As my toddler son fidgets with his lifejacket in my lap, I get this feeling of unease. I am sitting on an abandoned island off the coast of Tanzania, a setting out of Robinson Crusoe, surrounded by nothing but beat-up tiki shanties. A few wooden fishing vessels bob in the emerald-blue waters. Its hard to imagine a more idyllic setting.
Yet every time a dinghy comes ashore, I get this restless feeling that the island will be overtaken by Somali pirates, like a scene out of the Tom Hanks flick Captain Phillips (incidentally one of President Obamas first foreign policy triumphs). Or maybe Im reminded of the fact that Shabab militants had recently stormed a mall in Nairobi, leaving dozens of Westerners dead. Even in safe and tourist-friendly Tanzania, I heard many tales of expats avoiding malls.
When groups like al Shabab attack universities, they do so to raise awareness of their cause or to provoke a response (remember the Sudanese aspirin factory bombed in 1998 after the embassy bombings)? But when soft targets are attacked, the result is that every sunbaked tourist is left with this nervous feeling in their gut to avoid anywhere Westerners congregate. A beachside resort suddenly feels like a giant bulls-eye.
The spread of violent non-state actors across the African continent is disrupting policymakers’ dreams of ignoring Africas problems in hopes of staying shielded from them. America wants to continue its vacation from caring about Africa.
Of course, thats their point. Before 9/11, Americans fell into a kind of complacency as we walled ourselves off from the rest of the world, a writ large version of a suburban cul-de-sac whereby the picket fences cost billions in terms of unneeded weaponry. We enjoyed a decade-long holiday from history, as one commentator famously put it.
‘Droning’ on about Africa
It would seem our recent swing toward creeping isolationism may leave us feeling similarly stranded and unable to shape events, a haplessness whereby we react to world events rather than dictate them. Eisenhower threatened nuclear war if a Soviet tank so much as even motioned near the Iron Curtain. A similar threat by our commander in chief today would generate chuckles in world capitals. We have gone from the “American Century” to phrases like “Afghan Good Enough.” Our grand strategy resembles more a reactive whack-a-mole game rather than any kind of preventative approach to manage festering conflicts. One moment our president holds up Yemen and Iraq as potential Arab cities on a hill. The next they are swallowed in chaos from ISIS and Houthi fighters, respectively.
Which brings us back to Africa: How can we guard against threats from this part of the world? The answer is not to double down on useless policies like counter-terrorism strikes that studies have shown only produce more terrorists. Our recent knee-jerk strikes into Somalia should not make us feel any safer. Paying attention to Africa every few years or decades is not a strategy. A series of re-active actions that only produce short-term gains are the opposite of a strategic approach.
The sad fact is we care little about this corner of Africa until there is a mass terrorist attack or genocide, and even then it is buried in the news behind whatever A-lister – Clooney! Angelina! – is visiting to plead Africa’s case. The messenger overshadows the message. With budget shortfalls, there was even talk of shutting down America’s newly-minted Africom post in Djibouti, which is, according to Yochi Dreazen, writing in The Atlantic, really just a command in name only: it has no troops, tanks, or aircraft of its own.” Which is why whenever our commanders discuss Africa, they fall back on bureaucratic gobbledygook. As Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, Africom’s commander, told DOD News, “We are coordinating with international and interagency partners to harmonize our efforts across the continent, and we are seeking to increase operational and programmatic flexibility.” How did such an anodyne quote even get printed?
America’s Vacation from Africa
The President’s inattention to the continent is ironic for someone who has often wrongly been accused of being African rather than an American by right-wing nutjobs. Indeed, with President Obama set to visit Kenya this July, he can point to very few foreign policy successes on this continent, unlike his predecessor, whose PEPFAR program against HIV prevention was broadly hailed. Even where we did intervene, and with noble intentions, as we did after the Ebola scare in 2014, the U.S. left a number of healthcare facilities that went barely used, a costly misallocation of resources. Our intervention to halt the fighting in Central African Republic (of mixed success) was more due to our UN ambassador, not her boss.
With good reason, the Middle East and Asia has dominated this administration’s foreign policy docket. But the spread of violent non-state actors across the African continent like al Shabab in Somalia or Boko Haram in Nigeria has a habit of “pulling us back in” Godfather-style and disrupting our policymakers’ dreams of ignoring Africas problems in hopes of staying shielded from them. America wants to continue its vacation from caring about Africa.
Indeed, it seems we have learned little in the two decades since the tragic events of Black Hawk Down, when the bodies of 18 Army Rangers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after a raid had gone wrong. The point is not that we should avoid such risky missions. Our impulse to go into Somalia was arguably the purest and most humanitarian of any intervention in the post-Cold War era – by a hardened realist no less (George Bush Sr.) – we went in to prevent a famine, not to fight warlords.
Rather, the point is that we reap what we sow when we ignore Africa, or try to outsource the fighting of its wars to local actors. Kenya found itself the target of terrorism largely because we provided its military the target intelligence and training to invade Somalia in 2011. The sending of a small team of U.S. Special Forces into Uganda a few years back to hunt for Joseph Kony may have scratched an itch – and made us feel better about ourselves after watching that Kony 2012 infomercial – but it did little to address the root causes of warlordism and anti-Westernism endemic to this part of the globe.
Which brings us back to why my toddler son and I are on a remote island off the east coast of Africa. Aside from the embassy bombings in 1998, Tanzania has been one of the few pockets of calm here. Our plans to visit Zanzibar, however, were nixed after a spate of recent acid attacks against Western tourists there.
The answer is not to send SEAL Team Six into Zanzibar or avoid sending our tourism dollars there. But disengaging from the continent or treating it as a counterterrorism map dotted with potential drone targets will not make us, or Kenyan university students for that matter, feel any safer. Here’s hoping that the Africans Obama meets will call him out on his drive-by foreign policy toward the continent.
[Photo: Flickr CC: US Army Africa]