While most of the coverage of the recent reshuffle of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team has been focused on how it will (or won’t) change his administration’s approach to Syria, the continent most affected by it could turn out to be Africa. President Obama designated U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as his new national security advisor — a post with influence on foreign policy potentially on par with the secretary of state — and nominated Samantha Power, a former journalist and longtime member of his administration, as Rice’s successor at the United Nations.
Both women have strong track records as liberal interventionists. Susan Rice was deeply involved in the Clinton administration’s decision to not intervene in the Rwandan Genocide, a role that she has castigated herself for repeatedly and publicly. Perhaps to make good on this lapse of judgment, she has since become a staunch supporter of U.S. interventions in the name of human rights, with the most prominent example being her role as U.N. ambassador ensuring the passage of the Security Council resolution permitting the international intervention that led to the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi in Libya.
Samantha Power, on the other hand, has been a champion of humanitarian interventions her whole career. She started out as a journalist covering the Yugoslav Wars and later worked as a scholar of mass atrocities and the apparent inability of the international community to effectively stop them. She joined the Obama administration in 2008 and later became head of the Atrocities Prevention Board. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, a study of U.S. foreign policy responses to genocide.
The appointments will strengthen the interventionist faction in the Obama administration; if this results in a shift in actual policy, no continent will be more impacted by it than Africa.
There are currently a whole range of conflicts that could warrant military intervention: Most prominently, the civil wars in Darfur, Somalia, Eastern Congo and Mali — but also low-intensity or developing conflicts in South Sudan, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, the Katanga province of Congo and Zimbabwe. It is likely that Power and Rice will try to use their new positions (as they have used their old ones) to push for greater U.S. engagement in resolving these conflicts, by military means if necessary.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean U.S. boots on the ground. Recent interventions in Somalia, Mali and Eastern Congo are probably more of a prototype for future U.S. military interventions than Libya is: The United States supports African or international forces financially and logistically, with training and intelligence, but otherwise keeps out of the fray. This greatly limits political risks at home while promising to deliver more or less the same results.
The United States is still the 800 pound gorilla in international relations, and U.S. intervention — direct or indirect — can greatly influence the dynamics of a conflict. With the appointment of Power and Rice we are more likely than ever to see more of this, which raises the question of how atrocity-preventing interventions fit into the greater U.S. approach to Africa.
In short: The United States (like other countries) is pretty good at aiding and abetting situations that result in the need for humanitarian intervention in the first place.
The U.S. military has consistently expanded its footprint in Africa over the past decade. The most potent sign of this has been the creation of AFRICOM in 2008, a central command for all U.S. military activities in Africa, based in Stuttgart, Germany. Today the U.S. military runs a number of bases in Africa, some of them used for the deployment of armed and unarmed drones. The Pentagon has spent billions of dollars in Africa, most of it for military aid — that is, weapons — and training.
Most of the renewed interest in Africa comes from the War on Terror. Al Qaida and other guerrilla organizations have gained a foothold in a range of countries; the default response of U.S. foreign and military policy has been to support local authorities in suppressing violent dissent with violent means — even though corrupt local authorities are often causing the grievances underlying these conflicts. The result: Conflicts escalate to a level of violence that can’t be contained by local actors and makes outside intervention — in some form or another — necessary.
Probably the best example for this is Mali. Under the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, more than $500 million in military aid and training was invested in the region, with considerable sums going to the Malian military and government. Nevertheless, terrorist activities and drug trafficking flourished in Mali, while the corrupt political elite skimmed off large amounts of the money. Frustration with the Malian government first led to a Tuareg rebellion and then a military coup in early 2012. The coup leader was a captain of the Malian army, who in the past had visited the United States as part of a training mission.
The Tuareg rebellion was hijacked by fundamentalist groups that implemented a strict version of Islamic law in the regions they controlled. Their treatment of the civilian population — and threats of terrorist attacks abroad — ultimately resulted in a French-led and U.S.-supported intervention.
From Nigeria to Ethiopia, the rest of the continent is rife with examples of U.S. foreign policy functioning as part of the problem, or at least not part of the solution. Many of these conflicts will result in calls for international intervention to safeguard human rights and prevent genocide sooner or later. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s newly strengthened pro-interventionist advisers will start to craft a holistic approach to atrocity prevention, or if U.S. foreign policy will continue to try repairing the damage it has caused with military intervention. The backgrounds of Rice and Powers lead one to suspect the latter.