Traditionally, Africa receives the attention of American media and politicians only mid- or post- catastrophe. The last couple of years are certainly no exception. Considering recent activity in Somalia, I thought it a good time to examine a continent that will require an increasing amount of attention going forward. While there is no denying the destructive policies of the Bush Administration as a whole, some say Bush policies towards Africa have been a relative (and I can’t stress that word enough) success.
As I’m sure most would expect, the current candidates’ ties, interactions and policy proposals with respect to the continent are in sharp contrast. Below is a breakdown, which for the sake of brevity, I will try to limit in scope.
Senator Obama’s multi-national background is well-documented, as is his connection to the country of Kenya. Like Germans and David Hasslehoff, and Wisconsinites and cheese, Kenyans love Barack Obama.
Both the Chicago Tribune and SunTimes provided in depth coverage of Obama’s 2006 trip to Africa. When asked why he was going, this was Obama’s response:
“I’m going because Africa is important.”
Ok. I’m sure the majority of national politicians have said something similar on previous occasions. We’ll see below if Obama’s actions and policies reflect this statement.
Although he has much more Washington “experience,” John McCain’s record and relationship with Africa is more difficult to discern. While he has made statements condemning genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, and made various broad remarks about supporting democracy in Africa, his policy proposals are very limited. While Obama’s website includes a section on Africa, a brief navigation of McCain’s website turned up no mention of the continent.
Perhaps most telling is the relationship of many McCain associates.
“Former” top campaign adviser Charlie Black has a rich history supporting African dictators, and guerrilla groups. This is a common-theme among Reagan-era Republicans. In particular, Black’s company received $600,000/year from Jovas Savimbi,the head of UNITA, who waged decade-long guerrilla warfare with the Soviet-associated Angolan government. He was also on the payroll of Zairian dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, among others.
After being exposed during the current campaign, Cindy McCain divested $2 million in funds of companies (including foreign oil/gas corps.) that did business in Sudan.
Both candidates have condemned the genocide in Darfur. Both support a US/NATO No-fly Zone. Obama:
In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity. Those are all things that we’ve got to pay attention to. And if we have enough nations that are willing–particularly African nations, and not just Western nations–that are willing to intercede in an effective, coherent way, then I think that we need to act.
In 2006, John McCain and Bob Dole authored a comprehensive Op-Ed regarding U.S. involvement in Darfur. Including
…the United States should intensify efforts to persuade U.N. members to commit troops and funds for the U.N. force in Darfur, and it should develop plans for U.S. logistical support. The administration should push the United Nations to draw up firm plans for the entrance of a robust force into Darfur and contingency plans for the force to enter without Sudanese consent.
I want to add that McCain did join with Dole in the 1990s as key congressional leaders in the battle to convince President Clinton to use military force to help curb the Bosnian genocide. Even though this is a European conflict(where it seems a different “acceptability threshold” applies), I believe he deserves credit for this effort. However, remember we’re talking about “mid-90s” John McCain, not 2008 McCain.
Obama has achieved considerable success in drawing attention to the seemingly endless Civil War and ethnic cleansing in Congo.
Obama worked with Sen. Brownback in 2006 and co-wrote the measure providing $52 million in US assistance to help stabilize the Congo, including $20 million for the African Union peacekeeping mission.
Interestingly, I thought one of the only intriguing questions asked at last week’s “town hall” was the following:
BROKAW: Sen. Obama, let me ask you if — let’s see if we can establish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security. Take the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998, or take Rwanda in the earlier dreadful days, or Somalia. What is the Obama doctrine for use of force that the United States would send when we don’t have national security issues at stake?
While Obama discussed the moral and national security concerns involved with preventing African genocide, he did not specifically mention the Congo. However, his answer was well thought-out, knowledgeable, while at the same time expressing the obvious reality that we can not run to the rescue on every occasion.
Senator McCain talked about Iraq, victory, and what a “maverick” he is, while making a passing reference to Rwanda. It is clear from this answer that for McCain, Africa is only an afterthought. And sadly, this probably falls in line as representative of most Americans.
President Clinton’s program for the funding African AIDS relief was expanded by Bush’s PEPFAR program. While a disproportionate amount of prevention-funding went to provide “abstinence-only” education to people that need real education regarding family planning, STDs and birth control, PEPFAR did expand access to ARVs over the last few years. For this, the program should be commended. In addition, the PMI(President’s Malaria Initiative) has shown relative success in central Africa.
However, as Nicholas Kristoff wrote in an excellent article last week, the candidates’ approaches are fundamentally different when it comes to family planning – and by extension – epidemics of disease and famine. If there was ever a role in which the U.N. could successfully aid Africans, it could be orchestrating cooperation and widespread implementation of important family planning services. However, that is another discussion for another time.
What is clear, is that while Obama has policies to attack these issues head-on, McCain is reluctant to even discuss issues related to AIDS and reproductive health. Yet what can you expect from someone who aligned himself with a former mayor who made assault victims pay for their own rape kits.
Last year, when asked whether U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS, this was his response:
“Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”
Does he believe that contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?
“You’ve stumped me.”
On the other hand, Obama’s website offers an ambitious policy initiative:
Obama and Joe Biden will double our annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term and make the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, America’s goals. They will fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.
While in Africa, Barack and Michelle Obama were tested for HIV/AIDS in a Kenyan public clinic run by the CDC. While this may seem like a typical publicity stunt by an American politician, I believe there is an incredible amount of importance in this simple gesture. In some parts of Africa, merely submitting to a test for HIV/AIDS carries the stigma of admission of sickness. In certain communities, if the stigma of sickness attaches, they are ostracized from their community, including their family. As a general rule, African political leaders do not get tested in public.
In South Africa, he called out former President Mbeki (essentially an AIDS-denier):
“There needs to be a sense of urgency and an almost clinical truth-telling about AIDS in this country for the problem to be solved,” said Obama, a Democrat from Illinois. “If it is not addressed in an unambiguous fashion, the percentage of people who are infected is going [to go] off the charts.”
While merely traveling to Iraq multiple times does not make John McCain more knowledgeable and perceptive on the subject of the Iraq War, the same should be said for the issues of Africa, and Obama’s tour of the continent. However, Obama’s leadership abilities, perception, and intricate knowledge of the continent, leads me to believe that only under an Obama administration will African human rights be a foreign policy priority.
With 2 Wars, a full blown economic crisis, increasingly unaffordable health care, etc., I understand the desire to disregard Africa-related issues as inconsequential, or vastly subordinate. After all, sub-Saharan Africa has always been treated that way. However, from a moral, ethical, economic, and national security standpoint, it is not in our interest to ignore the problems of those who suffer the most, neither here or abroad.