AMERICA'S policy toward Africa is coming off about two decades of indirection and inaction.
It is fair to say that the last useful, effective U.S. intervention in African affairs occurred during the Reagan administration when the United States played an active role in bringing about the independence of Namibia, the termination of Cuban/Soviet and South African military meddling in Angola, and the beginning of the end of apartheid rule in South Africa.
Since then, partly because of traditional U.S. indifference to developments in Africa, reinforced by an ignorance-induced reluctance to act and by a preoccupation with events in other parts of the world considered to be of greater importance to the United States, succeeding governments in Washington have largely stood by and dithered in the face of crises in Africa.
Many of these are still around. Each in its own way - and, certainly, collectively, in terms of the general evolution of the economic and political situation in Africa - contributes to the fact that Africa continues to rank dead last in terms of prosperity among the regions of the world. On the basis of the size of countries' economies, there would have been no African representation at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last month without the European countries having agreed to clear a place for South Africa.
Below are some of the severe problems that the United States has not addressed effectively in Africa. But first, it is worth noting by comparison the large amount of financial and military resources that America has devoted to problems in Europe that are the responsibility of the Europeans. Two examples: Kosovo, population 2 million, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, population 4.6 million. Another is the much-vaunted, still-stumbling Northern Ireland peace accord that President Clinton in principle fathered in 1998.
Here, there is the continuing blot of Darfur, where hundreds of thousands are said to have died and millions displaced. Sudan is also tormented by a continuing North-South internal conflict, allegedly resolved but actually only stretched out by a 2005 accord which threatens to come apart at any minute over the question of who gets the country's oil revenues, and over the nation's fundamental ethnic and religious divides.
A "new" U.S. policy may be emerging after elephantine wrangling within the Obama Administration, which it denies. The new policy may signal real U.S. engagement in the issues of Sudan, although it might amount only to more fruitless exhortation, the earmark of previous administrations.
Somalia is in a persistent state of chaos. It hasn't had a government since 1991. One can dismiss as nonsense the argument that if the United States does not stabilize Somalia it will become another platform for acts of Islamic terrorism directed against the United States. (If that argument were valid, it could serve equally well as an argument for "wars of necessity" in Yemen and Pakistan, in addition to Afghanistan.)
The Clinton administration dipped in and then dipped out of trying to deal with the Somalia situation, abandoning ship when 18 Americans were killed in 1993. (U.S. deaths in Iraq, a discretionary war, stand at more than 4,300 so far.) The argument that developments in Somalia are peripheral to the United States is belied, first, by the piracy along the Somali coast, the longest in Africa, and, second, by the fact that someone in Washington saw fit to quietly station more than 2,000 U.S. troops in Djibouti, just up the Indian Ocean coast from Somalia.
Third, in 2006 the United States provided air and intelligence support to Ethiopian forces as they invaded Somalia. They occupied the country for a while before they too bailed. A lack of wisdom and an ignorance of Africa was reflected in this U.S. policy, given the traditional, well-known mutual dislike of Ethiopians and Somalis, reflected in warfare that dates back to at least 1977 in modern times.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Formerly called Zaire, the Congo is another severely troubled country whose problems American administrations have for the most part looked away from since the Cold War ended. This is one that the United States has classically lateraled to the United Nations, like a quarterback about to be sacked, not because we believed the United Nations could do better, but because the problems of the Congo are such that anyone who tackles them will fail, or will be called upon to devote more resources to them than the United States has been prepared to commit.
These three are probably Africa's biggest problem countries. Inside the U.S. government, the Department of State generally has been stuck with them. It rarely has had the guts or the resources to tackle them head-on. There has always been whining - not entirely unjust - that the Department of Defense does have the money to take them on, but the problem with that contention is that it accepts a militarization of U.S. Africa policy, undesirable for the United States and for Africa itself.
For example, one possible result of the establishment in the dying days of the Bush administration of a new U.S. regional military command, AFRICOM, is that a phenomenon in Africa that had died out at one point, the military coup d'etat, has come back with a vengeance, most recently in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, and Mauritania.
Whether it was a failure of will, or of the ability to present the case for Africa persuasively by those in charge of Africa policy within the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations, the fact is that Africa has continued to receive consistently short shrift in U.S. foreign policy for 20 years now. One can hope that President Obama's approach will make a difference. He has started reasonably well; results remain to be seen.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.