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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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Obama’s overdue in Africa

From an editorial in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

President Obama’s tour of Africa this week has been defined as much by the countries he is skipping as those he is visiting. Among those excluded from the itinerary are Kenya, the homeland of Obama’s father, where the new president and vice president are under indictment by the International Criminal Court; and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, which recently was accused by the State Department of “gross human rights violations” in its campaign against Islamic extremists.

Obama instead is visiting South Africa, whose iconic leader Nelson Mandela appears near death; and two small, untroubled nations, Senegal and Tanzania. That’s in keeping with the trip’s themes : the promotion of U.S. trade and investment in a continent where economic growth is picking up and support for democratic institutions. Obama also wants to encourage a new generation of African leaders, though he may find himself eulogizing, in Mandela, one of the greats of the past.

As African leaders frequently note, the president’s outreach is overdue. It has been four years since his previous visit to Africa, a stretch during which he has made multiple visits to Asia and Latin America. During that time China has made a major push to extend its influence in Africa and, in some important ways, has succeeded: At $200 billion, its annual trade with the continent is twice that of the United States. Beijing also has been showering governments with billions in aid.

Obama can’t match that largesse, but he could, directly or otherwise, draw distinctions between the forms of engagement offered by China and the United States. Obama’s support for democracy offers an opportunity for contrast with China’s unqualified backing for strongmen like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

What the president should not do is use his tame schedule to dodge the continent’s toughest problems. These include not only lingering dictatorships but the rise of Islamic terrorist groups plus continuing conflicts in Sudan and the Congo. Earlier this year, Obama wondered why the United States should consider intervention in Syria, rather than Congo. Since then, his administration co-sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution that mandated the dispatch of a 3,000-strong U.N. “intervention brigade,” including troops from South Africa and Tanzania, to carry out offensive operations against Congolese rebels. Perhaps Obama can now explain why he believes such outside intervention is merited in Congo, but not in Syria.

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