29 April 2009

Africa: Carson Outlines Obama Administration's Policy Priorities

Washington, DC — On President Barack Obama's 100th day in office - his nominee to be the administration's top Africa policy official - Ambassador Johnnie Carson, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that, if confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, he will pursue a broad, but focused, agenda to protect U.S. interests and promote African development.

Carson said Africa is important to the United States because of U.S. interests in seeing peace, good governance and economic growth on a continent that is the origin of over 13 percent of Americans, supplies 15 percent of U.S. oil and most of its natural gas and has vast potential as a trading partner.

In an overview of Africa's achievements and its challenges, he identified four areas of policy attention: strengthening democratic institutions, preventing conflict, fostering economic growth and partnering with Africa to combat global threats.

He said Africa's poverty has disadvantaged it in dealing with health pandemics, climate change, food shortages, narcotic trafficking and maritime issues. But he said helping Africans address threats that are global, as well as regional, will serve U.S. as well as African interests. He also said he looks forward to working with African leaders, inside and outside government, to grow their economies.

Carson is a career foreign service officer who has served in six African countries and was U.S. ambassador to three - Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya. He also has experience on Capitol Hill, where served for nearly three years as staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa.

He was a leading choice for at least two ambassadorial posts during the Bush administration earlier this decade but did not receive an appointment. Instead, he spent three years as senior vice president at the National Defense University and, since 2006, has been in charge of Africa at the National Intelligence Council, which produces strategic analysis for the executive branch.

He told Senators he has traveled to 40 of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries, which are the responsibility of the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs (Five north African countries are assigned to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs).

Under questioning from senators, Carson pledged to speak out against corruption, alongside Africans who are fighting it, to support a free and independent media, including electronic media using new technologies, and to advocate more resources and better security for U.S. diplomats in Africa.

Calling Zimbabwe "an extraordinarily tragic case," he said a unity agreement has produced "some small, incremental steps" but failed to loosen President Mugabe's and his party's grip on key centers of power, including intelligence services, the police and the military.

Asked about perceptions that U.S. support for Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia had destabilized the region and favored an authoritarian Ethiopian regime, Carson promised a balanced policy that combines short-term strategic interests with a recognition of the importance of "a free and vibrant press," unfettered trade unions and other elements of civil society that can hold governments accountable.

The packed hearing room included an array of Africa watchers, including diplomats, policy analysts, corporate leaders and health and human rights advocates eager for a quick confirmation. Frustration among Africanists and Africans has grown as weeks have passed without a new assistant secretary for Africa in place, at a time of both opportunity and of crises, from piracy to conflicts to collapsing economies.

Conversations with people representing a diversity of political views suggests that Carson's nomination has sparked optimism about the possibility of addressing African problems long regarded as intractable.

The issues cataloged at this morning's hearing were a reminder of  the magnitude of those problems as well as of Africa's potential. "If confirmed,  Ambassador Johnnie Carson will have his hands full as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs," Senate Africa Subcommittee Chairman Russ Feingold (Democrat-Wisconsin) said as he opened the Committee hearing.

Feingold pledged to move the confirmation process along as rapidly as possible.  The Foreign Relations Committee must approve the nomination, before sending it to the full Senate for final approval.

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