Obama's Non-Doctrine in Africa

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How personal experience, domestic politics, and cautious foreign policy led him to a defensive, vague, and ultimately wise approach to his father's continent

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Obama addressing Ghana's Parliament during his 2009 Africa trip / Reuters

President Obama is about to have another Africa moment -- and possibly his most difficult since entering office.

In his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama defines his American identity through his search for his long-gone Kenyan father. In the end, Obama's encounter with the motherland only reinforces his Americanness. While, as he has said, "I have the blood of Africa within me," his mind is firmly rooted in the New World.

In a presidency shaped by economic crisis, war, and an unyielding resistance from his political opponents, Obama has had scant time to indulge his more than passing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, the world of his father. Indeed, his broad knowledge of Africa has served mostly as window-dressing. From day one of his presidency -- despite the touching flourish of inviting a few Kenyan relatives to join the inner circle of the inaugural -- he seemed to bend over backward to avoid showing favoritism to his father's region.

When he did visit the continent two years ago for the first time in his presidency, he went not to Kenya but to Ghana, where he delivered an astonishing speech before the country's parliament. He articulated an approach to U.S.-Africa relations that seems, even in the most charitable light, to represent an anti-doctrine. "Africa's future is up to Africans," he declared. In an interview with African journalists prior to the trip, he pointedly said that "what we," and Americans bent on really helping Africa, "should be doing is trying to minimize our footprint and maximize the degree to which we're training people to do for themselves."

Obama's emphasis on African self-reliance is refreshing. Too many aid agencies, both government and private, still insist that the inability of Africans to help themselves is the root justification for their humanitarian interventions. Help from outsiders may be easy to justify but, increasingly, Africans have the skills and resources to handle their own affairs. The great, untold story of Africa is the vitality of African cities; rising generations of educated, talented people; the revitalization of rural Africa and the economic boom generally in the region. In many ways, despite enduring more than its fair share of disaster, disease, and mayhem, prospects for the sub-Saharan seem brighter than perhaps any period since the sunny years of post-independence, a half century ago.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there is no twilight for the tyrants

And yet, Obama's philosophy of self-reliance for Africa -- which curiously echoes the views of black nationalists from Americans Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Africans Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure and Nelson Mandela -- also represents a defensiveness, an effort at self-preservation. Obama wants to avoid becoming enmeshed in the internal mess of an African country. Presiding over a quagmire in Afghanistan is one thing; risking the same in Africa is another. Identity politics dictate this distinction. Fighting over delusional claims that Obama is a Muslim has made his tough stand on Islamic terrorists a political necessity. Getting mired in an African war would have the perverse effect of reminding voters that Obama does indeed possess a loyalty to Africanness, however much this loyalty is attenuated and contested.

And so, as the Arab spring turns once-admired Middle Eastern and North African dictators into embarrassments who have outlived their usefulness, in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no twilight for the tyrants. The U.S. does nothing as Robert Mugabe continues to torture his fellow Zimbabweans. Equatorial Guinea, a government run with less skill than the local Little League, remains secure in its relations with the Obama administration on the strength of its oil exports to our country. And in Ethiopia, a ruling party that has held sham elections and relentlessly repressed regional minorities has emerged as perhaps the most muscular U.S. ally south of Egypt Africa. Only last week, the Obama administration introduced a proposal in the United Nations to give Ethiopian armed forces, already present in Somalia, the authority to help impose order in a ravaged part of central Sudan.

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G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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