Africa Policy in Obama's Second Administration: From Sudan to Mali to DRC

By Cohen, Herman J. | Journal of International Peace Operations, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Africa Policy in Obama's Second Administration: From Sudan to Mali to DRC


Cohen, Herman J., Journal of International Peace Operations


UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY worldwide has always suffered from the syndrome that I call, "we don't want to get involved, but we can't stay out." This applied to both Republican and Democratic administrations, and to all continents.

A good example in Africa was the long 30-year Sudanese civil war between the Arab government in Khartoum and the Southern Peoples Liberation Movement. During the 1980s and 1990s, the US regarded this war as essentially a humanitarian issue. When George W. Bush became President in 2001, he decided to begin a comprehensive and vigorous mediation effort that led to a peace treaty in 2005, and the final separation into two separate states in 201 1 . What happened? Bush was under heavy pressure from his political base to do something to save the mainly Christian population of south Sudan from the horrors of Khartoum's scorched earth policy.

During his first four years, Obama did an excellent job of refraining from taking charge of Africa's crises. He did make sure that his administration kept up the momentum in Sudan generated by his predecessor right through to the separation into two states. And even after that momentous moment in 2011, the US has maintained two special representatives to assist the two parties to solve ongoing tensions in the south and in the province of Darfur. But this is anticlimactic. Bush did the real job.

But, apart from Sudan, Obama managed to keep the US from taking charge of major crises in Africa during his first four years. But that does not mean the US has been totally uninvolved.

In Somalia, where African troops, under the auspices of the African Union, have been fighting the al-Shebab jihad Islamists connected to el-Qaeda, the US has been providing money, training and intelligence. But the US role has been very low key.

The US role in regime change in Libya in 201 1 was more prominent in that we insisted on international action to stop Gaddhafi from committing genocide in Cyrenaica , his eastern province. In this case, the administration coined the term, "leading from behind." We were pushing the international community to act, but when the action started, we could not avoid playing a supporting role behind France, Italy, and the UK. The complexity of implementing a "no fly zone" turned out to require more direct US involvement that we had anticipated.

There has been a major crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo since mis2012, with army mutineers wreaking havoc on the population of North Kivu, and neighboring regimes pillaging the province's vast mineral resources. The American role in the DRC has been the least proactive in history. We have been hiding inside the UN Security Council, and we have been encouraging sub-regional solutions. The DRC is one quagmire we seem to be avoiding like the plague.

What is facing President Obama in Africa as he enters his second term?

Historically, our highest priority in Africa has always been economic development. Every administration has emphasized this. Obama was wise to maintain Bush's two main programs: PEPFAR to combat HIV, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation to provide significant extra support to governments making a serious effort to reform their economies and their governance.

In addition, Obama needs to continue, or even beef up, his own program called "Feed the Future." With Chinese and Indians growing their economies at fast rates, their food consumption will be increasing rapidly. Couple this phenomenon with droughts in Africa and the USA, and we will be witnessing high world food prices indefinitely.

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Africa Policy in Obama's Second Administration: From Sudan to Mali to DRC
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