With his first trip to Israel as U.S. President, Barack Obama righted a colossal international wrong and, a few months shy of four years after first making a pledge to the people of the Middle East, put his feet where he affirmed that his heart has been — on the soil of the holy land of prophets Jewish, Christian and Islamic.
On June 4 2009, Obama addressed a huge crowd at Cairo University and hundreds of millions of eager Muslims, Jews and Christians huddled around television sets across the Middle East. His address, titled A New Beginning, fulfilled a central promise of his presidential campaign — to deliver a major speech explaining to the people of the entire region how he planned to right what he contended were so many wrongs. Indeed, his predecessor had left much of the region detesting the United States and everything it seemed to stand for. An apparently endless war in Iraq, unwavering support of the nation of Israel which, it seemed, could do no wrong even as it waged an internal war of oppression against its own native Muslims, as well as America’s choice to continue underwriting a host of vicious dictatorships across the region, had left the people of at least two dozen nations bitterly hostile to America’s rulers, and even Americans themselves.
Now, Obama said, he was prepared to right these wrongs. “We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning,” said the President. His listeners were eager to embrace his new vision — one that recognized the accreted and calcified mistrust of the U.S. and promised tolerance and courage in the face of hard choices. The problem, it seemed, was that all this proved to be little more than that: a vision. Shortly after delivering this speech, the President boarded Air Force One and the Middle East returned to the back burner of White House priorities — outdistanced by a deteriorating domestic economy, a war in Afghanistan, nuclear confrontations with North Korea and Iran, and a continuing war on terror — none of which addressed the real needs or desires of the people of the region to which he had pledged a new beginning.
The President again seems prepared to right years of oversight and neglect, and again the people of the region seem prepared to accept this. All in all, another new beginning. Or so it would seem — and as it seemed four years ago certainly. But in those four years, the President’s popularity and image around the globe — but especially in the Muslim world — have waned even more rapidly than that of the American people. Nine months ago, the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project showed Obama’s approval rating in Muslim nations plunging from a dismal 34 percent in 2009 to 15 percent in 2012.
But conspicuous amid all the ceremony surrounding Obama’s trip is the single most glaring lacuna in his foreign policy universe — Africa. For while the President has now, twice in his four years in office, traveled to a region which he has proclaimed an urgent and immediate priority, the 800 million people of sub-Saharan Africa, are still awaiting some tangible evidence that the United States is committed to its peace, security and freedom. Outdistancing in numbers, if not in impact, the 600 million people in the Middle East and North Africa, the people of the vast continent that stretches south of the Saharan desert began the Obama years with considerable hope. Here was a president with family ties to the continent, no less. There was dancing in the streets in Nairobi and Lagos on the night of his election. But America still perceives this region as a center of unrest and upheaval rather than an opportunity to embrace a region of growth and promise.
When Obama addressed the parliament of Ghana in 2009 — the highlight of a 20-hour stopover between summits elsewhere, and his only visit in his four years in office — his rhetoric echoed his message in Cairo barely a month before: “America has a responsibility to advance [Africa’s] vision, not just with words . . . we stand ready to partner through diplomacy, technical assistance, and logistical support, and will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable. And let me be clear: our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world.”
Yet the problems of Africa remain under his watch other nations’ problems to solve. In Mali, the French have taken the lead in the first efforts to quell unrest and prevent the opening of another front in the terror wars, and another haven for Al-Qaeda and its pernicious offspring. When the United States reacted, it was to establish a drone base in nearby Niger, though those who pilot them can sit in bunkers thousands of miles distant — beyond harm’s way on American soil. In Somalia, it’s Turkey that’s taken the lead in rebuilding a nation torn by violent unrest, ruled by brigands for decades. Indeed, Obama’s principal African initiative seems to be the ongoing support of AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, one of nine unified combat commands of the U.S. armed forces and the first devoted solely to Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany –- quite an irony — it directs American military operations and relations with 53 African nations. Beyond some pan-African aid organizations with few ties to the government, and the George W. Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief [PEPFAR] AFRICOM happens to be the only direct American involvement that covers the entire continent. Indeed, PEPFAR, considered one of the Bush administration’s rare successful overseas initiatives, was headed at the outset by a former Eli Lilly and Co. CEO, and has been criticized as an indirect subsidy to drug companies. Moreover, in 2010, the Obama administration proposed to “flat line” its budget.
By contrast, the recently retired Chinese leader Hu Jintao made seven trips to Africa during his term of office, visiting more than a dozen countries, though his nation’s relationship with the continent has been devoted to little more than plundering its most valuable resources in exchange for soccer stadiums and dams that do little to improve the lives or the environment of the people whose resources his nation seeks. And current head of state Xi Jinping has just finished a highly-publicized tour of the continent — French newspaper Le Monde framed as a colonial foray — making a string of trade deals and promising boosted bilateral ties.
The big question is whether American wields any longer the ability really to influence events as it retreats into a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan period of military isolation and non-interference in the world. If the United States is unwilling to risk the life of a single American soldier in defending what it proclaims, Obama is unlikely to succeed in bringing to bear with any effectiveness the kind of moral suasion he clearly hopes to see as his legacy. The future of Africa, and perhaps the Middle East — or at least America’s role in it — may be dark indeed.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes.com. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.