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The great Africa switcheroo: U.S. policy is now ideological, while China’s is pragmatic

Special to WorldTribune.com

Gregory R. Copley, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The global strategic framework has changed beyond recognition in the past decade, even if the majority of the world’s population cannot grasp it. The face of Africa, however, is changing as we watch, and will transform beyond recognition within the coming few years.

As with most perceptions about change at a global level, external views of Africa are mired in stereotypes which are decades out of date. The stereotypes are reinforced by media reporting on the Continent which addresses almost exclusively the carnage wrought by a few malevolent groups or leaders, and the extent of corruption in a continent undergoing massive change. That is not to say that the majority of Africans can grasp the scale and speed of the change, either. We are all operating with yesterday’s tools.

First Lady Michelle Obama greets French President Francois Hollande to a state dinner in his honor at White House in February.  /AP

First Lady Michelle Obama greets French President Francois Hollande to a state dinner in his honor at White House in February. /AP

Perhaps nowhere is the lack of appropriate approach more evident than in the U.S. White House’s African strategy.

The irony is that the U.S. governmental approach to Africa — and the U.S. has essentially become the only power with coercive capabilities — is now based on ideology, where once it was based largely on pragmatism. The approach of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now based on pragmatism, where once it was — like the Soviet approach — based on ideology.

That is not to say that U.S. and other Western private sector views on Africa are not based on the pragmatism of investment. They are. But the U.S. Obama Administration — increasingly divorced from the business community — is fixated on promoting a line which ostensibly supports its current description of “democracy” and coercive approaches to achieving acceptance of its view of ethics.

It is for that reason that the Aug. 5-6, 2014, Obama Africa Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, has avoided the Chinese approach, which is to discuss investment and trade, and to instead focus on punishing “bad” leaders and rewarding “good” ones in Africa. But it is more complex than that.

At the same time, the U.S. Defense Dept. and much of the State Dept. are viewing Africa with a far higher sense of priority and professionalism than ever before.

The Obama White House, however, favors the end of U.S. and British “hegemony” over Africa, forgetting, perhaps, that the legacy of Cold War and colonial-era suasion is now but faded memory. Britain now lacks the ability to exercise hegemonistic control (or even influence) over its former colonies, but the Obama White House still wants the UK to “pay” for its colonial history. This is a significant sub-text to the White House view on Africa. However, President Obama still wants to be heard and respected in Africa, yet the inconsistency of withdrawing both carrot and stick while still expecting to be influential has yet to be understood in Washington.

To many, even inside the U.S. Government, this approach seems to lack logic. Why would a U.S. Administration abdicate U.S. strategic authority anywhere in the world? Why would a U.S. Administration reverse almost a century of U.S. global power projection and reverse the strong access it gave U.S. economic interests to the global marketplace and resources?

First, let us deal with the Africa situation (and particularly the West African region), and then move to broader areas.

The Obama White House is conscious of the reality that factors have conspired to keep the U.S. from exercising meaningful power projection over Africa, so it is now relying on the Socialist French Government of President François Hollande to extend active operations into Africa. The problem is that the current French Government has — like the UK Government — lost the skills and influence it once had in Africa.

It now appears, then, that the U.S. Obama White House (specifically on the wishes of President Barack Obama and France’s President Hollande) has reached a strategic understanding on how it wishes to “manage” West and Central Africa.

President Hollande has reportedly received tacit — and even partially explicit — commitments from President Obama that France would have the “strategic lead” over West Africa, essentially consolidating the Francophone zone which already exists, plus primary responsibility for Nigeria and the smaller Lusophone states. This move — without any consultation with the states in the region — not only moves the U.S. out of the position of primary “ally” or strategic partner of Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, but also intentionally totally isolates the United Kingdom from its one-time “sphere of influence” as the former colonial power.

Notwithstanding the May 17, 2014, summit of African leaders in Paris hosted by the Élysée Palace at the request of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, both President Hollande and President Obama reportedly agreed that they needed to “ring fence” Nigeria to isolate the rest of the region from the effects of what they perceive as a possible collapse of stability, cohesion, and unity in Nigeria.

