the Arab spring.
Particularly noteworthy in this regard have been recent comments by Republican candidates at a debate sponsored by a Jewish-American policy advocacy forum, as well as Newt Gingrich’s most recent pronouncement that the Palestinians are an invented people. By contrast, Republicans have yet to pursue actively the argument that Obama has been disengaged in resolving the eurozone crisis; perhaps this is because there is little unanimity among Republicans over what, actually, the US response should be in that crisis.
As a result, in the next several months watch for continuing difficulties among Republican partisans – and candidates – in finding a way foreign affairs can be used to chastise Obama effectively enough to sway voters – the very issue area where Republicans had a near-genetic advantage since the cultural war that evolved from the country’s defeat in the Vietnam War. To get a real handle on the election, watch, instead, for the electoral battle to be an argument over the kinds of domestic economic policies that can reignite growth, decrease unemployment, and bring federal budgets and revenues more into balance – without dumping the poor, the vulnerable and the aged into the rubbish bin. Unless, of course, the Iranians successfully test a nuclear device, the eurozone collapses, civil war breaks out in Russia and Islamists take over in the Maghreb and the Persian Gulf. DM
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