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Note to SA: Dust off the welcome mat for the 2016 Republican presidential wannabes

The Republican conquest of the US Senate is complete. Now J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the possible impact on South Africa and how its officials will deal with the new realities of American politics.

The recent Republican tsunami in the US’ mid-term election has given the American political universe a real shock – most especially to those who must live and work in the White House. The Republican Party now controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the US Congress. And observers are predicting a heightened era of conflict and confrontation between the two major parties (and thus between the President Barack Obama and Congress) over virtually every political issue that will come up.

In the wake of this election, the balance has now shifted towards the Republicans in America’s political world. But the American political system seems to flourish on near-perpetual elections or the run-up to the next election, just after one has taken place.

As a result, American politicians will now focus increasingly on the 2016 general election – this time around an election that contains an all-consuming presidential selection. And that means all those many different Republican presidential wannabes will be making noise about how they would fix the country, if only they were the country’s president.

One of the secrets of American politics is that virtually every senator has the feeling – deep down inside their respective souls – that they are prime presidential material, and that they almost certainly would be a better one than the one now in the White House. After all, a major share of the politicians who eventually have become president had previously served in the Senate. (Think Obama, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Truman, among others.) And every governor also thinks pretty much the same thing – for pretty much the same reason – even the occasional ex-governor, like Jeb Bush in Florida.

This time around, there is a whole gaggle of senators and governors of the Republican persuasion who will be eager to demonstrate their foreign affairs smarts. This, in turn, means extensive foreign travel “to see for myself” world issues and world trouble spots, so that they don’t get caught out saying the kinds of loopy things Sarah Palin blurted out during the 2008 election campaign (‘I can see Russia from my house’ – as told by Tina Fey). They will need to be able to let loose their views in congressional committee meetings and in speeches that they have seen those trouble spots close up for themselves, they spoken with world leaders everywhere, and they have gained crucial insights into the complex realities of all those intertwined contemporary economic, political and social problems – or other weasel words to that effect.

In particular, with the current bunch of upwardly mobile politicians such as senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as governors Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie – none could be said to have significant foreign affairs experience. As a result, they will be raring to burnish the old resume. Expect lots of travel (and a bit of shopping) to spots like London and Paris, Jerusalem and Jericho, Tokyo and Seoul, Rio and New Delhi, Beijing and Moscow, but also to Nairobi and Accra – and almost certainly to South Africa, especially since the weather is lovely there just around the time Washington’s weather is at its nastiest.

Now, the thing of it is, each of these folks will be thinking of himself (and they are all men, white men, at this point, yes) as a likely president, on the verge of speaking for the nation. As a result, these trips are tune-up missions to get everything right for the main event, to stitch some international gravitas on to that senatorial posture.

But, in its foreign affairs behaviour, it seems the South African government likes to do things by the handbook: presidents meet prime ministers (and not one of those silly deputy prime ministers). Foreign ministers must meet other foreign ministers and members of a national assembly or parliament meet gaggles of MPs.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the local political system where it seems practically unheard of for a lowly parliamentarian to leapfrog over all those patiently waiting cabinet officers to make a run for the presidency. As a result, the government in South Africa has found it hard to do the full court press on behalf of all those visiting American congressmen and senators – even though it is a pretty good bet one or more of them will end up being president some day.

Embassy officers scramble hard to line up appointments with this or that local senior official for those visiting congressional figures. But this has been a mistake in the past because the South African viewpoint is not adequately explained or discussed directly from senior officials. And, as the congressional travel schedule gets more torrid moving closer to 2016, it will be an even bigger mistake if senior officials continue to shrug off requests for appointments with any of those possible presidential candidates – despite their non-appearance on the roster of the senate’s formal leadership positions.

Just as a bit of modest historical interest, back in 2006, when he was just Illinois’ junior senator, Barack Obama visited South Africa, two years before he won the presidency. Virtually no one in the top levels of the South African government had any time for him. In the end, only finance minister Trevor Manuel and the justices at the Constitutional Court could clear their schedules for him. After all, who was this Barack Obama anyway, you could almost hear them say. He’s that young black guy, just a junior senator, certainly not a household name in America. So, they must have thought, sorry, no time for him. If folks in the Union Buildings are clever, this time around they will not make that mistake again.

