Let me begin by making a few disclaimers. First, I am a registered Democrat (for lack of a better alternative). Second, I support Barack Obama's candidacy for the presidency. Third, I believe that he will pursue a more enlightened foreign policy towards Africa than George Bush has and more importantly than John McCain would.
But let's not delude ourselves, Barack Obama is not Africa's prodigal son, he is an American politician running for the presidency of the United States of America. His family ties to Africa (Kenya to be exact) have, however, given him a greater personal connection to the continent and its people than any other American presidential candidate before him. As far as I am aware he also has the most cosmopolitan upbringing of any presidential candidate to date. These facts combined with his intellectual strength, eloquence, and ability to think outside of the box suggest that if elected president he will pursue a more diplomacy-oriented and judicious foreign policy in general. With regard to Africa, the simple fact that the continent is already on his radar further suggests we can expect him to have a greater hand in proactively crafting his administration's Africa agenda, rather than doing what most US presidents have done before him: neglect Africa except when the US's strategic interests are involved, and we all know how that story repeatedly turned out. Without exception, US intervention to secure its interests in Africa has been disastrous for the continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, still hasn't recovered from decades of Mobutu Sese Seko's US-sponsored kleptocracy.
While we certainly have cause for hope, we also need to be mindful of the very real constraints that Barack Obama is laboring under and how these limitations necessarily affect his ability to imagine and enact a foreign policy that departs from the past. Inasmuch as his family ties might work in Africa's favor, they also pose a viable threat to his ability to be seen as an impartial advocate for Africa. Google the keywords "Obama" and "Africa" and in a few clicks you will come across sites like www.freedomsenemies.com where considerable space is devoted to portraying Obama as a candidate whose ties to Kenya and Islam are greater than his ties to America and Christianity.
We've already been given a stark, indeed depressing, example of how Obama has sought to counteract his detractors' claims that he is a Muslim and therefore likely to roll back America's staunch defense of Israel. The morning after he clinched the Democratic nomination he appeared in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and gave an over-the-top pledge of his support for the Israeli state. Indeed after promising no less than 30 billion dollars over the next decade in military aid to Israel, he declared to the AIPAC audience that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." While it is conventional wisdom that no candidate could win the presidency without toeing the line on Israel, Obama's speech had the effect of making the Bush administration's stance on Israel seem progressive, despite its disregard for Palestinian humanity, dignity and well-being over the last eight years!
Rather than demonstrating where Obama truly stands on the Palestinian issue (because I do believe he would like to see a solution that respects the Palestinian people and their struggle for a viable independent state), his speech is an indication of his tendency to overcompensate for his paternal family's Islamic faith and to buckle under pressure from the right.
Indeed, his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of millions of Muslims around the world was evident even prior to his AIPAC address. In his now-famous speech on race, he blamed the conflicts in the Middle East solely on "the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam," while giving Israel a free pass. Obama's remarks not only blemished an otherwise remarkable speech, but also glossed over historical facts and disregarded the complex root causes of a conflict that continues to threaten global security and stability. Here one sees so clearly that being Muslim has become the "new Black". In the post-9/11 world race is no longer the last frontier, religion and specifically Islam is. The idea that a Black man could become president doesn't seem so far-fetched in comparison to the chances of a Muslim.
If Obama has already gone overboard trying to allay fears that his familial connections to Islam pose a threat to America's "special" relationship with Israel, we ought to be equally concerned that he could respond to accusations that he is biased in favor of Africa because of his Kenyan roots, by underemphasizing Africa as a policy priority. Inasmuch as he has played down race so as not to alienate white voters, he has only played up his Kenyan roots to emphasize his worldliness as an asset that would allow him to better lead America in an increasingly globalized world. While he was widely lauded as a prodigal son when he visited South Africa, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Chad, and most especially Kenya in 2006, he is better understood as a prodigal politician, whose homecoming to Africa-given his political ambitions-must be less about "coming home" and more about beefing up his foreign policy credentials. In short, Obama's family ties necessitate that he tread gingerly when it comes to arguing that Africa should be a major policy priority.
Ultimately the promises and pitfalls for Africa of an Obama presidency are two sides of the same identity politics coin. Heads: from "Day One" he'll already have Africa on his radar and accordingly we can be optimistic that his administration will craft a more enlightened foreign policy towards Africa. Tails: he may turn the frequency of his internal Africa radar down in order to stave off accusations that he's inappropriately prioritizing Africa over other national security issues. Of course, as of now, this is all conjecture.
