The Africa Surprise

From deadly cross-border conflicts to emboldened terrorist franchises, Barack Obama will confront a host of challenges in Africa during his second term.

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).

Ending Some of the World's Deadliest Wars

Conflicts in East and Central Africa, which have claimed millions of African lives and spilled over numerous African borders, will undoubtedly explode early on in Obama's second term. The intensifying civil war within Sudan (playing out against the backdrop of a shaky peace between Sudan and South Sudan) could blow up, as rebels in Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and eastern Sudan all conspire to overthrow a despotic, corrupt regime that has ruled Sudan for nearly a quarter of a century under a head of state that is wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court. The United States will need to keep a watchful eye on Khartoum's support for jihadist networks, especially in the aftermath of a possible Israeli bombing of a Khartoum munitions factory in October. In confronting the volatile dynamic within Sudan and between Sudan and South Sudan, the United States will have to juggle the competing policy demands of peacemaking, counterterrorism, democracy advocacy, and human rights promotion. Peacemaking and counterterrorism cooperation drove policy during Obama's first term. But if that cooperation diminishes, human rights and democracy promotion could take a front seat.

As bloody as the conflict in Sudan is, it is no match in terms of sheer mortality for the ongoing cycle of destruction in eastern Congo, which has claimed more than five million lives since 1998 according to the International Rescue Committee. The Rwandan government is orchestrating the newest round of warfare, which was sparked by the M23 rebellion in April, with support from Uganda, according to a U.N. panel of experts and Human Rights Watch. If the international community fails to muster the will to counter this cross-border meddling, neighboring countries -- particularly Rwanda and Uganda -- will continue to intervene, lured in by the prospect of plundering Congo's natural resources. Numerous armed groups are taking advantage of a collapsed Congolese state, which has been deliberately kept that way by corrupt military and political leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who benefit from mineral smuggling and whose profits would be cratered if there were effective state institutions in Congo like a functioning military and justice system. As the death tolls mounts, pressure -- led by U.S. students demanding phones and laptops that don't contain Congo's tainted minerals -- will increase for more meaningful international action, which presently consists of a meandering peace process, a barely relevant peacekeeping mission, and a set of unimplemented U.S. regulations aimed at creating some transparency in the mining sector for the first time in history. Ultimately, a peace process must evolve that gets at the core interests -- especially economic ones -- of Congolese and regional actors, because sending more peacekeepers and cutting more short-term power-sharing deals are only stopgap measures that have proved utterly insufficient at bringing an end to the conflict.

A third cross-border conflict has captured the imagination of young people all over the United States and around the world even though it is not nearly as deadly as the first two. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, is now destabilizing pockets of civilian populations in Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (the group is also alleged to be in Darfur and threatens to return to northern Uganda). The United States has deployed 100 military advisors to support a primarily Ugandan effort to contain the LRA, but the endeavor -- though admirable -- still lacks a credible mechanism for removing Kony from the battlefield. Obama will eventually face a decision: Should the United States beef up the existing mission or bring the boys home and leave Kony in place to rebuild the LRA and continue his atrocities unchecked?

Preventing Future Crises

Obama can help minimize or prevent future crises in the region with a vigorous and deeper investment in special envoy diplomacy, international justice mechanisms, trade and development partnerships, African institutional capacity building, multilateral cooperation on countering criminal and terrorist networks, and strategic support for democratic transformation. A U.S.-led multinational effort to build and support a credible peace process in Congo, for instance, could have a major impact on stability in the entire Central African region. Partnering with key African states on counterterrorism efforts and then using that leverage to support real democratic reforms and human rights protections could be game-changing. By working with the country's bipartisan coalition and African allies to expand the architecture of crisis prevention in the region, the president can play a major role in helping Africa reach its true potential.



Probable Cause

Are scientists too cautious to help us stop climate change?

