Africa responded with joy when Barack Obama was elected. There was dancing in the streets of Liberia. Kenya declared his inauguration a public holiday. When Obama visited the continent in July 2009, far earlier in his term than the handful of other U.S. presidents that had actually traveled to Africa while in office, expectations only continued to rise. Obama's major address on Africa policy, delivered in Ghana, was generally well received, with African politicians across the spectrum broadly reassured by its themes of self-reliance and good governance. Many Africans (and many American Africa experts) assumed that, with a father born in Kenya, Obama's approach to Africa would be transformative.
Yet a number of forces, and some of the president's own decisions, have conspired to make this president's approach to Africa look a great deal like business as usual. Notably, Obama has put capable career officers in charge of the Africa bureaus at both State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Putting career officers rather than hand-picked political appointees in these plum slots was a curious move, and virtually ensured that caution would be the watchword of our approach to the continent. (U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice certainly counts as a heavyweight political appointee with loads of Africa experience, but her portfolio on New York is so broad that she is no position to manage day-to-day Africa diplomacy.) The assistant secretary for Africa, Johnnie Carson, is a seasoned professional, as is Earl Gast at USAID. Carson was certainly a vast upgrade from Bush's assistant secretary for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. Frazer, a political appointee, all but left the bureau in smoking ruin, according to a highly critical Inspector General report issued shortly after she had left office.
But here is the rub: Political appointees tend to gravitate to the extremes in the bureaucracy. They can be either really good or really bad at their jobs. Able career officers like Carson and Gast run the show well, avoid obvious mistakes, and make sure they don't get so far out in front on any given policy that it will be a career-killer when the next administration rolls around. It is not a bad formula for governing, but it is not a recipe for delivering new or entrepreneurial policy, and particularly not in a region that struggles to get the attention of senior policymakers even on the best of days.
The lack of political muscle at State and USAID on Africa has come at a time when the Pentagon is increasingly active across the continent. The Pentagon's Africa Command, known simply as Africom, is well-resourced (established in 2007, Africom already has more personnel than the total number of USAID international staffers working on the continent), and wading into policy debates in ways that the Pentagon rarely did in the past when it came to Africa. Private discussions with military officials from both countries suggest that Pentagon encouragement was key in prompting Kenya to break from its traditional practice of regional military non-intervention last year and invade Somalia as part of an open-ended commitment to crush al-Shabab militants using that country as a base. Just this last week, the Washington Post ran a front-page feature on the Pentagon's disquieting practice of relying on private contractors "to spy on huge expanses of African territory."
Again, we bump up against some of the limits of the president putting career appointees in his key Africa slots. Few career officers are going to lock horns with the behemoth that is the Department of Defense over Africa policy, even at moments when that policy appears to be driven more by short-term security imperatives than a long-term vision for economic and political growth on the continent. The U.S. military has done a superb job hunting down extremists in Africa, but as a sometimes eye-popping six-part feature in the Military Times made clear, the Pentagon brass often acts with only a very limited understanding of the continent's complicated history and local politics. (As one military officer in charge of targeting in the Horn of Africa told the author: "We didn't understand the culture, we didn't understand the people ... in a real sense we didn't understand the players and how they related in the various organizations inside the various cities in the Horn.")
That also underscores a broader point about why Africa has been less of a focus for the administration. With ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen; a eurozone still on an economic knife's edge; the Iranian nuclear program; and deeply unsettled transitions across the Middle East, the administration has not had a great deal of extra bandwidth with which to work. Coming up with a sweeping new policy vision for Africa has doubtless felt like a luxury in the daily grind of waking up to multiple front-page international crises. No administration will ever admit to being distracted, but this one has better reason to be than most.