Divided Government and America’s Bipartisan Africa Policy

After a bitterly fought campaign that was the most expensive in history, the American electorate voted to keep the divided government that many told pollsters was responsible for the gridlock that has seriously weakened the United States. President Obama won a second term, albeit by a far closer margin than his historic 2008 election. Democrats expanded their ranks in the Senate, but are still shy of a filibuster-proof majority. Republicans lost a few seats in the House, but retain a comfortable majority.

In short, notwithstanding the president’s magnanimous pledge to meet with Mitt Romney to discuss how they might work together, the GOP candidate’s call to end partisan bickering and political posturing, and House Speaker John Boehner’s pragmatic appeal for presidential leadership and bipartisan action it is hard to ignore the risk of continued government dysfunction in the institutional dynamics resulting from the voters’ choices. That’s why it is important now to identify policy areas where genuine bipartisan consensus can be found to deliver some early successes for the type of repair job that Harlan Ullman prescribes for Washington.

Africa stands out as one such area.

Within the policy community, the Africa constituency has long been characterized by a bipartisan comity—it could hardly be otherwise given how Africa has long been the stepchild of US foreign policy—that is reflected in the broad continuity through administrations of both parties. Moreover, current issues of concern on the increasingly important continent lend themselves to an agenda whose principles Democrats and Republicans would generally find agreement on, even if specific measures will have to be subject to political negotiation and compromise.

A few preliminary ideas:

Security. The growth and spread across Africa of militant Islamist groups, some with links to Al Qaeda, is a major concern, not only for the countries immediately affected, but also for the United States and its European partners. The situation in Mali, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and various local allies have succeeded in seizing control of an area roughly the size of Texas is, as I noted recently, especially dire. Yet the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the geographic combatant command responsible for implementing whatever military operations are eventually deemed necessary, whether assisting an African intervention force or taking direct action against terrorist leaders and groups, has never been properly resourced. As exposed in the aftermath of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, had AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham received an order to intervene there, he would have had to borrow a strike force from the European Command. Irrespective of what comes out of the upcoming debate over sequestration and the Pentagon budget, there can be general agreement that AFRICOM needs the basic tools to carry out its ordinary assigned mission, to say nothing of extraordinary challenges like dealing with the terrorist takeover of a chunk of the Sahel region linking the Maghreb to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Trade and Investment. There can be no fixing the American economy without bolstering trade. Africa, home of six of the world’s fastest growing economies over the last decade, beckons with its growing middle class and markets which have been delivering double-digit annual returns.

One engine that has driven increased US trade with Africa has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted under President Clinton and expanded and extended under President Bush. AGOA will be up for renewal during Obama’s second term and an early extension would be not only helpful to businesses on both sides of the Atlantic, but also provide an occasion for bipartisan legislation. AGOA, however, focuses primarily on trade in goods; there is need to also encourage investments which would strengthen America’s position vis-à-vis China and other countries which have expanded their presence in the service and manufacturing sectors of African economies.

During the campaign, Obama proposed the creation of a “secretary of business” to oversee consolidated government agencies involved with firms doing business domestically. Whatever the merits of that suggestion, some sort of coordination of the disparate economic and commercial policies towards Africa, such as proposed by Senator Dick Durbin earlier this year, would probably garner support from both sides of the aisle, as would the proposed US Jobs Through Greater Exports to Africa Act, sponsored by Republican Congressman Chris Smith and Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush. Given constraints imposed by the current fiscal realities, however, it must be understood that advancing American economic interests in Africa must and will be a driven by the private sector, a notion that has been recognized by outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who has led trade missions of US companies to the continent, and which Republicans would hardly have cause to quarrel with.

Diplomacy. Obama’s unique personal history made his election four years ago and now his re-election causes for intense pride and excitement in Africa. For whatever reason, with the exception of a brief visit to Ghana, lasting less than twenty-four hours, during his first year in office, the president has not fully deployed the immense personal capital that he has still on reserve with many Africans to further US foreign policy objectives. If this changes in the second term, all Americans would have reason to applaud—as will Africans who, as one commentator for South Africa’s News 24 put it immediately after the election, still plead for the president to “put Africa front and center in your second term.”

To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Africa a diplomatic priority, visiting twenty-three of the continent’s fifty-four countries so far in her tenure. Hopefully her successor will continue the engagement and, perhaps more importantly, quickly bring on a worthy successor to Carson to be the daily steward of America’s diplomatic interests in Africa.

In the US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa released in June, Obama noted that “as we look toward the future, it is clear that Africa is more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular.” For this strategic reason as well as for the tactical opening which the forging of a bipartisan Africa policy affords to the imperative of fixing the broken government in Washington, it would behoove America’s statesmen to put Africa among their priorities.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center .

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham and Harlan Ullman

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