President Hollande’s plan, which was supported by President Obama, was to encircle Nigeria with the historically Francophone alliance which would exploit “the coming implosion/crisis” to stifle Nigeria. Both presidents reportedly agreed that they wanted a predominantly Muslim alliance, effectively run from Paris, to dominate the region.

There is ongoing speculation — realistic or otherwise — in Washington and Paris that Nigeria could break up as a nation-state.

Significantly, much of this speculation is based on the fact that the U.S. and French intelligence, foreign policy, and leadership establishments are not getting what they believe is a fair and honest flow of information from Abuja. As a result of this ignorance of realities in Nigeria, very senior U.S. AFRICOM and other U.S. officials have privately made disparaging remarks about senior uniformed Nigerian officers as well as about the national leadership. These attitudes are reinforced by the Nigerian media, which, in the absence of real understanding in Washington, is widely analyzed in the U.S. policy communities as the only source available.

There is a recognition by some senior U.S. Congressional and Defense officials that Nigeria is too important to allow to fall, but there is a sense that they do not know how to engage the Nigerian military and political leadership. There is no strong Nigeria advocacy in Washington policy circles for a credible reassessment of the situation.

The French leadership, including President Hollande and those around him, has maintained close ties with President Obama and other White House officials on African issues (in particular). Both presidents share similar ideological values, and President Hollande has made it clear that French military forces would carry the burden of security in West Africa, provided the U.S. paid the bills. This policy approach accords with President Obama’s personal philosophies (and those of the first lady, Michelle Obama) to remove both the UK and the U.S. from “imperialist” hegemony in Africa and the Middle East.

This does not necessarily accord with institutional U.S. thinking in the Pentagon or State Dept., but does not conflict with the approach of President Obama’s most important policy advisor, Valerie Jarrett (who has been heavily engaged on the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement; she was born in Iran). The key Africa hand on the White House team, National Security Advisor Dr Susan Rice, has in the past been supportive of Nigeria as an ally of the U.S., but she cannot go against the President or Mrs Obama, or Ms Jarrett.

Symptomatic of the French Government’s failure to prioritize Nigeria as an ally separate from the Francophone West African bloc (despite the comments of President Hollande, promising support to Nigeria), is the significant fact that, following the May 17, 2014, Paris Summit, the Government of Cameroon has continued its refusal to cooperate in a meaningful way with the Nigerian security services in counter-Boko Haram operations. President Hollande could have improved that situation if he so chose. There are still lingering animosities in parts of Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula settlement, in which France very pointedly worked with Cameroon to take the Bakassi Peninsula land from Nigeria. [The International Court of Justice arbitrated the dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula in 2002, giving it to Cameroon; after further negotiations and five years of transitional administration, the area was formally taken into Cameroon in August 2013.]

It should be stressed that the U.S. military and, to the extent it can be ascertained, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and Congress, do not know of or necessarily share the White House/Élysée Palace view of “power sharing” in the West African region, but they do share a distrust of the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian Armed Forces, largely based on media reporting.

Because of the lack of meaningful information on the conflict in Nigeria, and the internal political dynamic in the country, the U.S. military, IC, and Congress remain ineffective in supporting Nigeria.

This is further compounded by real evidence of corruption in the Nigerian governance situation. Without a convincing strategic rationale, the key allies of Nigeria in the U.S. should be expected to follow the White House line, even though the Congress, Pentagon, and IC have been in profound disagreement with the White House on most key issues in recent times.

The Obama White House Classified Document, PSD-11, Transforming U.S. Strategy Toward MENA
The next question is how and where this transforming U.S. approach to West Africa fits in with the broader U.S. approach — at least under the Obama White House — to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and, indeed, to the White House’s focus on Islam generally.

It was apparent, from the start of the Obama Administration at the beginning of 2009 that Washington viewed the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa very differently than any previous Administration. And it was not merely as a result of the realities inherited from previous administrations.

Details of a classified 2010 U.S. White House policy paper, PSD-11 (Presidential Study Directive 11) have now begun to appear in the open media1, confirming reporting by Defense & Foreign Affairs of President Barack Obama’s commitment to withdrawing support for traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East and Africa and transferring support to the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood, or Muslim Brethren: MB) movement. The existence of PSD-11 was made known to al-Hewar Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue in Washington, DC, and it confirmed a policy of Obama White House support for the Muslim Brothers which became apparent, symptomatically, from the start of the Obama Administration in the beginning of 2009.

