Obama Is Not (Yet) Africa's Prodigal Son: If We Want to Understand How an Obama Presidency Might Reshape US Foreign Policy towards Africa, We Need to Confront the Thorny Question of Identity Politics and Take a Closer Look at His Recent History Where Africa Is Concerned

By Ray, Carina | New African, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Obama Is Not (Yet) Africa's Prodigal Son: If We Want to Understand How an Obama Presidency Might Reshape US Foreign Policy towards Africa, We Need to Confront the Thorny Question of Identity Politics and Take a Closer Look at His Recent History Where Africa Is Concerned


Ray, Carina, New African


Let me begin by making two disclaimers. First, I support Barack Obama's candidacy for the presidency. Second, I believe that he will pursue a more enlightened foreign policy towards Africa than George Bush has and more importantly than John McCain would. But let us not delude ourselves, Barack Obama is not (yet) Africa's prodigal son, he is an American politician running for the presidency of the United States of America. His family ties to Kenya have, however, given him a greater personal connection to Africa and its people than any other American presidential candidate before him. He also has the most cosmopolitan upbringing of any recent presidential candidate. These facts combined with his intellectual strength, eloquence, and ability to think outside of the box suggest that if elected president he will pursue a more diplomacy-oriented and judicious foreign policy in general.

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With regard to Africa, the simple fact that the continent is already on his radar further suggests that we can expect him to have a greater hand in proactively crafting his administration's Africa agenda, rather than doing what most US presidents have done before him: neglect Africa except when American strategic interests are involved. We all know how that story has repeatedly turned out: without exception, US intervention to secure its interests in Africa has been disastrous for the continent. DRCongo, for instance, still has not recovered from decades of Mobutu Sese Seko's US-sponsored kleptocracy.

While we certainly have cause for hope, we also need to be mindful of the very real constraints that Barack Obama is labouring under and how these limitations necessarily affect his ability to imagine and enact a foreign policy that departs from the past. Inasmuch as his family ties might work in Africa's favour, they also pose a viable threat to his ability to be seen as an impartial advocate for Africa. Google the keywords "Obama" and "Africa" and in a few clicks you will come across websites like www.freedomsenemies.com. com where considerable space is devoted to portraying Obama as a candidate whose ties to Kenya and Islam are greater than his ties to America and Christianity.

We have already been given a stark, indeed depressing, example of how Obama has sought to counteract his detractors' claims that he is a Muslim and therefore likely to roll back America's staunch defence of Israel. The morning after he clinched the Democratic nomination, he appeared in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and gave an over-the-top pledge of his support for the state of Israel. Indeed, after promising no less than $30bn over the next decade in military aid to Israel, he declared to the AIPAC audience that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided". While it is conventional wisdom that no candidate can win the American presidency without toeing the line on Israel, Obama's speech had the effect of making the Bush administration's stance on Israel seem progressive, despite its disregard for Palestinian humanity, dignity and wellbeing over the last eight years!

Rather than demonstrating where Obama truly stands on the Palestinian issue (because I do believe he would like to see a solution that respects the Palestinian people and their struggle for a viable independent state), his speech is an indication of his tendency to overcompensate for his paternal family's Islamic faith and to buckle under pressure from the right. Indeed, his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of millions of Muslims around the world was evident even prior to his AIPAC address. In his now-famous speech on race, he blamed the conflicts in the Middle East solely on "the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam", while giving Israel a free pass.

Obama's remarks not only blemished an otherwise remarkable speech, but also glossed over historical facts and disregarded the complex root causes of a conflict that continues to threaten global security and stability. …

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