By KEVIN J. KELLEY
The United States has been giving increased attention to Africa during the Bush years, but that focus is now taking a mainly military form, a panel of policy analysts suggested at an African studies conference held in New York.
“The continent is on the map today in Washington in a way that was unlikely or even unimaginable seven to 10 years ago,” said Alex de Waal, a British researcher working at Harvard University.
Enhanced American involvement can be seen most clearly in Bush administration undertakings such as the president’s Emergency Programme for Aids Relief and the Millennium Challenge Account, Mr de Waal noted.
This closer US engagement is partly attributable to the influence of interest groups that have become newly or more deeply involved in Africa, suggested Stephen Morrison, an Africa specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Mr Morrison cited the examples of religious organisations, foundations formed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former president Bill Clinton, and grassroots campaigns, sometimes led by celebrities, to halt genocide and alleviate poverty in Africa.
Growing US reliance on African oil was also identified as a driving force for the intensified focus. The Bush administration’s global offensive against forces it associates with terrorism also accounts for the higher priority assigned to Africa, said the analysts.
Both these motivating factors are contributing to what Mr de Waal described as the militarisation of US-Africa relations.
The recent launch of the Pentagon’s Africa Command may well lead to even greater US reliance on military might, Mr de Waal said. The United States already stations some 1,700 troops in Djibouti at the headquarters of the Pentagon’s Horn of Africa Task Force, he noted.
Mr de Waal and other members of a panel at the annual African Studies Association conference warned of potentially negative consequences stemming from the emphasis on the military dimensions of US policy.
“Counter-terrorism has taken precedence,” said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. “We’re seeing hard power being used more than soft power, and that’s a damaging direction to go.”
Ken Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist teaching at Davidson College in the US, agreed that the official American presence in Africa has become predominantly military. “An extraordinary shrinkage” of US diplomatic involvement in many African countries results in part, Mr Menkhaus said, from civilian officials’ reluctance to “go outside their fortress embassies.”
The lack of day-to-day diplomatic activity in some crisis zones stands as “the biggest failure” in the Bush administration’s record on Africa, Mr Prendergast said.
Mr Morrison spoke approvingly of the “profound shift” in official US attitudes toward military engagement in Africa during the past decade. He also warned against exaggerating the scope of US military involvement in Africa. The sum total of US bilateral security assistance in Africa is $250 million a year, he noted.
“That’s peanuts in the overall picture,” he said, comparing the military outlay to the $5 billion the US spends annually on health initiatives in Africa.