President Barack Obama's tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania -- his longest trip to Africa -- is winding up, and there is something to praise and a little bit to criticize.
What is to be praised? First, simply that he went. It is good for U.S. presidents to travel, show the flag, and demonstrate U.S. interest in and influence on various countries around the world. While much was made of the cost ($60 million to $100 million), security concerns trump every other concern. If the trip is important (this one is) and terrorists want to kill the leader of the free world (they do), then the Secret Service must prepare appropriately. It's a good thing those sequester cuts were not as devastating as we were told. I know there are critics who say that the president took the trip simply to escape his administration's scandals, and maybe that is partially true. But the fact that he nixed the controversial safari for his family shows that the president dropped the fluff and kept the substance. And the visit to Nelson Mandela's former prison is most worthy because having the first African-American U.S. president do it makes a profound symbolic gesture as Mandela appears to be slipping his earthly bonds.
Another praiseworthy element of the trip is that the president appropriately focused on democratization, or what George W. Bush called the "Freedom Agenda" (though I'm sure Obama would not draw such a direct comparison). Obama's brief trip to Ghana in 2009 found him extolling the virtues of good governance, noting that without it economic progress is fleeting and imbalanced. One would have wished then that he'd gone the next step and noted that good governance is impossible without democracy in that dictators are rarely ever smart enough or good enough to provide good governance. Just ask the crowds protesting in any square during a revolutionary moment what they think of the notion of competent and noble autocrats. On this trip, however, the president made a speech at the University of Cape Town and included some very important points about democracy, human rights, and good governance. He put considerable emphasis on the fact that the people must be in charge, not the government. The "Power Africa" initiative to further electrify several sub-Saharan African countries is important, but I'm most interested in his comments that get at the root of what will really transform and prosper African countries: liberty recognized and maintained through democratic culture and politics. Here is a quote that could have come from the mouth of his predecessor:
Now, I know that there are some in Africa who hear me say these things -- who see America's support for these values -- and say that's intrusive. Why are you meddling? I know there are those who argue that ideas like democracy and transparency are somehow Western exports. I disagree. Those in power who make those arguments are usually trying to distract people from their own abuses. [Applause.] Sometimes, they are the same people who behind closed doors are willing to sell out their own country's resource to foreign interests, just so long as they get a cut. I'm just telling the truth. [Laughter and applause.]
Finally to be praised is that Obama gave some advice to Africans, whether it was requested or not, to not accept every country's interest in Africa as altruistic. Africans, he said, should be equal partners in fair dealing for resources, the price of labor, and in general what is best for Africa. Good advice, though mostly when this issue is on the table we are mainly asking, "What is China up to?" We should be asking, "What are China and the regime up to?" To be sure, the best way that citizens can be protected from predation is democracy: Governments that have no fear of the ballot box have no fear of citizens' anger at being pawns in a game between corrupt governments and foreign investors.
But there has been a low point to the trip: namely, his comments in South Africa during the press conference with President Jacob Zuma. The president made what I consider ill-thought-out comments, probably meant to be humorous, regarding the press. He referred to the American press corps as "my press," and he chided them for asking too many questions. Normally, perhaps, this wouldn't be a big deal. But in that he was visiting three African countries whose press is judged by Freedom House to be "partially free," I think it is not just bad form but harmful for his administration's support for democracy. Of course I would not expect the president to use his trip as an occasion to criticize his hosts directly. But I would expect that while he, himself, is under scrutiny for his administration's treatment of the press (the AP phone records and Fox News's James Rosen), he would not make light of such matters. He missed a chance to not say something, but four years' experience with him in power has led me to believe the president is too thin-skinned when it comes to dissent and being held accountable and too quick to assume a bit of a royal air. At home, he can mix it up with reporters in the great political game, but once he's abroad, more decorum and circumspection is called for.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.