Argument

Back to Africa

If Barack Obama is reelected, he'll have to deliver on his promises to Africa -- and act more like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008 heralded positive change in the country's Africa policy. But, over the last four years, he failed to deliver on his promises. As the United States prepares for Election Day, one wonders whether or not the next president's Africa policy will break the inertia and revive U.S. interest in the continent. Africa is so disconnected and removed from the rumblings of domestic politics in Washington that it is one of the rare areas where being bipartisan works. Thus, the problems that plague the continent constitute low-hanging fruit for any president who is willing to commit his political capital to Africa.

Ironically, like other non-Americans, Africans see no major foreign policy differences between Republican and Democratic administrations. Gov. Mitt Romney's shift to the center on foreign affairs during this campaign further muddles the horizon and makes it hard to tell how his Africa policy would differ from Obama's.

It is equally unclear how a second-term President Obama would approach Africa. His record, however, allows some insight. In the summer of 2009, he outlined the foundation of his Middle East and Africa policies in two historical speeches he delivered in Cairo and Accra. Given in the halls of the Ghanaian parliament, the Accra speech resonated with political leaders and civil society groups across the continent for two reasons. Ghana embodies the worst and best of the political struggle of Africans. It was the first African country to wrestle independence from a colonial power, leading the 50-year freedom movement that culminated with the demise of South Africa's Apartheid regime in 1994. Ghana also led the continent with a succession of bloody coups d'état, which ended with the transition to democracy in 1993, allowing the country to emerge as a beacon of stability and economic growth.

So when Obama called for the end of the era of strongmen and pledged U.S. support to democratic reforms and institution-building, Africans applauded and saw a partner in the new president. But strongmen across the continent quickly tested Obama's resolve. When the authoritarian leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo hijacked elections to cement their grip on power, the Obama White House failed to unambiguously stand with the disenfranchised voters. The gap between Obama's rhetoric and actions continued to widen as his administration failed to capitalize on his popularity and tremendous goodwill towards him in Africa. His policy lacked the creativity to adjust engagement to the changing face of the continent and rested on the old Cold War approach that saw Africa primarily as a resource provider and a battleground against enemies of the United States. As a result, democratization and the defense of human rights took a second seat to security concerns. Thus, under Obama, the main interlocutors of the United States in Africa were not the democratically minded leaders of Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, or Zambia, but rather the strongmen of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Where democracy and human rights are concerned, the Obama State Department prefers to deal with African leaders behind closed doors, shielding U.S. policy from public oversight and allowing their allies to save face. This approach has exacerbated tensions in conflict-prone areas such as the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions.

For four years, Obama faced a formidable opposition from members of the Republican Party in Congress, who sought to block or derail his domestic initiatives. But as a senator, earlier in his career, and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked successfully with Republicans to pass the Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act that was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As president, Obama distanced himself from this legislation and did not apply it as the Congo crisis worsened during his watch. If the last four years are any indication, one should not expect Obama to change the way he has engaged in Africa.

Still, considering Africa's growing importance on the global market, the next president of the United States should have the courage to turn the current, negative and despondent narrative upside down and learn from Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. As former governors, neither president had half of Obama's foreign policy experience, but showed great courage and creativity in their Africa policies.

Serving in the height of the Cold War when human rights and democracy were relegated to the periphery of U.S. Africa policy, Jimmy Carter successfully challenged the reasoning behind that approach. He elevated democracy and freedom, two pillars of American political thought, to policy prominence. He became the first Western leader to show that political freedom and military hegemony were not mutually exclusive. For the United States to be successful in its global outreach, the promotion of democracy, civil liberties, and good governance had to be a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Carter managed to protect American interests across the continent while promoting democracy. In Zaire, he rescued the dictatorial Mobutu Sese Seko regime from two invasions in 1977 and 1978, but never wavered in his push for democratization. This pressure and enthusiasm for political freedom encouraged the emergence of a democracy movement in the 1980s that included Zaire's Etienne Tshisekedi, Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade. In 1978, Carter visited Nigeria and pushed for the first transition from military to civilian rule that saw Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo step down and make way for the emergence of President Shehu Shagari in 1979.

During the 2000 campaign, the pundits and the media derided Governor Bush for his apparent lack of foreign policy experience. At the time, he did not know who Pervez Musharraf was. No one expected him to do much with Africa. But as president, Bush for some of the most innovative development initiatives that have made remarkable impact in the lives of millions of Africans, including the Millennium Corporation Account, the Presidential Malaria Initiative, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

If Obama secured a second term, he would have to gather the courage to recalibrate his Africa policy to reflect his speeches and earlier work in the Senate. He should learn from Jimmy Carter and his predecessor George W. Bush, capitalize on the bipartisanship nature of U.S. Africa policy and turn hope to substance.

During the campaign, Governor Romney struggled to articulate his position, often reversing himself on critical issues. When it comes to Africa, what is required of him is the courage of his conviction. There is a surplus of bipartisanship when it comes to the region. But Obama proved that foreign policy experience does not guarantee success in Africa. Carter and Bush proved that conviction and courage matters as much as experience.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Land of the Lost

Latin Americans may prefer Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, but few believe either candidate will pay the region the attention it deserves.

It is hard to find many Latin Americans who believe that either a second Obama term or a Romney administration is likely to overcome the stunning shortsightedness that has long characterized U.S. policy toward the region. By now, the reasons for Latin America's importance to the United States are as familiar as they are compelling: trade, energy, democracy, demography, proximity.

Most Latin Americans would prefer to see Barack Obama reelected, not so much because they have great hopes about a more vigorous commitment to the hemisphere in the next four years, but rather because Obama is widely respected and seen as a responsible steward of global affairs.