It is significant that while the Obama policy of support for the Ikhwan began immediately after Obama took office, the Obama Administration then formalized and memorialized this position, and conducted an assessment of the Ikhwan in 2010 and 2011, beginning even before the “Arab Spring” erupted in Tunisia and in Egypt.

President Obama personally issued PSD-11 in 2010, ordering an assessment of the Ikhwan and other “political Islamist” movements, including the essentially Ikhwan-based ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP) led by Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. It concluded that the United States should shift from its longstanding policy of supporting “stability” in the Middle East and North Africa (that is, support for “stable regimes” even if they were authoritarian), to a policy of backing “moderate” Islamic political movements.

This policy was strongly supported by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who saw in it the prospect for the revival of neo-Ottomanist Turkish power. Ankara began riding on the back of this transformed U.S. mandate to begin its series of misadventures against Israel, Syria (and therefore implicitly against Iran), and further afield, including Africa.

It is understood that details of PSD-11 were leaked to al-Hewar by pro-Ikhwan officials in the White House to ensure that President Obama would not go back on his commitment to support the movement. New York analyst Daniel Greenfield wrote: “Al-Hewar, which actually got hold of the documents, is linked to the International Institute of Islamic Thought … which is a Muslim Brotherhood front group. Figures in the Muslim Brotherhood had threatened to leak understandings with Obama Inc. This is the next best thing. It warns Obama that if he tries to forget about them, they can prove that the relationship was official policy.”

It is now apparent and logical that the Obama Administration has extended the policy or approach of PSD-11 to include Nigeria.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, thousands of pages of documentation of the U.S. State Dept.’s dealings with the Muslim Brothers were, as of late June 2014, in the process of being de-classified and released to the public. U.S. State Department documents obtained by investigators under the FOIA confirmed that the Obama Administration maintained frequent contact and ties with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. At one point, in April 2012, U.S. officials arranged for the public relations director of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Gaair, to come to Washington to speak at a conference on “Islamists in Power” hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The founder of Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement, Mohammed Yusuf, had been engaged with the Muslim Brothers (known in Nigeria as the “Yan Brothers”) before becoming a salafist and influenced by the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah (13th and 14th centuries, CE).

Links between the Ikhwan in Libya (where it is amassing its “Free Egyptian Army” in Cyrenaica) and Boko Haram are not inconceivable. It is almost certain that some of the Libyan arms caches (both from the former Gadhafi Administration’s stockpiles and from the Ikhwan who worked to overthrow Gadhafi with assistance from the U.S. Government and Qatar) could have been provided to Boko Haram by the Libyan Ikhwan.

The Libyan Muslim Brothers-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (Hizb Al-Adala Wal-Bina), led by Misrata-born former political prisoner (during the Qadhafi era) Mohamed Sowan, was created on March 3, 2012, with direct assistance from the Obama Administration and the Turkish Government.

It is significant that, although PSD-11 recommends support for “moderate” Islamist groups, the U.S. Government support for extremist groups in Libya transcended the “traditional” Muslim Brothers. This is at the heart of the Benghazi scandal which the Obama Administration has been at pains to suppress, given that the Obama policy consciously supported the injection of weapons and extremists into Libya to overthrow Gadhafi, and then, after Gadhafi’s death, began moving some of the arms out of Libya — via Turkey, with the Turkish Government’s assistance — to extremists in Syria. Support for anti-U.S. Islamists, in fact, led to the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the death of Amb. J. Christopher Stevens, who was actively engaged in the covert arms movements.

So What Does President Obama Want in Africa?

So much ambiguity and confusion has attended U.S. foreign and strategic policy since the election of President Obama that all foreign observers implicitly ask the question: “What is it that Washington wants?”
The question implies that there is a single Washington policy, which has never been true; there have always been competing policy priorities in the U.S. capital. The stronger faction of the day prevailed, and it has always been a moveable feast.

The real question is: what does the White House want? And what — quite separately — do the institutional bodies of government want? They are not the same, and the four institutional foreign policy pillars — the State Department, the Defense Department, the Congress, and the Intelligence Community — have differing views from each other, let alone from the White House. But the White House can and does call the agenda.

