Obama and Africa

Lots of Hope, Not Much Change

Dressed to impress: an arrival ceremony for Obama in Dar es Salaam, July 2013. Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008, the news was greeted with enormous hope in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as among the small coterie of Americans who follow the region closely. This son of a Kenyan father would not only understand the continent better than his predecessors in the White House, the thinking went, but he would also treat it as a strategic priority and direct more resources its way. At the time, it didn’t seem far-fetched to predict that Obama would usher in a new era of improved U.S.-African relations. Even though President George W. Bush had substantially increased aid to Africa, anti-Americanism there had grown under his watch, the result of opposition to his unilateralist foreign policy.

This optimism was always misplaced. Between the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Great Recession, the last six years have not been favorable to ambitious new foreign policy initiatives, particularly in regions of the world viewed as secondary to U.S. interests. What’s more, Obama’s personal biography actually made him less likely to focus on Africa, not more so, since he and his advisers viewed it as a liability. Other than a brief stopover in Ghana in the summer of 2009, Obama did not make an official visit to the region until the summer of 2013—after his reelection—and even then, he skipped Kenya, touching down in neighboring Tanzania instead.

If the medical injunction of “do no harm” is the measuring stick, Obama’s record in Africa can be characterized as a success. His administration has not done anything as misguided as the actions taken by the Reagan administration, which, by backing guerilla forces opposed to Soviet-supported regimes, expanded the civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Nor has Obama repeated anything like the Clinton administration’s failure in Rwanda in 1994, when Washington turned a blind eye to an unfolding genocide. But if judged by a more ambitious standard, Obama’s policy

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