Africa: White House Choices Shape Africa Policies

U.S. Presidential Donald Trump (file photo).
1 April 2017

Washington, DC — Little has been said about Africa policy by the new U.S. President or his administration, but recent announcements and appointments provide an emerging outline of an approach that gives priority to security concerns.

Support for democracy, development and health may no longer be policy cornerstones as they have been for all post-Cold War presidents, Democratic and Republican.

On 30 March, the Pentagon announced President Donald Trump's approval of revised combat rules for U.S. forces fighting the Al Queada-affiliated Al Shabaab in Somalia, reducing protections for civilians as the U.S. military launches an intensified assault in east Africa. Earlier this month, the White House announced a budget blueprint that includes a $54 billion rise in overall military spending, alongside deep cuts for the State Department and international assistance.

Top Africa policy contenders share military experience.

At the White House, a former Pentagon Africa counter-terrorism director has been chosen as senior Africa policy aide, continuing the president's choice of career military officers for key foreign policy posts.

According to three sources with personal knowledge of the selection, White House National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster has chosen Rudolph Atallah, a retired lieutenant colonel who spent 21 years in the U.S. Air Force, to be senior director for Africa at the National Security Council (NSC). Atallah has been a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, a Washington, DC think tank, as well as CEO of a security consulting firm.

The selection has not been confirmed by the White House, which has announced only one NSC appointment since McMaster took the NSC post in February – that of Dina Powell as a deputy national security adviser for strategy.

Africa watchers also are eager to see who will head the Africa Bureau at the State Department. Sources tell AllAfrica that leading candidates for the Assistant Secretary of State position include Jeff Krilla, vice president for government affairs at Kosmos Energy — who served as deputy secretary in the State Department's human rights bureau under President George W. Bush — and Charles Snyder, a retired Army officer who has held senior military and State Department posts.

The same sources, who do not want to be identified publicly, say two others who have been considered are James R. Dunlop, a senior advisor at the consulting group led by former George H. W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and J. Peter Pham, who heads the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Military experience could prove an advantage for Krilla, who is an officer in the Naval Reserves, and Snyder, who spent 22 years in the Army, retiring in 1991 with the rank of Colonel, and served as the CIA's National Intelligence Officer for Africa before joining the State Department.

While Africa policy was not debated during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump as candidate and president has consistently emphasized his commitment to fighting terrorism. Speaking to Congress last month, he pledged to "demolish and destroy" the 'Islamic State', and he has directed the Pentagon and other agencies to draw up a plan to make this happen.

Career military officers he has appointed to key posts – in addition to McMaster, a lieutenant general in the Army – are Defense Secretary James Matthis, a recently retired Marine Corps general and NSC senior director for counterterrorism, Christopher P. Costa, a retired Special Forces intelligence officer.

Atallah, the presumed Africa director choice at the White House, retired from the Air Force in 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. From 2003 to 2009 during the George W. Bush administration, he was Africa Counterterrorism Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, according to his Atlantic Council biography. He previously served as defense attaché accredited to six west African countries and director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Orientation Course at the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which coordinates the global U.S military campaign against terrorism.

Fluent in Arabic and French, Atallah was born in Beirut, according to his biography on website of the consulting company he has headed, White Mountain Research.

Flynn re-structured Africa portfolio before forced resignation

Atallah is the second person chosen as NSC Africa director. Robin Townley, who was named to that post by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's first NSC head, was unable to take the job after his security clearance was rejected by the CIA.

Before being forced out of office after less than a month amid controversy over his Russian ties, Flynn restructured NSC responsibilities. He added to the Africa portfolio four north African countries that have been in the NSC's Middle East portfolio since the early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger was both national security advisor and Secretary of State. The four are Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Only one African nation, Egypt, remains assigned to the Middle East portfolio rather than to the Africa policy team.

In a strategy paper submitted to the Trump transition team in December, the Atlantic Council's Peter Pham advocated reassigning the four north African nations "so that the responsibility for Africa aligns with the Department of Defense's combatant command areas of responsibility." Pham also criticized assignment of north African nations to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, rather than to African Affairs. "While Egypt's placement is understandable, given its importance as a lynchpin of the Middle East balance of power, and should not be changed," Pham wrote, "the reality is that, on most political, security, and economic issues, the other four Maghrebi nations have more to do with Africa than with the Middle East - threats to security, trade, and even flows of migrants move along a north-south axis, reaching from the Mediterranean across the Sahara."

