I almost hesitate to add another voice to the “U.S. Africa policy in a (insert presidential candidate here) Administration” debate, but here goes:
Since the release in June of this year of the U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa, there have been many critiques of the Obama Administration’s Africa policy. Indeed, at first glance, my assessment was that the policy that was released in June 2012 was a longer, better-formatted version of the talking points the President and his Africa team rolled out in 2009. A less skeptical Lesley on Africa now wonders if the document was released not to check a box (like, hey Africa, we’re still thinking about you), but rather to set the groundwork for a (slightly) increased focus on Africa in a possible second administration.
If we go back to 2009, the President had been lauded both for going to Africa early in his term and for not making it a multi-country Africa tour, but integrating a stop in Ghana as part of a larger international trip. The phrase the Administration used at the time was that Africa was not a world apart, but part of the world. Those aspects of that trip set him apart from his two immediate predecessors, although you could hardly argue that President Obama did nearly as much for the continent as Presidents Clinton and Bush 43. (By the way, for really excellent critiques of the Obama Administration’s Africa policy and recommendations on the direction U.S. Africa policy should take, read Laura Seay and Todd Moss. Stellar pieces, really.)
That said, it’s quite simple to understand why President Obama focused on Africa much less than his predecessors. When he took office, the global economy was in meltdown, the U.S. was trying to extract itself from Iraq, develop an interagency Af-Pak strategy, and deal with your run-of-the-mill national security threats – nuclear North Korea and Iran, AQAP in Yemen, and hey, what happens if the state of Pakistan collapses and non-state actors get their hands on loose nukes? And keep in mind this was all before the Arab Spring and its fallout across the Middle East and the Sahel. So from a purely global security perspective, I understand why Africa was relatively neglected.
Another factor, which I haven’t seen discussed as much was the domestic constraint on President Obama due to rumors from the “Birther” movement that he was born in Kenya and was actually a Muslim (gasp!). One could argue that an American President who needed to get re-elected would only be adding fuel to the fire of these rumors if he focused on Africa too much or visited the continent more than he did. That said, as a President who will not be eligible for re-election in 2016, he may not be constrained by those same inhibitors. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if the President has the bandwidth to increase the United States’ focus on Africa in the next four years and actually wishes to do so, I think he has more latitude than he did in his first administration.