Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney could have significant implications for America's approach to countries ranging from China to Russia. But U.S. policy toward Africa was unlikely to shift dramatically no matter who was elected president this week -- a remarkable fact considering that nearly every foreign policy issue is cannon fodder for partisan battles these days.
Over the last two decades, successive administrations and congressional leaders have, for the most part, striven to ensure that U.S. policy toward Africa is formulated on a bipartisan basis. This is in part because astute policy leaders have concluded that political bickering could threaten the tenuous interest the African continent generates in most of official Washington. But Africa's well-publicized cases of famine, genocide, and civil conflict have also solidified an esprit de corps among a dedicated minority of elected officials -- and their partners in think tanks, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations -- who have resolved to hang together on all things African in order to enhance policy effectiveness. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), for example, joined forces to support Obama's efforts to achieve a peaceful independence referendum for South Sudan.
The bipartisan agenda is a largely positive one that seeks to build on Africa's emergence as a rapidly growing actor in the global economy, a major contributor to peacekeeping and peacemaking, a vibrant source of cultural innovation, and a hub of civil society change agents committed to shaping a better future for the continent.
But that is the known world. It is in the realm of the unknown where presidential leadership and appointments to key Africa-related positions might make the biggest difference, and where the president will be able to demonstrate America's continuing importance on the African continent as Africa's relevance to U.S. interests becomes increasingly apparent. Here are some of the predictably unpredictable challenges that will likely greet Obama as he begins his second term.
Countering African Terrorist Franchises
The next major front for international military action in support of counterterrorism objectives could very well be northern Mali, where a coalition of states will likely help a West African military force dislodge Islamist groups with ties to international terrorist, drug, and human trafficking networks. How that military force will be constituted and what role the United States will play remains unclear. The U.N. Security Council recently passed a resolution that paves the way for an intervention force and calls for an action plan to be drawn up before the end of November, and the United States will likely provide air power (possibly drones), intelligence, and logistical support to the effort. The conflict will probably be protracted and bloody, and made more problematic by the lack of a credible government to partner with in southern Mali. And the fighting has the potential to destabilize the entire Sahel, especially amid the fallout from the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya.
To complicate matters, Mali is not the only West African country where an Islamist threat exists. Boko Haram has so far focused on internal targets in Nigeria, and the United States will continue to support the Nigerian government's efforts to contain this rapidly expanding militant organization. But Washington could take more aggressive action -- in the form, say, of more direct support for the Nigerian government's counterinsurgency efforts -- if Boko Haram sets its sights on international targets and threatens U.S. companies in the region.
In Somalia, recent successes in standing up a new government in Mogadishu and extending state administration throughout previously contested southern Somalia do not alter the fact that al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia, is still alive and dangerous, with a demonstrated track record of attacking local and international targets. Al-Shabab will probably continue to focus on soft targets not only within Somalia but also in Kenya, Uganda, and other countries that have contributed troops to the African Union mission that has -- with strong U.S. support -- helped the Somali government consolidate control over wide swathes of the country. Should al-Shabab increase its attacks on targets in neighboring countries, the United States could become more deeply enmeshed in regional counterterrorism operations from both the ground (commando raids) and the air (drone strikes).