State's Africa Bureau is currently led by a career foreign service officer, Peter H. Barlerin, who took over as acting assistant secretary following the retirement on March 10 of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career ambassador who served in the post since 2013. Sources say Barlerin is scheduled to be replaced by Carol Thompson O'Connell, who has been tapped to become the top deputy assistant secretary for Africa and will serve as acting assistant secretary until a Trump nominee is confirmed by the Senate. She directed the Office of National AIDS Policy and then served as deputy assistant secretary of State for Africa from 2006 to 2009 during the administration of George W. Bush.

Unlike assistant secretary and more senior positions, deputy assistant secretaries in State and other Federal departments do not require Senate confirmation. To date, no nominations have been announced by the White House for any of the senior State Department posts that must be submitted to the Senate for approval.

Anti-terror focus may elevate Africa in administration policy

Since the Trump inauguration, the administration has engaged in a limited number of high-level actions related to Africa. Four African leaders received calls from the new American leader – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 23 January, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and South Africa's Jacob Zuma on 13 February, and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta on 7 March. (Sisi is scheduled to visit the White House on April 3.)

Six African nations were represented, most at the foreign minister level, at a 68-nation 'Global Coalition to Counter ISIS' meeting, hosted by Secretary Rex Tillerson at the State Department on 22 March. The six were Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Somalia and Tunisia, according to the official participants list.

The focus on fighting terrorism means "Africa is destined to figure far more prominently than it has for earlier chief executives," Pham writes. For that reason, he concludes that "clear early signaling from the White House about the strategic importance of Africa for U.S. interests is critical."

The revised combat rules for Somalia announced on 30 March give the head of Africa Command (Africom) broader parameters in conducting airstrikes and ground attacks. The changes have been under discussion for several weeks. General Thomas D. Waldhauser, the Africom commander, told a Pentagon press conference on 24 March that a "little more flexibility" would enable his forces "to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion."

Although the revised rules remove some of the constraints imposed by President Obama to avoid civilian casualties, Trump is "largely relying on the policies of his two immediate predecessors," according to an in-depth New York Times article by Eric Schmitt. In an article datelined Mara, Chad, Schmitt says the president is relying on "generals who have been at the center of a decade-long shift to rely on Special Operations forces to project power without the risks and costs of large ground wars." In Africa, about 2,000 of some 6,000 U.S. troops stationed in Africa currently are Special Operations forces, Schmitt reports.

"The Trump administration needs to strike the right balance between hard and soft power if it is going to be successful in advancing U.S. interests in Africa," said Witney Schneidman, who served as deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration and is now Senior International Advisor for Africa at Covington & Burling LLP. "Africa appears to be on the back burner for this administration," Schneidman wrote last month in a blog for Brookings, where Schneidman is a non-resident fellow, at a time when Germany, the United Kingdom and China are increasing their Africa engagements.

Based on the White House budget outline released this month, the sharpest shifts on Africa policy will be on the 'soft' power side. The White House is advocating a 10 per cent increase in spending by the Pentagon and a 28 percent reduction for both the State Department and for international assistance programs. "The Budget for the Department of State and USAID diplomatic and development activities is being refocused on priority strategic objectives and renewed attention is being placed on the appropriate U.S. share of international spending," the Blueprint states.

If these reductions are agreed by Congress, the impact will be major and – in the view of critics – damaging to U.S. interests.

Africa advocates say U.S. interests require 'soft-power' engagement

"The administration has undertaken a series of actions which, if implemented, would decimate many of the very successful bipartisan African initiatives put in place by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama," Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who served as assistant secretary of State for Africa during the first Obama term, told AllAfrica. "Look at the president's budget. If only a quarter of these cuts go through, Africa and U.S.-Africa relations are in a world of hurt," said Carson, a career diplomat who served in three U.S. ambassadorial posts and is currently senior advisor to the President at the United States Institute for Peace.

Sparred from immediate cuts are the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – both started by George W. Bush and continued by Barrack Obama. For PEPFAR, the budget document requests "sufficient resources to maintain current commitments and all current patient levels," with the added proviso that the program is required to "begin slowing the rate of new patients on treatment." The Blueprint says U.S. funding will be maintained for the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which is set by law at 33 percent of total donor contribution.

