Dr. Eric Silla of the National War College and Jon Temin of Freedom House have both recently published good articles on U.S. Africa policy. Reading them, I realized that I have a basic test for whether a piece on Africa policy is substantive or not – does the author make any serious criticism of existing policy, beyond (a) arguing that Africa should be a higher priority in Washington in general* and (b) proposing some addition to existing policies? In other words, does the author disagree concretely with some element of the (largely static) Africa policy in framework in Washington? There are, after all, a ton of pieces titled something like “Rethinking U.S. Africa Policy,” but a lot of them are fluff, even if they say generic things I agree with like “don’t cozy up to authoritarians” and “don’t freak out about China so much.”
Both of these pieces, however, do offer specific critiques and departures from orthodoxy.
In his article (gated, p. 234), Silla takes Djibouti as a case study and argues that maintaining a military base there is, on balance, likely not worth it:
In sustaining geographic force projection for its own sake, [the] United States would risk taking on a burden in Africa with ambiguous strategic benefits…Given technical advances in naval and air warfare, a base in Djibouti might be an unnecessary expense for future tactical force projection requirements in Africa and other geographic regions. While a diminished permanent U.S. military presence might result in increased attacks by al-Shabab or other groups on Somali or regional targets in the near term, the United States nonetheless has the capacity to respond promptly to specific regional threats to the U.S. homeland and other U.S. interests should they present themselves in the future.
Temin, meanwhile, gives a concrete example of when the U.S. government made the wrong call on an issue connected to democratization:
Survey data also shows that a majority of Africans share many of the values that the Biden administration seeks to emphasize, such as support for democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of association, and freedom of expression. In many cases, it is their leaders who don’t believe in these values. Too often, the United States has sided with the authoritarians because of short-term uncertainty about who will succeed them, fear of chaotic transitions, or the desire to preserve security partnerships. Such was the case when Mahamat Déby, the son of Chad’s longtime strongman Idriss Déby, seized power upon his father’s death earlier this year contrary to the succession plan laid out in the country’s constitution. The United States chose not to call this what it was—a coup—presumably in order to preserve its long-standing counterterrorism partnership with Chad.
Temin goes on to make explicit criticisms of how successive administrations in Washington approached – and over-personalized – their relationships with leaders in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Guinea. That kind of specificity is very helpful, I think, and I hope policymakers in DC are paying attention.
*Note too that many who argue for making Africa a higher priority do not say which region/s of the world should be made a lower priority as a result. Maybe it doesn’t have to be completely zero-sum, but any re-ranking of priorities must necessarily involve downgrading some as others are moved up the list.