Let’s Get Down to Business: Mr. Obama goes to Africa

President Barack Obama and Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete kicked around a special soccer ball in Dar es Salaam on July 2nd that is designed to generate electricity for small gadgets like lamps and cellphones.

I was away for 2 weeks staffing a summer camp, removed from the comforts of home and technology, so I apologize for not giving you all something to read. But now I’m back!

Something that happened just a few days before I left for camp was President Obama’s trip to Africa. At the end of his June 27th to July 2nd tour of Africa, President Obama met with his predecessor George W. Bush in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to commemorate the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings there and in Nairobi, which brought Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the attention of the American public for the first time.

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush pay their respects to the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Tanzania, an attack that put al-Qaeda on the map.

On the surface, his talks were all about the economy and reengaging the continent in a new push: a $7billion, five-year initiative that would partner with African countries and the private sector to bring electricity to millions of Sub-Saharan Africans.

An excellent idea and stellar foreign policy move if everyone follows through on their commitments. And considering China has been ramping up its own foreign investment on the continent in exchange for their natural resources, we should certainly be positioning ourselves there to have just as much, if not, more influence there (most Africans would be more favorable in cooperation with us anyway considering we’re less likely to bring scores of our own workers to the continent, unlike China, who sets up shop there and typically bring over their own people to work).

China has been sending workers to Africa since the Mao years to build roads and railways, but investment has surged in the past 15 years as the People’s Republic has sought to secure vital resources it needs to fuel its economy.

But if you think this Africa trip was only about trade and investment in infrastructure on the continent, think again. Diplomacy is a game of give and take, wheeling and dealing, where no one side is expecting to come out of a talk empty handed. The intention of bringing economic stability and development is certainly there, but there were likely other issues on Obama’s agenda as he met with some of the African continent’s key leaders. And I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with my first paragraph and it rhymes with “commemorism.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the laying of the wreath on that memorial in Dar es Salaam was no accident (I’m not saying that they weren’t paying their respects and that the gesture wasn’t genuine). Is it a coincidence that the visit to Dar es Salaam marked the conclusion of the Africa trip? Of the 21 individuals charged with participating in the 1998 attacks, only 4 are still at large; the rest have been killed, imprisoned, or await trial in the United States (not a bad track record if you ask me).

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses a great threat to the continent, and boasts affiliates from coast to coast, from Mauritania in the West to Somalia in the East.

What I’m saying is that the trip to Tanzania with Bush was subtly conveying a message to the continent: we’re doubling down on Africa, in both the economic and security sphere. Development of a stable and growing economy is absolutely, positively, 130% necessary for the long term health and political stability of any country; foreign investment is also an excellent tool to that end. With that being said, there’s a Catch 22 here; few invest in a country that is considered unstable. Militants and terrorist organizations have become threats to governments and to the safety of populations all over the continent.

With the U.S. military pulling out of Iraq, winding down its operations in Afghanistan, and re-positioning itself in the Pacific, Pentagon leaders see the threat from terrorists and extremists groups growing in much of Africa. Our military presence in Africa is a heck of a lot bigger than sending 100 special operators into central Africa to play “Where’s Waldo?” with Joseph Kony.

As you can see from this fun, interactive map (courtesy of John Reed from Foreign Policy), the U.S. has been quietly positioning itself for a long-term commitment in Africa for the better part of a decade (And that map just shows the countries where the U.S. has operated in this past spring.) And aside from all the clandestine ops I just revealed to world by using the top secret database called Google, look no further than the Army’s Africa page for more details about their publicly disclosed African operations. Truth be told, it is subtle, but extensive; training African troops, intelligence sharing, surgical raids by JSOC (stay tuned for an upcoming article about those guys), drone strikes, etc. After years of task forces and temporary designations, the U.S. military under Donald Rumsfeld established USAFRICOM in 2008, a unified command for the continent like USNORTHCOM, USSOUTHCOM, USCENTCOM, USEURCOM and USPACOM.  For the most part, the U.S. has been engaging in preemptive, low intensity operations by empowering African militaries to counter militant threats, and is leading from behind.

With the threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in the Horn and Boko Haram in Niger, M23 in Central Africa, and an uptick in drug trafficking with profits going to these groups there is certainly a great risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively.  Problems are also posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Since the fall of Qaddafi we have seen Libya threatened by hundreds militia groups and M23 wreaking havoc in the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa.

Check out AON’s 2013 Terrorism and Political Violence map and you’ll see what I mean when I say that Africa as a whole is an enormous security concern.

In West Africa there are also major narco-trafficking problems, with the profits feeding the insurgencies in Mali and Algeria. Similarly, East Africa has been experiencing upticks in heroin trafficking by way of the Indian Ocean from the poppy fields in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly funding, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The U.S. draw-down in Afghanistan presents an opportunity for Africa to become a theater of expansion for the U.S. military, and I’m certain that we’ll be seeing more African operations for the foreseeable future, though the footprint will be light as it will be mainly small deployments and training operations.  But as you can probably tell, the U.S. isn’t “reengaging” Africa; the truth is that it never left.

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Out with the Old, in with the Coup: Reflections on Morsi’s Ouster

Ok, so if you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’d think that the people of Egypt are hijacking our 4th of July celebration! The truth is, even if you haven’t been living under a rock for the past week, you may come to the same conclusion.