But will dealing with the effects of Republican control of the US Congress be more than forging some personal relationships with a man who may become the future US president by being accommodating to the VIP fancies of a travelling political horde? Interestingly, yes. There are some real practical political reasons to do keep this in mind.

Think about the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA ). AGOA is unilateral law and not a treaty – and it allows for thousands of African-produced items to enter the US duty free –and South Africa is one of its biggest beneficiaries. By some estimates, well over a hundred thousand South African jobs – directly or indirectly – exist because of AGOA’s provisions, primarily in the automobile and auto parts sectors of the economy. As things stand, there is little to prevent other industries from exploiting AGOA opportunities for further exports to the US market.

But this US law expires in 2015 – it is not a treaty – and it will require full congressional legislation to pass it all over again, even if it is only in a modestly amended form. At the recent US-African Leaders Summit Obama and the various members of the South African delegation expressed their strong support for this measure. So, that’s good enough, right?

South Africa actually faces two important challenges on AGOA. The first of these is in simply getting the legislation introduced, discussed, debated, and then voted on by the Congress before the president signs it into law. The second is surviving an idea floating around Washington that South Africa should graduate out of the act’s provisions by virtue of its better economic circumstances than the rest of the continent. Both of these will require some significant courting of the US Congress, a body now fully in the hands of Republicans. While the act was originally passed as a kind of bipartisan measure – introduced in the last days of the Clinton administration and then supported by George Bush when he came into office – those were very different times, a time of buoyant economic growth in the US.

Republican congressmen and senators will head each and every committee that must deal with a new AGOA measure. Some will be committees that deal with taxes while others will be those that deal with international relations and tariffs. And in every case, it will be incumbent on South Africa’s leadership to make the case that rather than being some kind of ‘favour’ to Africa, passing a new AGOA measure is very good for American jobs and exports as a function of improving Africa’s economic and political stability.

Any hint of any kind of unfavourable treatment of US exports to South Africa (think the fuss over chicken parts, for example), or any hints of any special dealing on the big infrastructure projects in the offing that may make it hard for American firms to bid on and then win such contracts could sit rather awkwardly with those same Republicans. It is, after all, the party that has traditionally had very close ties to big business. And in the long run-up to 2016, Republicans certainly are not going to want to be seen as ‘giving away the store’ to foreigners.

Now, of course South Africa is a fully sovereign, totally independent nation and it is certainly free to make its own decisions on who are its friends (or its enemies). However, Republican control of both halves of the American national legislature does mean there may be some unexpected consequences for certain things.

Given the current circumstances of US-Russian relations, primarily over events in Ukraine, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a congressman or two, or three, are going to take less than cheerful note of a really warm, public embrace of the Russians over, say, the purchase of eight matching nuclear reactors as part of a special handshake. This would be the case, given the network of economic and financial sanctions that are being stitched into place in response to how Russia has been dealing with its Ukrainian neighbour.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility for some presidential wannabe to use this deal as an object lesson over the lack of gratitude by certain African nations in exchange for US foreign aid over the past two decades? Fair or not, it would be an easy way to score points with some potential voters.

Similarly, there may be some awkward spots ahead over some of the perennial standards of South African foreign policy rhetoric in international forums that may also pique US Congressional interest – and especially from those presidential aspirants. How will the usual emotional language of fraternal partnership with Iran, say, or some other people less loved in Republican corners play with one of those potential candidates eager to find a verbal target over all that ingratitude? The topic will come up whenever South African representatives find themselves on Capitol Hill arguing for one or another trade concession.

None of this is to say South Africa must respectfully and reverentially tug its forelock and bow its head in the direction of the new Republican majority over on Capitol Hill. But what this does mean is that senior officials in South Africa are going to have to understand and appreciate the ideas of those curious Republican figures – especially those who are clearly going to be in the scrum, pushing for their party’s nomination for the presidency in just two years’ time. And every time one of those fellows comes calling to South Africa, it would be a good thing if the welcome mat was in place and carefully dusted off, nice and tidy-like for the visitor. DM

Photo: Republican Senator from Texas Ted Cruz (C), along with Republican Representative from Minnesota Michele Bachmann (L), and Republican Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul (R), join Tea Party members to speak to the media about the IRS targeting of conservative groups outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 16 May 2013. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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