Obama's Trash Talk

Stop telling Africa what to do. Lectures are part of the problem.

On his recent visit to Ghana, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned war, corruption, tribalism, and all the other ills that have bedeviled our continent. Many Africans in Africa and the diaspora were moved by the speech, as were many Africa observers in the West. The speech captivated imaginations because it appealed to people's basic common sense.

That is where its positive contribution ends.

Rather inconveniently, all the attention Obama's speech has gotten disproves his opening remark: "We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans." It is not the speech of an African leader on the future of the continent that is exciting debate in the media and finding space on the blogs; it is a speech by the U.S. president. This very simple contradiction reveals the world's collective tendency to seek Africa's solutions from the West.

Beyond its many good phrases and populist appeals, Obama's speech did not deviate fundamentally from the views of other Western leaders I have read throughout my lifetime -- on aid, on civil wars, on corruption, or on democracy. Obama repackaged the same old views in less diplomatic language. He had the courage to be more explicit on Africa's ills because, due to his African heritage, Obama can say as he wishes without sounding racist -- a fear that constrains other Western leaders when talking about Africa.

Even so, Obama said nothing new. He assumes that African countries have been mismanaged because leaders on the continent are bad men who make cold hearted choices. His solution is thus to extend moral pleas for them to rule better. Yet it is not the individual behavior of Africa's rulers that demands our closest attention, destructive as that behavior may be. It is the structure of incentives those leaders confront -- incentives that help determine the choices they make.

Using this logic, we can start to ask more-useful questions. If the choices made by Africa's rulers have destroyed their economies, under what conditions can they develop a vested interest in growth-promoting policies? If Africans are going to war much more often than other human beings on the planet, what causes them to do so? When is peace more attractive than military combat?

Governing is not about making simplistic choices on who is right and who is wrong. It requires making complicated trade-offs, some of which might be costly in the short term. Take negotiated conflict settlements, for example, a policy that has stabilized Liberia and Sierra Leone after the two countries' brutal civil wars. That same policy wouldn't have worked in 1994 in Rwanda, where it would have produced an unstable power-sharing arrangement between victims of genocide and their executioners. The lesson: We cannot have one blueprint for all of Africa's problems. Even "good" moral decisions, such as those so often urged upon us by the West, can be bad sometimes.

Obama assumes that the fundamental challenge facing Africa is the lack of democracy and the checks and balances that come with it. But how does he explain why authoritarian Rwanda fights corruption and delivers public services to its citizens much better than its democratic neighbor, Uganda? In fact, the Ugandan brand of democracy has spawned corruption and incompetence more than it has helped combat them. The country's ethnic politics makes patronage and corruption more electorally profitable than delivering services.

Obama's preferred models of successful development, Singapore and South Korea, were not democratic when they rose to prominence. His proposals on ending corruption -- "forensic accounting, automating services strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers" -- are technocratic in nature. But the real challenge is how to give Africa's rulers a vested interest in fighting corruption. In most of Africa today, corruption is the way the system works -- not the way it fails.

The lesson for Obama is that Africa is likely to get better with less meddling in its affairs by the West, not more -- whether that meddling is through aid, peacekeeping, or well-written speeches. Africa needs space to make mistakes and learn from them. The solutions for Africa have to be shaped and articulated by Africans, not outsiders. Obama needs to listen to Africans much more, not lecture them using the same old teleprompter.



Do Targeted Killings Work?

Drone strikes are far from perfect -- but they're also far better than nothing.

Killing terrorist leaders is difficult, is often ineffective, and can easily backfire. Yet it is one of the United States' few options for managing the threat posed by al Qaeda from its base in tribal Pakistan. By some accounts, U.S. drone activity in Pakistan has killed dozens of lower-ranking and at least 10 mid- and high-ranking leaders from al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Critics correctly find many problems with this program, most of all the number of civilian casualties the strikes have incurred. Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.

To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius. This level of surveillance may often be lacking, and terrorists' deliberate use of children and other civilians as shields make civilian deaths even more likely.

Beyond the humanitarian tragedy incurred, civilian deaths create dangerous political problems. Pakistan's new democratic government is already unpopular for its corruption, favoritism, and poor governance. U.S. strikes that take a civilian toll are a further blow to its legitimacy -- and to U.S. efforts to build goodwill there. As counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen put it, "When we intervene in people's countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us."

And even when they work, killings are a poor second to arrests. Dead men tell no tales and thus are no help in anticipating the next attack or informing us about broader terrorist activities. So in any country with a functioning government, it is better to work with that government to seize the terrorist than to kill him outright. Arresting al Qaeda personnel in remote parts of Pakistan, however, is almost impossible today; the Pakistani government does not control many of the areas where al Qaeda is based, and a raid to seize terrorists there would probably end in the militants escaping and U.S. and allied casualties in the attempt.

When arrests are impossible, what results is a terrorist haven of the sort present along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border today. Free from the threat of apprehension, terrorists have a space in which to plot, organize, train, and relax -- an extremely dangerous prospect. In such a haven, terrorist leaders can recruit hundreds or even thousands of potential fighters and, more importantly, organize them into a dangerous network. They can transform idealistic but incompetent volunteers into a lethal legion of fighters. They can also plan long-term global operations -- terrorism "spectaculars" like the September 11 attacks, which remain one of al Qaeda's goals.

Killing terrorist operatives is one way to dismantle these havens. Plans are disrupted when individuals die or are wounded, as new people must be recruited and less experienced leaders take over day-to-day operations. Perhaps most importantly, organizations fearing a strike must devote increased attention to their own security because any time they communicate with other cells or issue propaganda, they may be exposing themselves to a targeted attack.

Given the humanitarian and political risks, each strike needs to be carefully weighed, with the value of the target and the potential for innocent deaths factored into the equation. In addition, the broader political consequences must be evaluated; the same death toll can have vastly different political consequences depending on the context. But equally important is the risk of not striking -- and inadvertently allowing al Qaeda leaders free reign to plot terrorist mayhem.

We must not pretend the killings are anything but a flawed short-term expedient that at best reduces the al Qaeda threat -- but by no means eliminates it. Even as U.S. strikes have increased, Pakistan has suffered staggering levels of terrorism as groups with few or limited links to al Qaeda have joined the fray. Al Qaeda itself can also still carry out attacks, including ones outside Pakistan in Europe and even the United States. Thanks to the drone strikes, they are just harder to pull off. The real answer to halting al Qaeda's activity in Pakistan will be the long-term support of Pakistan's counterinsurgency efforts. While this process unfolds, targeted killings are one of America's few options left.