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In Africa, Aid or Air Strikes?

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
January 11, 2007

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Celebrities including Bono, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey all made headlines this year for their philanthropic efforts in Africa. Yet the accomplishments of a far more powerful figure—President Bush—seem to have largely escaped the media’s attention. The president has tripled development and humanitarian aid to Africa to more than $4 billion (WashPost) since taking office. This increase in aid includes a $15-billion, five-year global health initiative, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and a $1.2-billion malaria initiative. While some criticize the president for not doing more to halt the genocide in Darfur, he played a role in ending Liberia’s civil war and proved instrumental in bringing about a peace deal in southern Sudan in 2005. 

U.S. policy in Africa seeks to promote democracy, expand economic opportunity, fight disease, and end war on the continent, said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer in a May speech. Unlike U.S. policy in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s approach toward Africa has been dominated by combating poverty and ending humanitarian crises. But this week’s air strikes in Somalia, targeting senior al-Qaeda members, may signal a U.S. policy shift that favors counterterror initiatives and military involvement over aid. This perception—whether true or not—has already damaged U.S. standing in Somalia, where news of the attacks set off fresh waves of anti-American sentiment in Mogadishu.

Though Africa has never been a priority for the Pentagon, that looks set to change. At the urging of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush is expected to announce the creation of a new African Command (CSMonitor) early this year. The United States currently has a Horn of Africa joint task force in Djibouti. Established after the 9/11 attacks, it includes some 1,500 troops. Responsibility for the rest of the continent is divided among three of the Pentagon’s five regional commands. Experts say consolidating oversight of the continent confirms its growing strategic importance to the United States. But “it is vulnerable to mischaracterization (CSMonitor) as a modern-day ‘scramble for Africa’ by the most powerful military in the world,” writes Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), former chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa.

The possible policy shift comes at a time of waning American influence in the region. The rise of Chinese investment in the continent, the booming oil wealth of many African countries, and U.S. involvement in Iraq all have diluted the results of U.S. policy, experts say. “The actual ability of the United States to influence circumstances on the ground in Africa has declined dramatically (NYT),” says Michael Clough, former director of CFR’s Africa program.

At the same time, Africa is of growing strategic importance to the United States, not least of all because of its substantial oil resources. The Heritage Foundation’s Brett D. Schaefer writes that Africa’s importance as a U.S. energy source will only grow in the coming years. A CFR Independent Task Force on Africa recognizes Africa’s growing strategic importance and urges a dynamic U.S. policy that unites its currently fragmented initiatives on counterterrorism, HIV/AIDS, and economic development.

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