It is fair to say that most professionals engaged in defense and strategic policy in the U.S. are only now becoming aware of the extent of change which the Obama White House has attempted to bring — and has already succeeded in bringing — to U.S. foreign and strategic policy. For the past six or so years, most policy professionals in these four arenas of Washington power have indicated that they did not believe that the White House was undertaking the policies advocated in PSD-11. The revelation of PSD-11, coupled with now-explicit evidence of the six years of deliberate policy steps by the White House, is now becoming apparent.

What the White House seems to want in Africa is not necessarily what the U.S. has historically wanted from the continent. The historical goal has been trade (access to resources and markets), and geopolitical advantage over rival power blocs (during the Cold War meaning the USSR).

Obama Administration objectives in Africa (and the Middle East) seem more ideological (or belief- based), and PSD-11 in some ways supports that conclusion.

Despite that, much of the U.S. Government still concentrates, with regard to Africa and the Middle East, on the process of supporting traditional U.S. goals: strategic influence and stability, to dominate trade. Certainly, the U.S.’ economic and military resources to support the traditional, or the new White House, strategies have diminished in recent years, which makes the projection of any U.S. posture weaker and more disorganized than could have been the case under better economic circumstances.

The reversal of U.S. global strategic policy by the Obama White House means that the U.S. has less power, and less prestige, to support any posture it might wish to project. It now speaks loudly to compensate for carrying a smaller stick. In many respects, in many parts of the world, its power now resides extensively in being able to punish its friends while being less able to coerce its adversaries. It is now the PRC which, in Africa, for example, seems to have the power to reward its friends.

It was being openly discussed in Washington policy circles that the reason for the lack of one-on-one engagement by President Obama with the more than 50 African leaders at the August 2014 Africa Leaders Summit is that his advisers did not think that he had sufficient grasp of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and most African countries. Significantly, the Chinese African leadership summits have always entailed one-on-one (bilateral) talks with visiting heads-of-government, and the commitment by the Chinese leadership of some form of investment for each one of them. This was not the model for the Washington, DC, Obama African summit.

His “broad engagement”, lecturing to the visiting leaders, then, put the power back into the hands of two key officials: Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and (less visibly, but more importantly) Valerie Jarrett, 57, Senior Advisor to the President and Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. Both women are African-American (Ms Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran); both have strong opinions on the U.S. role in Africa, which they appear to view as providing coercive leadership to ensure compliance with Washington’s view of “good governance” and “human rights”.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield seems to have indicated that human rights issues were now the most significant aspect of U.S. engagement in Africa, and trade was now a secondary issue, even though the U.S. share of African trade and investment has been declining. [Ms Jarrett’s engagement on the rapprochement with Iran has left the management of the African Summit to Amb. Thomas-Greenfield and her team.]

The U.S. could readily compete with China in Africa. But the White House seems stuck in the coercion frame of mind.

On the other hand, the White House — and particularly First Lady Michelle Obama — seemed concerned about the fate of the 200+ Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram from Chibok Government Girls’ Secondary School on April 14, 2014, in Borno State, in northeastern Nigeria. This incident was used substantially to punish the Nigerian Government of President Goodluck Jonathan for inactivity against Boko Haram.

The United States promised support to find and free the girls (who, in fact, represent a small fraction of the victims of Boko Haram even in its actions in 2014).

But what has the U.S., in fact, delivered to support counter-Boko Haram operations?

A number of states are engaged in providing “support”, but the reality is that few of the U.S. military dispatched to the region are actually based in Nigeria, where the conflict is focused. Most of the U.S. forces are based in N’djamena, across the border in nearby Chad. Very little actionable intelligence is being provided to the Nigerians. That is not to deny that the Nigerian Armed Forces themselves have some issues to grasp in order to better fight the war, but the U.S. has actually done little to help the Nigerians in this current conflict.

Trust-building with the U.S. is the order of the day, and the Nigerians recognize that. But trust-building with whom? Not, it seems, with the White House. But resuming good relations with the Defense and Intelligence Communities of the U.S. may help Abuja “wait out” the remaining two years of the Obama Presidential term.

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