In January 2008 the world rejoiced when Barack Obama took over as president of the United States. Although his inheritance was not an easy one, his unprecedented popularity meant that he could push through much-needed domestic and international policy reforms, and quickly. The Democrats were riding high. Everything seemed possible. Change was surely imminent.
No so fast. A mere two years into Obama’s presidency, the Republicans – with the biggest voter swing in 72 years - have managed to regain the House of Representatives with a sizable majority. They also made notable gains in the Senate, and won back several key governorships. The Republicans have marched back into Washington and Americans should expect a sharp political turn to the right. This new political dispensation will certainly have implications for Obama’s foreign policy priorities, including his agenda for Africa.
Obama’s African foreign policy rests on four basic pillars. First, it aims to strengthen African governments by refocusing America’s assistance towards the promotion of democratic regimes and supporting good governance. The second pillar focuses on economic development – which includes new methods and technologies for Africa’s farmers. Third it aims to promote public health, particularly through the prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria, and other health issues including the impact of American support through a comprehensive global health strategy (building on the strong efforts of former President George W. Bush). Fourth, it seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts in Africa, including by pledging American support to African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) conflict resolution efforts and peacekeeping initiatives.
These are all noble (albeit ambitious) goals that demonstrate Obama’s intentions to lead in a new era of global interaction and multilateralism. However, with the rejuvenated right-leaning Republican posture in Congress, the realisation of Obama’s foreign policy goals for Africa will require deft negotiations and tough compromises on all sides. If the previous Republican administration is anything to go by, then US foreign policy might tip back towards prioritising harder security imperatives, possibly at the expense of Obama’s development and governance agenda described above.
However, not all African leaders will resist a Republication-driven foreign policy towards the continent. Under the previous Bush administration Africa gained a revitalised significance to the US, albeit mainly from the perspective of the global war on terror. This renewed interest was spurred by the belief that political instability and civil wars in Africa created failed states and ungovernable areas that provide space for terrorists to use as bases for operations and training. Moreover, African oil and natural resources made the continent even more attractive to the big powers, including the US. Indeed, American oil imports from Africa have grown to rival those from the Middle East, making Africa vital to US foreign interests, not only for its security, but also as a trading partner.
Consequently, under the Bush Administration US foreign aid to Africa reached $26.2 billion. Obama has gone a step further. Annual aid to Africa now sits at $35 billion, making the US one of Africa’s leading donors.
Incoming Republican leaders in Congress have provided a glimpse of the priorities of the Republican-controlled House. For example, incoming majority speaker John Boehner has expressed his commitment to continuing the war on terror, highlighting recent plots like the Christmas day bombings - where a passenger attempted to detonate an explosive concealed in his underwear - as evidence of the continued threat posed by terrorists.
Indeed, Boehner, amongst other Republicans, has already announced his intention to use Congress to roll back many of Obama’s policies. The incoming Republican Chair of the House of Appropriations, and member of the defense subcommittee, Kay Granger, is opposed to foreign aid spending at the expense of military spending, especially aid to regimes that are not performing well according to international democracy standards. Granger and Boehner are committed to ensuring that Congress provides the US military with whatever it needs. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new Republican Chair of the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee is known for her vetting of foreign aid and voting for cuts to development expenditure. She staunchly opposes US aid going to states that America regards being oppressive or ruled by dictators.
Obama clearly has his work cut out for him over the next two years of his first term as president. His re-election will depend largely on how the American people respond to his domestic policies. But Obama knows all too well that his foreign policy agenda also matters. We should remember that as one of his first major policy decisions Obama announced an end to the war on terror, and signaled a shift away from extra judicial activities such as rendition and arbitrary arrests, towards a rule of law based response to the threat of terrorism. This decision gave effect to his carefully crafted inauguration address in which he stated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience`s sake.”
Many in Africa are hoping that Obama does not give up these ideals for the Republicans’ sake.
Written by: Luyolo Ngcuka, Intern, International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria