President Obama’s nominee for a key post reveals the bankruptcy of Washington’s thinking on Africa
By Howard French | Foreign Policy
When President Obama recently nominated Gayle Smith to be the next administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, many members of the country’s small Africa-related foreign policy community howled.
Though USAID isn’t an Africa-specific bureaucracy, the agency focuses disproportionately on the continent because of its development mission. After the Pentagon, which has quietly come to dominate American policy toward Africa in recent decades, no other part of the U.S. government has as big a footprint in Africa as USAID.
Smith’s critics, myself included, have objected to the fact that over the years, this former journalist has been a conspicuous backer of authoritarian regimes in places like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda. When I first made this point publicly, a former White House staffer offered a disconcertingly ambivalent response: “I’m not sure if there were more compelling candidates out there,” he said.
He may well be right – and the reason for the lack of qualified personnel is a direct consequence of Washington’s long failure to devise a coherent policy toward Africa. Smith’s rise in Washington over the last 20-plus years bespeaks a steady hollowing out of American policy toward the continent, which began with the Clinton administration’s response to the so-called Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died in a botched humanitarian intervention.
The Clinton Administration drew a simple lesson from the disaster: avoid direct exposure to African crises at all costs. In the years that followed, the United States began to redefine its national interests on the continent in almost purely defensive terms. Africa presented a threat of contagious disease and of explosive political or humanitarian crises, and little more; it needed, more or less, to be quarantined. Washington had no vision of Africa as a place of economic opportunity (with the possible exception of the oil and gas sector), and treated the continent – apart from a select group of autocratic partners admired for their supposed order and efficiency – as a place of starkly limited human potential.
In a vivid demonstration of his administration’s apathy, Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, didn’t even visit the continent until 1996, close to the end of his four-year tenure. I covered his trip to Mali, a country that had recently turned into a surprisingly vibrant democracy, and was struck by the demonstrative air of boredom with which he dispatched the obligatory protocol.
At one point I found myself in a car with George Moose, Christopher’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, an old school diplomat of African-American descent. When I asked Moose if Washington could be expected to find special ways to favor the crop of new democracies that had recently sprouted up around the continent, he replied unsmilingly, “Virtue is its own reward.” A senior member of the State Department policy planning staff at the time told me that Moose had received a simple instruction from his superiors: “Keep Africa off the screen. It doesn’t matter.”
Two years earlier, the Clinton administration’s instinct toward quarantine had lead to Washington’s tragic and deeply shameful efforts to prevent any designation of the outbreak of bloodshed in Rwanda in 1994 as a genocide in order to avoid having to commit the United States in any way there. Details of this story have emerged slowly ever since, with the picture growing steadily uglier. Newly declassified documents show how Clinton officials urged Belgium to withdraw its modest United Nations peacekeeping contingent from Rwanda at the outset of the genocide so that the United States would not be drawn into the violence. This all but guaranteed the crisis in Rwanda would spin out of control.
Less well known, however, is the story of how this stance of not-so benign neglect gradually gave way to another, far more proactive policy. The new approach — pushed by Christopher’s successor Madeline Albright — amounted to anointing and strongly promoting a group of authoritarian leaders who could, it was thought, best preempt conflict and preserve American interests in the region.
In 1997, George Moose was replaced by an energetic young diplomat named Susan Rice, today Obama’s national security adviser, who shared Albright’s belief that a bunch of supposedly enlightened dictators were the key to peace and stability. In promoting democracy in most other parts of the world, the United States has often touted the notion that democratically governed countries don’t fight wars against each other. In Africa, however, the Clintonites took precisely the opposite tack, operating under the assumption that autocrats were the safer bet. Gayle Smith played a big part in the shift in policy.
It was Smith who replaced Rice on the National Security Council as senior director for African affairs during the second Clinton term. Having never pursued serious academic study of Africa, Smith obtained the post largely by virtue of her co-authorship of a 92-page pamphlet entitled The Hidden Revolution. Published in 1982, it’s neither journalism nor scholarship, but rather an unskeptical and thinly sourced paean to rebel administration in zones occupied by the Tigraean People’s Liberation Front, the Marxist-Leninist movement that later took over Ethiopia. Her publishing record is worth mentioning because it’s difficult to imagine someone dealing with any other major region of the world rising to a comparable position in Washington on such a spotty basis.
Smith has been widely credited with playing a central role in promoting what became the Albright approach to Africa: working through a clutch of favored authoritarians to keep the peace and get things done. And her own connection, via her experience in the Horn of Africa, was with the highly autocratic leaders of that region.
Albright announced America’s new approach to Africa during a high-profile visit to Ethiopia in December 1997. “Africa’s best new leaders have brought a new spirit of hope and accomplishment to your countries – and that spirit is sweeping across the continent,” she declared. “They share an energy, a self-reliance and a determination to shape their own destinies… They are challenging the United States to get over the paternalism of the past: to stop thinking of its Africa policy as a none-too-successful rescue service; and to begin seizing opportunities to work with Africans to transform their continent.”
The new approach was consecrated by President Clinton’s trip to the continent in March 1998. During his visit to Uganda he gathered around him the key members of what administration officials began describing as Africa’s “new leaders” (or “renaissance leaders”). Just a few years earlier, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, a cadre of American ambassadors had made waves on the continent by pushing hard for democracy in places like Kenya, Mozambique, and in certain former French colonies. Partly as a result, by the early Clinton years competitive elections were becoming commonplace in Africa for the first time.