Egyptian military (SCAF) chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (pictured above), announced on July 3 that the country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, had been removed from office in the wake of public, but largely popular, unrest in the streets. The number of Egyptians protesting, some 33,000,000, was the largest number of protesters in a political event in the history of mankind (that I know of).

[The now] Ex-President Mohamed Morsi was a political unknown a year ago; he was not a great statesman. But in Egypt’s first popular presidential election, Morsi was the torch bearer for the Muslim Brotherhood and won 51.7% of the popular vote. The organization, which was founded in Egypt more than 80 years ago, had been banned for decades, most notably suppressed under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, has dreamt of ruling Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world.

Hosni Mubarak (former decades-long ruler of Egypt, now behind bars and rocking some sweet shades)

In the eyes of many that day was a great day for Egyptians; the people voted, and a party that was persecuted for most of its existence was actually elected and trusted by a majority to govern the country and bring the people’s demands for bread, freedom and social justice to the forefront. And it’s not like the SCAF, who were skeptical of the democratic alternative to Mubarak, intervened and didn’t give the Brotherhood a chance to rule. The SCAF gave Morsi and the Brotherhood a chance to rule; in fact they gave the Brotherhood a whole year to rule and the party publicly failed on its own merits over the course of that year. Perhaps the military chose not to intervene when the Brotherhood did win so as to prove to everyone that they were not fit to rule Egypt (that’s speculation of course).

Mohammed Morsi, the man of the hour.

The Brotherhood was elected with a slim majority (51.7% means that 48.3% voted for somebody else) and in the technical sense of the phrase, they “totally blew it.” Morsi and the Brotherhood assumed power and adopted a hardliner, exclusive approach to governing. They ignored a crippling economy, failed to ensure basic security and protection of minority groups, and refused to include other parties (even other Islamist groups) in a coalition government that we in the United States and other Westernized democracies, perhaps take for granted.  In the end, the Muslim brotherhood led Egypt down the path of Islamic despotism and economic decline. But I guess since the Brotherhood took all the power, they can take all the blame.

That being said, I think the recent events of this week set a dreadful precedent for the region’s future. It encourages the people to get rid of their elected leaders by disrupting their rule as opposed to voting them out. It goes to show that the people were more concerned with Morsi’s failure to govern rather than with the democratic process. The thing people have been calling “democracy” in Egypt though isn’t the democracy we think of; this is mob rule, democracy in the rawest sense of the word, and probably one that Aristotle would think of (pull out your Freshman-year Political Science notes). But let’s not kid ourselves here and think that what’s happening now in Egypt is in the interest of ALL Egyptians. If you think that, then you probably think that the millions of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood live on the moon. Well, they live in Egypt too, and they also have interests, interests that they tried to force on others with no checks or balances. And that’s politics for you: factions and societal and economic pressures all in one pot that must be reconciled and sorted out. It is a constant struggle, and even some of us in the United States grow impatient of our own political struggles. Maybe Egypt isn’t quite ready for this experiment we call “democracy” yet.  Now before you all get offended by this, I think democracy for an unprepared populace could be far worse than a Mubarak. Even Thomas Jefferson, a great American hero and a father of our Republic, agrees with me here.  In a letter to Lafayette after Napoleon seized power, quelling the chaos of the French Revolution, Mr. Jefferson wrote (as an intellectual exercise, pretend he’s writing to someone in Egypt now):

“A full measure of liberty is not now perhaps to be expected by your nation, nor am I confident they are prepared to preserve it. More than a generation will be requisite, under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation. Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident; it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one.”

A few more takeaways and things to look for/expect in the near future:

1) Don’t think just because the Muslim Brotherhood was booted out that all is ok now with them. Expect the Brotherhood to keep resisting and push back against this move by the military; they will not forget.

2) The people protesting in the streets were all united in that they wanted Morsi and the Brotherhood out, but that’s about all they really agree on. The future will be a struggle of their competing interests. Unfortunately for the politics of the Middle East, most countries have a “winner-take-all” policy.

3) For decades, since the Cold War to today, the military has essentially ruled, approving and backing an individual or a party.  This is primarily because no military wants to be involved in the day-to-day affairs of running a country. The military has and will remain the primary source of power in the country, as with many countries, and will throw its weight behind any party or coalition that will see to managing the political economy and as such, limiting unrest.

4) Washington cannot do much to shape Egyptian politics right now, even if it tried. And for many reasons, it shouldn’t. I’m not going to say anything more about that point

I call upon the Egyptian people to prove me wrong. I would wholeheartedly welcome that. I sincerely hope that this coup is more akin to the one we witnessed in Portugal in 1974 than the one in Algeria in the 1990s. But as with all things though, time will tell.

North Koreans appeal for direct talks with U.S.

North Korea’s back in the news again for the gazillionth time when recent dialogue between Asian powers and the United States suggested a revitilization of the 6-Party talks which fell through in 2008.

Ok, so the North Koreans are willing to hold direct talks with the United States, that’s great news! But not so fast.

In an article from the Guardian:

“North Korea’s top diplomat has said the US must unconditionally accept its offer of dialogue if it wants to ease tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, adding that hostile policies by Washington against his country make war a possibility.”

Translation:

“We need another order or potatoes.”