Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Africa through the war on terror viewfinder

For those who don’t know, Africa Confidential is an invaluable resource on the political and economic comings and goings of the continent. The bi-weekly newsletter gets its name from the anonymous correspondents and contributors based around Africa who can analyze a country in the strictest of safety and security.

Patrick Smith has edited Africa Confidential since 1991 and is an outspoken, trenchant observer of not only Africa, but also the developing world’s relationship with the continent.

Sadly, I am not a subscriber to the newsletter. (I can’t afford it.) I used to read it in the library, but now I can only follow Africa Confidential through its Fortnightly Email Alert, which among other things includes commentaries from Patrick Smith. (You can sign up for the alert on the homepage.)

I just received this email, which describes Smith’s trip to the U.S. as part of the opening of the UN General Assembly and to catch meetings of the African Studies Association of the United States and the annual World Bank and IMF meetings.

Here are some of the highlights:

A whirlwind trip through New York and Washington this week shows that Africa has moved up the diplomatic and economic agenda - despite the Iraq-Iran obsessions here. However, so much of Africa is seen through the war on terror viewfinder…

At the peak of the Cold War, there was no conflict than an earnest policy wonk wouldn't squeeze [to] fit into a global scheme of U.S. foreign policy. The same holds today. The wonk can be pro- or anti-government but the fallacy is the same: Africa cannot allowed to be Africa, it must be corralled into a wider template of global power relations. Of course, Africa has its own international interests but the wonks attach too little importance to these…

Somalia has become Africa's front in the war on terror for the wonks. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Mogadishu and Kismayo have become Iraq writ small for Washington and Addis Ababa. More puzzlingly, the Sudanese regime in Khartoum has become a source of vital intelligence on terrorism for the West. Even the once-reviled Moammar el Gadaffi of Libya is now feted as another key intelligence source - more logically because the overthrow of Gadaffi's regime is near the top of Al Qaida's to-do list in North Africa

He then traveled to the 50th annual meeting of the African Studies Association of the United States, where Washington's Ambassador to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Cindy Courville, defended U.S. Africa policy against what Smith described as a pretty hostile crowd.

The critics' theme was that U.S. policy in Africa has become irredeemably militarized and is now a poorly resourced sideshow to its failing policy in the Middle East. As the African speakers picked over US policy, aided by speakers from the floor such as ex-USAID consultant Joel Barkin, Courville struggled to convince. None of the speakers on the floor - Americans and Africans alike - spoke in defense of US policy. Some even rubbished Courville's invitation for critics to engage with administration officials.

I have to agree with much of what Smith says. The U.S. presidential candidates have remained silent on the issue AFRICOM or any other U.S. military work in Africa. Yet, on the ground, we are seeing a definite change of U.S. policy. On one hand, you could call it the militarization of development. Even during the Cold War, the U.S. military treated Africa like a bench player. On the other, you could make an argument for another form of engagement. One must wonder, though: When military issues seemingly overshadowing political concerns, will the U.S. ever develop a consistent policy on Africa?

Perhaps we don't need one. Has the Bush administration succeeded in developing not a policy on Africa, but a policy in regards to different African states? We complain -- or at least I complain -- that American politicians look at Africa as it was one single state with really nice beaches. Nothing could be further than the truth. When nobody expects the U.S. to have a single "Asia" policy, why should a president attempt to create a single policy for an entire continent? (You could make the argument that this is what the Millennium Challenge Corporation does: funds individual countries on their own merits.) Perhaps it is true that the administration now deals with a few "friendly" states in Africa (like they would deal with Japan and South Korea, while ignoring Laos and North Korea), but those associations have been highlighted by military relationships.

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