Africa responded with joy when Barack Obama was elected. There was dancing in the streets of Liberia. Kenya declared his inauguration a public holiday. When Obama visited the continent in July 2009, far earlier in his term than the handful of other U.S. presidents that had actually traveled to Africa while in office, expectations only continued to rise.
Obama's major address on Africa policy, delivered in Ghana, was generally well received, with African politicians across the spectrum broadly reassured by its themes of self-reliance and good governance. Many Africans (and many American Africa experts) assumed that, with a father born in Kenya, Obama's approach to Africa would be transformative.
Yet a number of forces, and some of the president's own decisions, have conspired to make this president's approach to Africa look a great deal like business as usual. Notably, Obama has put capable career officers in charge of the Africa bureaus at both State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Putting career officers rather than hand-picked political appointees in these plum slots was a curious move, and virtually ensured that caution would be the watchword of our approach to the continent. (U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice certainly counts as a heavyweight political appointee with loads of Africa experience, but her portfolio on New York is so broad that she is no position to manage day-to-day Africa diplomacy.)
The assistant secretary for Africa, Johnnie Carson, is a seasoned professional, as is Earl Gast at USAID. Carson was certainly a vast upgrade from Bush's assistant secretary for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. Frazer, a political appointee, all but left the bureau in smoking ruin, according to a highly critical Inspector General report issued shortly after she had left office.
But here is the rub: Political appointees tend to gravitate to the extremes in the bureaucracy. They can be either really good or really bad at their jobs.
Able career officers like Carson and Gast run the show well, avoid obvious mistakes, and make sure they don't get so far out in front on any given policy that it will be a career-killer when the next administration rolls around. It is not a bad formula for governing, but it is not a recipe for delivering new or entrepreneurial policy, and particularly not in a region that struggles to get the attention of senior policymakers even on the best of days.
- The complete article can be accessed on Foreign Policy website, here.