Now, with Clinton’s visit to Uganda, the change in policy direction meant that Washington was celebrating a group whose members had all won power by the gun. What is more, to one degree or another, they were all openly hostile to the idea of meaningfully competitive multi-party politics. Nonetheless, to great fanfare, Clinton signed with them what was called the “Entebbe Principles,” promising long-term, meaningful engagement.”
The subsequent history that laid bare American naiveté was not long in unfolding. In order to understand it best, though, once must first identify the members of this nascent club. The best known among them in this country is Paul Kagame, the man who has led Rwanda ever since the genocide there, and who is now widely believed to be engineering a prolongation of his presidency beyond the constitutionally permitted two-term limit. Isaias Afwerki, in power since 1991, is the leader of Eritrea, one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, and a major source of refugees fleeing the continent across the Mediterranean. Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since winning power there at the head of an insurgency in 1986. The late Laurent Kabila was a roguish revolutionary plucked out of obscurity by Rwanda and placed in power after its invasion of Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Finally there was Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for 17 years before dying in 2012. Meles enjoyed something approaching a cult following in some Western aid circles, partly because of his reputed intelligence, and partly because they admired his tightly controlled regime’s expeditious ways. Smith, who was personally close to Meles, delivered a eulogy for him at an Ethiopian memorial service (as, indeed, did Rice).
Just three months after the Clinton trip to Uganda that enshrined Africa’s heroic soldier princes, Washington’s new approach to the continent began to unravel. Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of the world’s poorest countries, fought a disastrous border war that killed over 100,000 people. Two months after that, Rwanda and Uganda joined in a second invasion of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they sought to overthrow the man they had installed barely a year earlier, Laurent Kabila.
The two Rwandan-led interventions in DRC, both provided generous political cover by Washington, fostered a mood of impunity in Kagame, whose mostly Tutsi soldiers were later shown by the United Nations to have pursued a campaign of extermination of hundreds of thousands of Hutu in DRC, the vast majority of them non-combatants. On top of this, Rwanda and Uganda soon fought a bloody mini-war in DRC over control of an illicit trade in minerals and other war booty from that country. All told, the DRC is reckoned today to have lost more than five million of its citizens to these conflicts.
“If we think about this long story about how the new African leaders experience broke down in conflict, what we’re left with is people like Susan and Gayle, and a unity of vision,” said Peter Rosenblum, a longtime Africa specialist at Bard College. “They came in very young and untested, and produced a policy based basically on war and on personalities.”
Gayle Smith should certainly not stand alone to answer for this horrible record, for which the American foreign policy establishment has never given anything like a proper reckoning. One of the reasons for that, though, is the persistence of people like Smith, and her patron, Susan Rice, in positions of high authority. Another, equally pernicious, is the general disinterest that Africa receives from the foreign policy thinkers.
As a region of the world, Africa is virtually alone in being consigned to people with thin expertise and little policy background or clout to shape and guide American diplomacy. Top Africa jobs have often become a kind of sop for African Americans within the bureaucracy. Celebrities like Bono, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck are looked to help set priorities and galvanize public interest. That this should be necessary must be seen as a failure of the policy establishment itself to think more creatively and with more ambition about such a large part of the world.
There is one country that has not failed in its imagination about Africa in the last decade or so, and it happens to be the leading global competitor of the United States: China. And it is China’s booming interests in Africa, and the appetite for African business that has been created in its wake in any number of other middle or rising powers — countries from Brazil and Turkey to Malaysia and Vietnam — that underscore the second major objection to the Smith appointment.
Africa has 1.1 billion people today. By the middle of this century, it will almost certainly count over two billion. By the end of the century, Africa will astoundingly have between three and five billion people. The continent is presently urbanizing faster than any other part of the world. Its GDP is growing at least as fast as Asia’s – though few Americans have noticed. Its middle classes are already larger than India’s. Here, one finds irony in the way China has pursued an ideological competition with Washington in Africa, portraying itself as the non-judgmental foreign power that won’t get involved in other countries’ internal affairs, least of all questions of democracy.
The United States has paid an enormous price to its credibility in Africa for its readiness to preach about democracy with states that are deemed relatively insignificant, while making little public fuss on the subject with long-favored authoritarians and deeply corrupt petro-states like Angola and Equatorial Guinea. Meanwhile, it has utterly failed to understand Africa in terms of its immense upsides, as a place of tremendous opportunities. In economic matters, Washington has made little effort to compete with China and other outside powers in Africa — something that most Africans would greatly welcome and which would be beneficial to all.
When I learned of Smith’s nomination, I re-listened to a public conversation we had in 2004, and was intrigued to hear her lament the lack of “policy tools” available to the United States in Africa. She was speaking about democracy, and to me, this came across more like a shrug of resignation than the statement of a creative policymaker determined to find solutions.
As Washington loses ground to other global players in Africa there is a desperate need for something different, for new ideas. Gayle Smith’s background is bound up in past failures and in a lowering of the United States’ sights in that part of the world. There’s nothing there to suggest that she’s prepared to draw the necessary consequences.