Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

America’s Pathetic Excuse Of An African Policy

Posted in The Conflicts of Africa by Dan on September 22, 2009


If you are familiar with the work of Stephen M. Walt (as I am sure you are), you may want to take a look at his most recent post regarding the ongoing violence plaguing the nations of Central Africa.  While his post is relatively short for such an acclaimed scholar of international relations, it accurately demonstrates America’s ignorance towards some of the worst sadism that the world has experienced since World War II.

No, this conflict is not in Iraq or Afghanistan…in fact, it does not involve the Middle East is any way, shape, or form.  Rather, the 5.4 million deaths that Mr. Walt is talking about is located right in the heart of the African continent; that improvised swath of land that American policymakers have neglected for far too long.

For the ordinary American, discussing violence in a place as foreign and distinct as the Congo is relatively low on the agenda.  Most people nowadays are concerned with finding the next job and putting food on their family’s table.  And of course, I do not blame them.  However, while this casual sentiment represents the mainstream opinions of the American electorate, this is not an excuse for the United States Government- the most powerful and most influential authority in the world- to blindly ignore the atrocities that have been occurring in the Congo for the past decade.  Just because Washington has over 200,000 troops in two theatres does not mean the United States should caste this extensive conflict aside and pretend that genocidal activity is not going on.

Not once have I seen the western media discuss or even mention the violence in the Congo.  Certainly, they have other priorities at this time.  Major media conglomerates would get heavily criticized if reporters failed to cover America’s offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan or America’s reconstruction efforts in a post-Saddam Iraq.  When American boots are on the ground, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC have an obligation to cover the story.  But, once again, why does this enable networks to pass over the ethnic wars that have come to dominate African politics?

The only possible explanation I can muster is what Steve Walt coins as “strategic ethnocentrism,” a term that describes western passivity on issues outside the Anglo-American sphere of influence.  As Walt states, “Western elites pay a lot more attention when people like them are killed in large numbers, and look the other way when the victims are improvished Africans.”  If this is the case, I am ashamed of the current administration…not to mention the CEO’s and executives of our country’s news corporations.

Now on to the argument that Africa is not a part of the American national interest, and thus should not warrant resources from the U.S. Government.  As disturbing and flawed this view has become, this “do-nothing” mindset has unfortunately come to dominate African policy for nearly two decades.  Ever since the 1993 Somalia fiasco, both Republicans and Democrats have been more than reluctant to push through much-needed reforms on the continent.

Democracy promotion and international humanitarian missions are seldom to none, with the exception of some U.N. peacekeepers on the ground in places considered vital to western interests.  Politicians routinely view Africa as an aimless cause, a messy-area where intra-state warfare will always occur regardless of western commitments and devotion (just take President Clinton’s failure to act during the Rwandan genocide as an example).  Americans simply have no incentive to help out, thus the conflict is an internal affair that needs to be solved by a combination of the United Nations and the World Bank.  Such is our nation’s great African policy.

However common, this traditional outlook is riddled with falsities.  Africa, despite the stigma attached to the continent, is in the U.S. national interest, just as the pool of oil called the Middle East is in the U.S. national interest.  As the world’s remaining superpower, and as the country with the most diplomatic leverage, it would seem that our government has an obligation to work with those in the Congo; using every tool within the State Department at our disposal to negotiate a ceasefire.  Such an action would only bolster President Obama’s “open hand” strategy: reaching out to others in a tolerant fashion in order to boost international peace and mitigate the dangers associated with terrorism and political extremism.

Ironically, we can learn from one of our most trusted allies in the Middle East.  Egypt, despite its authoritarian tendencies and its frequent abuses of human-rights, has been known to accept the role as the Middle East’s most dedicated power-broker…mediating issues as diverse as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Arab-Israeli land dispute.  If a quasi-dictatorship can perform functions associated with dialogue and negotiation, why not the world’s greatest democracy?

When millions of innocent people are continuously slain by semi-automatic weapons and machetes, it becomes part of the U.S. national interest to intervene and assert ourselves in the situation…regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation.  It is time for us to start acting as the peaceful humanitarian that we have all-too-often come to define ourselves.  It is time to back our rhetoric with concrete action.

Note to the White House: mobilize a coalition of the willing to deal with the worsening situation in Central Africa.  If you continue on your present course, expect a rising amount of anti-Americanism among the Sub-Saharan African population; a situation that our country cannot afford.  Surely, limiting hatred towards the United States is in our best interest.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-This post was based on Stephen M. Walt’s “Strategic Ethnocentrism.”  His full article can be accessed at: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/14/strategic_ethnocentrism


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