Conventional wisdom about climate change may have begun to gel in the aftermath of Sandy, but did global warming really cause the vicious hybrid storm that devastated much of the eastern seaboard last week? The short answer is no. Attributing Sandy or any other single event to long-term climate trends is rather like blaming El Niño for a car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway. But that's hardly an excuse for policymakers to keep kicking the climate can down the road. Science actually doesn't tell us much about that kind of causality, so it's time to stop acting like it does.

At its best, climate science deals in probabilities. This means that under ideal conditions, scientists can estimate how a given climate signal alters the chances of a particular event. For example, we can now begin to estimate how global warming changes the probability of destructive hurricane landfalls. But in the case of hybrid storms like Sandy, which combine hurricane and winter storm characteristics, science hasn't even progressed to the point of assessing probabilities.

Although this point may seem straightforward, it is routinely spun and misinterpreted. My colleagues and I try to make concise statements such as "Science has not established a link between hybrid events and climate change." But often, such statements are spun by climate skeptics into "Science has established that there is no link between Sandy and climate change." Others see Sandy as a harbinger of what climate change may look like, or emphasize (as I have) that sea level rise and increased atmospheric moisture can only worsen the effects of storms like Sandy.

But there is a more fundamental reason that science has failed to properly inform public debate -- its inherent conservatism. For scientists, an asymmetric reward structure means that it is better to be a little late in what proves to be an important discovery than to publish too soon and be proved wrong. As a result, scientists often ignore apparent patterns in their data if there is as little as a 5 percent probability that they could have arisen by chance. But while this philosophy makes sense for science, it can be disastrous when applied to risk assessment.

For example, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster occurred, in part, because the plant was built to withstand tsunamis triggered by offshore earthquakes up to magnitude 8.3 -- the largest earthquake that scientists conservatively estimated might be possible. But what was a "conservative" estimate for science was anything but conservative in the arena of risk management. Given the enormous potential downside, it would have made far more sense to build in a margin of error that might have withstood the magnitude 9.0 quake that did occur.

The same can be said of climate change policy. The world has suffered an extraordinary string of weather disasters over the past decade, ranging from crippling droughts and floods, to severe tornado and hail outbreaks, to highly destructive hurricanes. Insurance industry statistics reflect a substantial increase in damages from these events, but in only a few cases can scientists confidently attribute them to climate change. (For example, increased incidence of droughts, floods, and high category hurricanes may be partly pinned on climate change.) 

But we know next to nothing about the relationship between climate change and other weather phenomena, such as tornadoes, and we have yet to establish a link to hybrid storms like Sandy. For all but a few of these phenomena, the scientifically correct conclusion is that we can't rule out the possibility that they were purely manifestations of natural variability. But from a public policy perspective, it would be prudent to assume that climate change might be behind some of these changes, given that it is manifestly changing the environment in which these events develop.

Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose we begin pumping sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere in an attempt to slow the pace of global warming. Suppose further, that over the next two years we suffer unprecedented drought, summer freezes, and a series of crippling blizzards. When confronted, scientists say that they need at least ten more years of data to establish with 95 percent confidence whether or not these phenomena were made substantially more likely by the sulfate aerosols. My guess is that most everyone, including scientists, would want the experiment terminated right away. A small chance that the signal is real justifies taking action, given the magnitude of the consequences.

The real experiment we are performing by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere differs from the thought experiment in several crucial respects. First, it is accidental rather than intentional, thereby entailing a different moral culpability. Second, turning off the experiment would be costly, especially for many of the most profitable industries on the planet. And finally, we must terminate the experiment very soon to minimize risks that will continue for hundreds of years.

Yet the outcome asymmetry of global warming is real and must be accounted for in any rational assessment of its risks. The most likely outcomes would have serious but manageable consequences for our descendents. Somewhat less probable, but not impossible, are benign outcomes. On the far side of the probability distribution are dire consequences ranging from flooded coastal cities to global armed conflict brought about by natural disasters and chronic food and water shortages. Reasonable people will differ on how far we should go to mitigate these highly asymmetric risks. But the argument that there is no risk or that we should do nothing is both scientifically and morally indefensible.

NASA via Getty Images