94 Foreign Aff. 54 (2015)
Obama and Africa

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Obama and Africa

Lots of Hope, Not Much
Change

Nicolas van de Walle
hen Barack Obama was
           elected U.S. president in
           2008, the news was greeted
with enormous hope in sub-Saharan
Africa, as well as among the small coterie
of Americans who follow the region
closely. This son of a Kenyan father
would not only understand the continent
better than his predecessors in the White
House, the thinking went, but he would
also treat it as a strategic priority and
direct more resources its way. At the
time, it didn't seem far-fetched to predict
that Obama would usher in a new era of
improved U.S.-African relations. Even
though President George W Bush had
substantially increased aid to Africa, anti-
Americanism there had grown under
his watch, the result of opposition to
his unilateralist foreign policy.
   This optimism was always mis-
placed. Between the costs of the wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Great
Recession, the last six years have not
been favorable to ambitious new foreign
policy initiatives, particularly in regions
of the world viewed as secondary to
U.S. interests. What's more, Obama's
personal biography actually made him
less likely to focus on Africa, not more
so, since he and his advisers viewed it
as a liability. Other than a brief stopover
NICOLAS VAN DE WALLE is Maxwell M.
Upson Professor of Government at Cornell
University.


in Ghana in the summer of 2009, Obama
did not make an official visit to the
region until the summer of 2013-after
his reelection-and even then, he skipped
Kenya, touching down in neighboring
Tanzania instead.
   If the medical injunction of do no
harm is the measuring stick, Obama's
record in Africa can be characterized
as a success. His administration has
not done anything as misguided as the
actions taken by the Reagan administra-
tion, which, by backing guerilla forces
opposed to Soviet-supported regimes,
expanded the civil wars in Angola,
Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Nor has
Obama repeated anything like the
Clinton administration's failure in
Rwanda in 1994, when Washington
turned a blind eye to an unfolding
genocide. But if judged by a more
ambitious standard, Obama's policy
toward Africa has been something of
a disappointment.

SAME AS IT EVER WAS
That hardly makes Obama unique,
however. To be sure, Bush has gotten
high marks for his Africa policy, but
the praise focuses almost entirely on
his decision to expand foreign aid to
Africa by over 600 percent and create
new aid agencies-such as the Presi-
dent's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
(PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge
Corporation-to disburse much of the
money. By contrast, Obama, no doubt
in response to the budgetary pressures
imposed by the recession, has cut fund-
ing by several hundred million dollars
for PEPFAR and the Millennium Chal-
lenge Corporation. Foreign aid aside,
the records of the two administrations
are depressingly similar, because both


54  FOREIGN AFFAIRS

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