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George Clooney's meeting to discuss Darfur with Vice President Joe Biden and with President Barack Obama Monday night at the White House provided one of the first glimmers of Africa involvement from the top echelon of the new administration.
According to Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander, Clooney was told that Sudan policy is under "ongoing review." The Academy Award-winning actor, who skipped the Oscar's ceremony Sunday night to fly to Washington, said he welcomed what he heard "because there was some concern this could fall off the radar."
That concern has been spreading among Africa watchers as days go by without any significant Africa-related pronouncements - particularly, no announced selection of a person to head the Africa Bureau at the State Department. Similar misgivings are being expressed about the administration's slow movement to fill top foreign assistance-related posts, which also affect U.S. relations with Africa.
Not only are the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Congo requiring urgent attention and perhaps changed approaches, but also there is equally pressing need to spotlight and support places trying to get development right, especially with the added strain of the global economic crisis. One stark example is Liberia, which has been making "steady progress" toward eradicating poverty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported this month, but where "limited national institutional capacity" and persistent security threats make continuing international support vital for the country's and region's growth and stability, his report said.
Each of the eight geographic bureaus at the State Department is led by an assistant secretary, and the Assistant Secretary for Africa is generally considered the top Africa policy official in any U.S. administration. The person widely expected to be named to the post is a career diplomat, Johnnie Carson, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda and is currently senior intelligence officer for Africa on the National Intelligence Council, the agency charged with coordinating strategic thinking for the U.S. government.
Although other names have been put forward – and several other prospects were interviewed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Carson was a near-consensus favorite of Africa-watchers both inside and outside the Obama camp. His experience includes diplomatic postings in Nigeria, Mozambique, Botswana and Portugal and assignments as staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa and senior vice president of National Defense University. During President Clinton's second term, Carson served as the principal deputy in the Africa Bureau to Assistant Secretary Susan Rice, who is now the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and member of the Obama Cabinet.
His selection would provide a morale boost for career foreign service professionals, many of whom were incensed when he was passed over during the Bush administration for two top ambassadorial posts for which he was considered qualified and deserving - South Africa in 2003 and Ethiopia in 2005.
In a signal that key foreign assistance appointments are awaiting a major policy review, the White House announced that U.S. Agency for International Development Chief Operating Officer Alonzo Fulgham has been named acting administrator. Gayle Smith, who chaired the Obama foreign assistance transition team and is considered a lead candidate to become eventual agency head, is joining the National Security Council staff on Monday as Senior Director for Relief, Stabilization and Development and Senior Adviser to the President. Another oft-mentioned choice, Helene Gayle, a former official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control, continues her high-level engagement as president and CEO of CARE International.
As a member of the bipartisan Congressional panel on reforming foreign aid - the HELP Commission, Smith advocated creation of a Cabinet-level position that would encompass not only USAID but also the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by President George W. Bush to distribute increased U.S. assistance to developing countries meeting 16 performance indicators. Apparently, the leadership choices will have to wait until a foreign assistance structure is agreed.
At the State Department, none of the assistant secretary appointments have been announced, and Clinton is yet to name her own selections for most of the six undersecretaries, who sit one step higher on organizational chart. Currently, the Africa Bureau is headed on an 'acting' basis by Phillip Carter, a former ambassador to Guinea and deputy chief of mission in Madagascar and Gabon.
Europe is the destination for the President's first overseas trip in early April. Asia got the first official visit from Secretary Clinton, who is preparing to head to the Middle East over the weekend. The Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan and North Korea have all had senior envoys or representatives assigned to tackle tough policy issues.
"Africa has slipped into the background," says Richard Joseph, John Evans professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University and non-resident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
Pressure has been mounting to add Sudan to the list of places receiving top level attention. The 'Save Darfur Coalition' has called on the president to name "a point person with the stature, mandate and authority to take charge of U.S. efforts to end the violence in Darfur." The Enough Project, an organization focused on mobilizing a permanent constituency to prevent genocide in Africa, is asking the public to press for special envoys for both Sudan and the Great Lakes Region, to focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the deadliest conflict in the world today, where an estimated five million people have died as a result of the fighting in recent years.
Rep. Frank Wolf (Republican-Virginia), who has made five trips to Sudan since 1989, asked President Obama in a letter this week to select former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as special envoy for Sudan. Frist, who as a surgeon undertook medical missions to the country and was "a leader in declaring what was happening in Sudan to be genocide," Wolf wrote.
Speaking to ABC News as he left the White House, Clooney said he received assurances that Sudan "is high on their agenda" and expects an envoy to be named. Clooney traveled to the Chad/Darfur border visiting refugees with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, after being denied a visa to enter Sudan. (Read Kristof's accounts of the trip – and clashes with a nervous United Nations bureaucracy – on his blog.)
The top Africa position at the National Security Council, the White House agency responsible for coordinating foreign policy, was quietly filled last week by Michelle D. Gavin. While serving as international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations last year, Gavin co-chaired the Africa advisory team for the Obama-Biden campaign. Previously, she spent six years as senior foreign policy advisor for Sen. Russell Feingold (Democrat-Wisconsin) and staff director of the Senate Africa subcommittee and two years as legislative director for Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, Obama's Interior Secretary. Gavin, whose official title is Senior Director for African Affairs and Senior Advisor to the President, is aided by three directors - Karen O'Donnell, Cameron Hudson and Marie Brown.