So what can we say, in a more definitive fashion, about where Obama stands on Africa? If we are to go by his official website Africa is featured on the list of his top eight foreign policy priorities, which in descending order are: Ending the War in Iraq; Iran; Renewing American Diplomacy; Nuclear Weapons, Building a 21st Century Military; Bipartisanship and Openness; Israel; and Africa. Rather than taking umbrage at Africa's bottom position on the list, I am pleasantly surprised that it is on the list to begin with (needless to say Africa doesn't feature at all in John McCain's foreign policy priorities). Coming in right after Israel on a list that doesn't even mention China is, I think, quite suggestive of how important Africa is to Obama. According to his web site, stopping the genocide in Darfur, ending the conflict in Congo, and bringing former Liberian president Charles Taylor to justice comprise the three main foci of Obama's Africa plan.
With regards to Darfur, Obama has already put his money where his mouth is, divesting about $180,000 of his personal financial holdings from Sudan-related stock. While I was inspired to see the forgotten genocide (my phrase, not Obama's) in the Democratic Republic of Congo addressed in his platform, I noticed that his African agenda is primarily reactive rather than proactive. Let's hope that once he wins the presidency he'll bring on board a group of advisors that can help him undo the "destructive engagement" ethos that has defined America's policy towards Africa since the Cold War. Perhaps then we can begin to formulate an African foreign policy that regards the continent as something other than a basket case. Ensuring fair trade, which would allow African producers to access American markets on more equitable terms, would be a good start. This would necessitate that Obama address the thorny question of subsidies for American farmers - a typical presidential task like this, however, could quickly turn into a loyalty test unique to an Obama presidency.
Returning to the issue of advisors, we do know that Susan Rice who served as Bill Clinton's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) is one of Obama's top foreign policy advisors. Should he assume the presidency, Rice would likely play a leading role in shaping his Africa policy. There are two interrelated points that need to be made with regards to Rice. First, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide she was director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping at the United States National Security Council. Reflecting on her own inaction during the genocide, Rice is quoted in Samantha Powers' 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, "Bystanders to Genocide", as saying "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." Second, she is widely acknowledged as a supporter of George W. Bush's Africa Command (AFRICOM). AFRICOM, however, has been so widely unpopular amongst African leaders and their citizenries that the US has been unable to persuade African governments to host it. These two interrelated points are important because they suggest that Rice may be more inclined to pursue a far more direct militarily interventionist policy in Africa than has hitherto been the case. Given her failings during the Rwandan genocide, it is not surprising that Rice has been particularly aggressive on Darfur, only recently scaling back her calls for the use of direct military force in favor of supporting the hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force.
Obama also appears to share Rice's pro-AFRICOM position. He is quoted as saying, "There will be situations that require the United States to work with its partners in Africa to fight terrorism with lethal force. Having a unified command operating in Africa will facilitate this action." At least Obama isn't trying to pass off AFRICOM as a humanitarian initiative, like Bush did when he misleadingly claimed that AFRICOM "will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa," while promoting the "goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth." Obama clearly sees it for what it is: the post-9/11 militarization of Africa.
For those who feel that the United States fails to intervene when African lives are at stake, an Obama presidency, with Susan Rice leading his African foreign policy team, may offer new hope that when it comes to Africa "never again", no longer means "here we go, again!" For those who feel that US intervention in Africa will never amount to anything more than the securing of its own vital security interests, Obama and Rice may simply be viewed as paving the way for more destructive engagement. One way in which Obama could strike a balance between these two positions is to substantially support internal African peacekeeping efforts. US logistical and financial support to the African Union (AU) would go a long way in strengthening the AU's abilities to successfully intervene in places like Darfur.
I am inclined to believe that Obama has good intentions when it comes to Africa, but that it will take a lot more than good intentions to undo and reverse over a half-century of damaging US foreign policy towards Africa. A necessary step in this direction will be his ability to listen to Africans themselves, especially those who continue to fight for democratization, human rights, and control over their own natural resources and economic rights. Fortunately for Obama there are many highly qualified and articulate African and African diaspora scholars who would be more than willing to advise him if he is willing to engage in a dialogue with them.
*Carina Ray is Assistant Professor of History at Fordham University in New York City, where she teaches African and Black Atlantic History. She is also a monthly columnist for New African magazine. This essay was first prepared for the "The Meaning and Implications of the Obama Phenomenon symposium" held by the Zeleza Post (www.zeleza.com).
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