Mitt Romney, for the most part, is unknown, and any perceived association between him and the last Republican administration arouses intense concern. George W. Bush was mistrusted -- again, less because of his shortcomings in dealing with the region (in fact, he was an advocate of two popular issues, immigration reform and free trade) than because of his reckless foreign policy and irresponsible fiscal management.

Regardless of who wins the presidential race, the next president will be consumed by America's profound domestic problems and distracted by what are deemed to be more urgent foreign-policy priorities: Iran, Pakistan, the Middle East, China, North Korea. Even an issue as manifestly fundamental to U.S. interests as Mexico's security situation -- drug-fueled violence has claimed some 60,000 Mexican lives since 2006 -- has, astonishingly, been absent from the campaign.

Such glaring omissions are greeted in the region with the peculiar ambivalence that still marks U.S.-Latin American relations. There is, on the one hand, bewilderment and frustration, as expressed last April by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (one of Washington's closest regional allies): "If the United States realizes that its strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America, and if they realize that working together can create prosperity ... then we'll achieve great results," he declared.

On the other hand, some voices wonder whether U.S. indifference is in fact a blessing -- one that has made the region's sound economic and social performance over the past decade possible. While the United States has been preoccupied at home and elsewhere abroad, Latin Americans (South Americans especially) have forged deeper ties with China and other players outside the hemisphere. They have also fashioned innovative anti-poverty approaches like conditional cash transfer programs. The overall result has been moderate economic growth, falling poverty rates, and, in a number of countries, declining inequality.

Still, despite the shrinking asymmetry between the United States and Latin America and Washington's declining influence in the region, the next administration's hemispheric agenda is far from irrelevant. The bad news? Much of that agenda -- Cuba, drugs, trade, immigration -- contains an unusually high dose of domestic U.S. politics.

The modest progress Obama has made on these fronts since 2009 illustrates this very point. Many Latin Americans would like to see comprehensive immigration reform and the end of the punitive U.S. embargo against Cuba, and are therefore disappointed by the administration's aggressive deportation policy and incremental action on Cuba. (The decision not to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center -- not a Latin American issue but one of symbolic significance for many Latin Americans -- hasn't helped matters.) But Obama has taken small yet positive steps: by removing Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittance flows to Cuba and, in a move that drew applause not only from many of the 50 million Latinos in the United States but also throughout Latin America, embracing a Dream Act-lite that could give as many as 1.7 million young unauthorized migrants work permits for two years.

The optimists hope that, in his second term, Obama would be unburdened by the domestic political constraints that have made his Latin American policy notably cautious. By no longer having to worry about winning Florida and catering to hard-line Cuban-Americans, Obama would presumably be free to pursue a more energetic strategy to engage Cuba. Obama has not hinted at such a course, so that may be wishful thinking. Obama has, however, been explicit about making immigration reform a high priority over the next four years. The politics are complicated (even in the Democratic Party) and the best Obama may be able to muster is a series of meaningful steps -- such as expanding temporary worker programs or passing the Dream Act in Congress -- rather than a comprehensive package. But any forward movement would be met with enthusiasm by most Latin Americans and Latinos in the United States.

The issue driving the biggest wedge between Latin America and the United States is narcotics, and even the most hardcore optimists doubt that a second Obama term would bring a serious review of U.S. anti-drug policy or more far-reaching measures to control the flow of arms and money to the region. (Most of the drug-related murders in Mexico are committed with arms sold in the United States.) While the issue hardly gets mentioned anymore in U.S. presidential contests, a number of respected former and current Latin American presidents have recently called for a rethinking of the U.S.-led prohibitionist approach to and criminalization of drug consumption. As the drug trade fuels violent crime and corruption in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Obama has agreed to listen to alternative proposals, but not much more than that. And there is, of course, no sign that Obama is ready to take on the powerful gun lobby in the United States.

If Romney wins, optimists hope that his more moderate, pragmatic foreign-policy advisors will have the upper hand. Many were intrigued and heartened when they heard Romney say in the recent foreign-policy debate that Latin America represented a "huge opportunity." But it is not clear precisely what that means, and what a Romney administration would be prepared to do to take advantage of such an opportunity. Deepening current integration schemes (with NAFTA, for example) or pursuing a trade agreement with Brazil -- the world's sixth-largest economy -- sound appealing, but doing so would involve tough battles with powerful political interests such as Florida's orange juice producers. There is no evidence that Romney would be willing to engage in such battles.

Latin Americans worry that a Romney presidency could bring back some of the more confrontational, aggressive rhetoric aimed at the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes that marked the first George W. Bush administration. Unlike Obama, Romney sees Hugo Chávez as a national security threat in light of the Venezuelan president's ties to the Iranian regime. The GOP candidate has repeatedly expressed alarm about the presence of Hezbollah in the region.

In practice, the policy shift under Romney would likely be marginal. But the rhetoric could heat up and the political polarization in the hemisphere could intensify. Romney's tough stand on immigration and almost comical references to "self-deportation" as part of the solution won't help him in the region. Moreover, if Romney translates his relentless China-bashing into Spanish, that could also make many in the region uneasy. China -- now the largest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, and Peru and second-largest for Argentina and Colombia -- has, on balance, had a positive economic impact on the region.

So who would be better for Latin America -- Obama or Romney? For a region so profoundly connected to the United States -- one that receives more than $50 billion in remittance flows each year from a rapidly growing Latino population in the States -- the answer may ultimately be the candidate who has the best chance of averting a fiscal cliff and fixing the U.S. economy. In that respect, Latin Americans have a lot in common with their American counterparts.

Alex Wong/Getty Images