At the Pentagon, responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa falls under a deputy assistant secretary within the office of the Defense Secretary. Theresa Whalen, a national security specialist and career department official who has held the post since 2002, continues to serve under Secretary Robert Gates, whom Obama retained from President Bush's Cabinet.
Within the Obama camp, several names have been mentioned as her possible replacement, most prominently, Vicki Huddleston, who served as acting U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, U.S. ambassador to Mali and Madagascar, deputy assistant secretary of state and chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Currently, she is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she worked alongside Susan Rice. Huddleston has been an outspoken advocate of a close alliance with the Ethiopian government, a policy pursued by the Bush administration but opposed by human rights organizations and some members of Congress. A November 2007 New York Times op-ed article co-authored by Huddleston and another former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, Tibor Naby, criticized Congressional moves to limit U.S. military assistance for Ethiopia. "A far better approach would be to buttress Ethiopia against threats to its survival - by helping it resolve its border conflict and ensuring that it reopens negotiations with insurgents and traditional leaders and permits international investigation of reported military abuses," the two diplomats argued.
While low visibility for Africa policy may not be entirely unexpected, considering the multiple crises the President faced entering office, it has disappointed many who had hoped the administration might quickly mobilize the high level attention that is needed to spur action on vital issues. "The powerful symbolism of a son of Africa overcoming extraordinary odds to become the 44th president of the United States" may be as much of an 'Obama dividend' as Africa can expect for the moment, Witney Schneidman and Paul Collier wrote in a guest column for AllAfrica.
Schneidman, who co-chaired the Obama campaign Africa advisory group with Gavin, and Collier, an Oxford professor and author of "The Bottom Billion", cite steps that can be taken to help Africa even if Obama is unable to fulfill his pledge to double development assistance. These include "revitalizing the African Growth and Opportunity Act, working through the Millennium Challenge Corporation to improve governance and using the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to extend credit to small and medium enterprises," they wrote.
An ambitious agenda, which includes a 'first 100 days action plan', was outlined by the advisory team that Schneidman and Gavin coordinated during the presidential campaign, The group, which included leading experts – American and African, authored 23 thematic and country-specific papers, looking at energy, governance, peacekeeping and women, as well as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Angola, Uganda and the Mano River states (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, plus Cote d'Ivoire).
The overview called for the new administration to "build on the successes" of the Bush years while addressing issue that were "largely neglected." The advisors recommended a major focus on African agriculture, careful integration of Africa into early administration efforts on climate change, a new HIV/Aids and malaria initiative to insure treatment over 10 years for anyone becoming HIV-positive, a strengthening of trade ties and reduction in American agricultural subsidies, and annual discussions involving the African Union and China on a range of issues from economic development to codes of conduct for investors.
The group suggested a presidential address on Africa in the "first several months" and a U.S.-Africa summit in 2010.
In recognition of a region requiring exceptional attention, the group put together a detailed 360-day action memo focused on conflict-torn Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The memo recommended that the effectiveness of the special envoy for Sudan should be strengthened by the addition of two deputies, one for Darfur and the other for southern Sudan to press full implementation of the stalled Comprehensive Peace Accord between the northern government and the south. The advisors also called on the new administration to send an 'early signal' of serious intention by providing helicopters and logistical assistance for the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
Administration statements about Africa have been limited, thus far, to two State Department condemnations of Darfur violence and one this month on Zimbabwe. President Obama reportedly discussed Zimbabwe late last month in a telephone conversation with South Africa President Kgalema Motlanthe, when the two leaders also talked about the G20 summit they both plan to attend on April 2 in London.
Proof that Africa's problems will not wait comes next week when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is expected to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur. "At the Obama School here in eastern Chad, the refugees are waiting to see if the school's namesake will resolutely back up the International Criminal Court," Kristof wrote in his New York Times column Thursday. Based on Obama's strong record in the Senate – along with that of now Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton, Kristof is hopeful that the administration will support the action. Along with the firm position taken by UN Ambassador Rice, who Kristof says "terrifies Sudanese officials; parachute her into Khartoum, and the entire Sudanese leadership might surrender", he cites the lead role on Sudan of White House assistant Samantha Power, who he says "catalogs all the ways that American politicians have found excuses to avoid confronting past genocides" in her Pulitzer-winning book, A Problem From Hell.
While Africa's violent conflicts and calamities must be addressed, U.S. policy can and must be directed broadly throughout Africa, according to Richard Joseph, a participant and lead author of the advisory group. "There are four critical areas in which the Obama-Biden Administration can have a decisive impact in the 48 states of sub Saharan Africa - most of which are not experiencing complex emergencies," he said in an interview - democracy and the rule of law; enterprise-led growth; energy and basic infrastructures; and capacity-building.
Joseph believes the Obama presidency offers "great opportunity" for countries in Africa such as Nigeria to take self measure and make the efforts required for "concrete advances in governance, prosperity and security." He says the President and his administration "should take Africa off the back-burner" and put in on the agenda. "They don't have to commission new policy briefs – they can just read these," he said, speaking of the campaign advisors' reports.
NOTE: On March 19, the White House announced the President Obama's nomination of Johnnie Carson as Assistant Secretary onf State for Africa.