One key aspect of U.S. relations with Africa is economic.  "Where African countries used to be written off as 'risky' bets or thought of only as sources for raw natural resources," Pham writes in his report, "robust GDP-growth rates—coupled with improved regulatory and commercial environments—have made the continent an increasingly attractive place to do business."

With some of fastest-growing economies in the world and a rapidly growing middle class, the continent has been attracting increased interest from large and small U.S. businesses. The Obama administration stressed the importance of economic growth and boosted government support for business engagement. President Obama hosted a summit with African leaders and U.S. executives in Washington, DC in 2015, which was followed in 2016 by a high-level U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York. "Continuous, committed engagement at senior levels of government can create a dialogue across the continent and help U.S. firms compete," Scott Eisner, president of the U.S.-Africa Business Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.  "American companies are willing and eager to partner with the administration to establish new business markets, and working in Africa presents a significant opportunity."

A centerpiece of U.S.-Africa relations since 2000 has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which extends trade access to the U.S. markets for African countries who qualify. Given the president's hostility to trade pacts, the administration's level of support for Agoa is uncertain. The legislation was renewed by Congress for ten years in 2015. "We need to start transitioning from Agoa" and prepare for post-2025, Eisner said. "We can start the conversation by focusing on increased engagement with key regional governments."

The direction of American economic ties with the continent will be a principal focus when the Corporate Council on Africa convenes its biennial U.S. Africa Business Summit in Washington DC in June. "This is the time for the U.S. and African private sector to help shape the Trump Administration's Africa agenda and policies," the new CCA President and CEO Florizelle Liser, a former U.S. assistant trade representative, told the organization's annual membership meeting.

Another question is how the new administration will handle humanitarian crises. A State Department statement issued Friday mentions the "dire humanitarian crisis in South Sudan." Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, along with Yemen, face a hunger "catastrophe" for which some $4.4 billion in assistance is required immediately. With proposed drastic cuts in foreign aid, it is not clear how the U.S. will respond to such appeals.

Another program on the budget chopping block is the U.S. contribution to United Nations peacekeeping, which U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has said will be reduced by 25 percent. On Friday, the UN Security Council reduced by 18 per cent the size of the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – known as MONUSCO – while voting unanimously to extend its mandate for two years. The United States pressed for larger cuts, and Haley accused the Congolese government of "inflicting predatory behavior against its own people", adding that the world body "should have the decency and common sense to end this." She is currently reviewing each of the 16 UN peacekeeping operations to determine which should continue to have support.

The downsizing comes as the DRC is gripped by a political crisis, with the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, holding onto power despite the expiration of his constitutional term in December. Unrest that has persisted since independence in 1960 continued in several parts of the country, including in eastern Congo, where more than five million people are estimated to have died in conflicts related to Rwandan genocide and over access to the rich mineral used in mobile phones and other modern devices. Two members of the UN peacekeeping mission – Michael Sharp from the United States and Swedish national Zaida Catalan, members of a group of experts monitoring sanctions aimed at curbing conflict – were killed this month after being kidnapped by unknown assailants in Kasai province.

The intensity of that conflict had diminished in recent years, and hopes rose that mediation by Congolese Catholic bishops could resolve the national political impasse and curb fighting, But the bishops suspended their efforts last week after the government and opposition refused to agree on the date for an election aimed at ending the impasse.

Amid under-reported humanitarian disasters and conflicts on one side and promising possibilities on the other, Africans increasingly are taking a stand across their national boundaries. With business opportunities, the entrepreneurial energies and innovations by young Africans, and widespread citizen activism – as in the Bring Back Our Girls movement launched by a multi-faith, multi-ethnic movement of Nigerians; the Fees Must Fall campaign by South African students; and the anti-corruption campaigns in technological powerhouse Kenya – the continent is at a crossroads.

A growing chorus of Africans is singing that Africa must rely on itself and its own resources, including reclaiming the estimated illicit financial flows from Africa that dwarf foreign assistance. Few would disagree, however, that the policies of the United States will play a critical role in which direction Africa's future tips: towards poverty and wars or towards peace and prosperity.

Tami Hultman contributed to this report.

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