Obama's Non-Doctrine in Africa

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


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.

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.

By standing above the African fray, President Obama has maintained his immense popularity in the region (a fact reinforced by Michelle Obama's celebratory visit to South Africa last week). But the president may soon be forced to dirty his hands. On July 9, Southern Sudan will win its long-awaited independence, creating the largest new African nation-state since Portugal was forced to abandon its three large colonies in the 1970s. The birth of a new African nation creates enormous pressures on the creaky systems of territorial integrity in the sub-Saharan, where borders largely remain those drawn by colonial usurpers from the 19th century.

Few things are more central to realizing national self-determination than a nation's borders. So, in principle, Obama's embrace of African self-reliance should to make him a natural ally of most anyone who would turn some of the "empire nations" of Africa -- such large, diverse states as Nigeria, the Congo, and Sudan -- into smaller, better governed, and more ethnically and geographically homogenous political entities. To promote secessionism would create new risks for U.S. relations with Africa, however. The spread self-determination can be difficult to contain, sometimes replacing old problems with new ones.

In Sudan, for example, the South's so-far successful move toward independence has inspired other regions to seek secession, sometimes sparking violent conflict. The enormous effort by the Bush administration to achieve a peace deal between north and south Sudan created the conditions for a workable partition of the country. Washington hoped that the cleavage would fall nicely along Arab/Islamic and Christian/African lines. As it happens, the new nation of South Sudan does define itself largely in these terms, and in opposition to the north. And yet, the south's secession further exposes the weakness of the north. The oil-rich Abyei region, for instance, lies between the new South Sudan and the north. Abyei has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks over its disputed status, and is the area in which the U.S. wants Ethiopian forces to police. Abeyi once seemed likely to secede from Sudan on its own, but a referendum to do so has been delayed. Darfur, meanwhile, also is home to secessionist proponents, some of them violent. In eastern Sudan, which includes access points to the Red Sea, Khartoum's appeal is also weak, but the region's economic importance makes the central government unlikely to give it up without a fight.

On July 9, when South Sudan's independence becomes official, Obama faces a kind steroidal movement for African self-reliance, which threatens to split Sudan into not two nations, but many. He must choose whether to resist calls for U.S. intervention in the remaining parts of Sudan, thus rewarding the Khartoum government of Omar Bashir for at least living up to its promise to let the long-suffering South leave. So far, this appears to be the course Obama is taking, marking him once more as cautious but perhaps also wise. The deconstruction of colonial-era African borders has decades to run, and Obama seems content as President to notch small victories when he can. In the birth of South Sudan, he has one that's well worth defending.