Observers Hail Obama's Early Focus on Africa, Asia, Americas
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington - While President Obama is building international consensus on pressing issues like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, his administration's focus on Africa, Asia and the Americas has not lagged, say foreign policy specialists who recently reviewed his first year in office.
Despite the numerous foreign policy challenges he faces, President Obama "has set the stage for more personal engagement with Africa," and that is an important policy move, says David Shinn, a U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia in the mid-1990s who now teaches political science at George Washington University.
Shinn recently told America.gov, "I am impressed that Obama visited sub-Saharan Africa [Accra, Ghana] so soon in his first term, which I believe is the earliest visit to sub-Saharan Africa by a U.S. president. He was followed by Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton, who made one of the most extensive visits ever to Africa by a U.S. secretary of state."
Clinton was with Obama in Accra when the president delivered a speech to the Ghanaian Parliament July 11 pledging "substantial assistance" in U.S. foreign aid, especially for agriculture, while urging Africans to do a better job battling corruption.
Despite the promises and exhortations, Shinn said, "it is still too early to gauge the impact of the Accra speech, which was a broad outline, not a comprehensive policy speech. Someone in the administration needs to make a major comprehensive policy speech on Africa in the coming months."
Fellow retired diplomat Rust Deming says Obama is equally pursuing a "good course" in Asia. Deming teaches Japanese studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
On the war in Afghanistan, where several Asian nations have lent their efforts, Deming told America.gov, "Japan has been very generous with foreign aid to Afghanistan and Secretary of State Clinton has gone out of her way to thank them for that contribution, as has Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke."
In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, Deming said Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo while mentioning the contributions of Muslims to American life, "had a very strong impact, but I'm afraid there is a perception among many Muslims in the region, including Indonesia, that the U.S. has not really followed up on the Middle East peace process."
Despite that, "Obama has a very special standing in Indonesia because of his childhood experience [he lived there for four years], and I understand there is great enthusiasm for him and they are looking forward to his possible visit there," he said.
Obama's focus on multilateralism has also strengthened the U.S. relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Deming said. "There is a perception that under the Bush administration we were not really a major player in Asia, but President Obama has emphasized our return to the region and the importance we attach to it and that was widely received."
Turning to the volatile Horn of Africa region, Shinn said, "The administration made a step in the right direction when it began to change policy on Somalia by moving away from a singular focus on counterterrorism. This is a good change. It will require, however, a continuing commitment to Somalia that emphasizes support for not only the Transitional Federal Government, but the building up of Somali security services, support for Somali civil society and continuing humanitarian assistance."
Shinn also believes the recent shift of U.S. policy to an approach focused on incentives for the Sudanese government to end violence in the Darfur region while holding out the possibility of sanctions if it does not comply is a correct course that was "long overdue."
But John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress and a National Security Council adviser on Africa in the Clinton White House, questions that approach.
Prendergast recently told a congressional hearing on Sudan, "One month after the release of the Obama administration's Sudan policy, the situation has further deteriorated. Violence against civilians continues unabated in Darfur and in southern Sudan, while the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, continues to act in bad faith and undermine lasting peace in Sudan."
From the nongovernmental organization perspective, Obama's African policies get "overall positive grades, with the reality that a lot more needs to be done," says Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa, which represents U.S. corporations interested in doing business on the continent.
"It is in our highest interests to invest in Africa, but progress has been disappointing, though not totally unexpected," Hayes told America.gov. "President Obama inherited a global economic crisis and a period of entrenchment and reassessment of international investments. At the same time, Africa requires a far more vibrant private sector than exists now."
To spur investments, Hayes said, "we need the president of the United States to state to the American people that Africa is important and represents an important opportunity for the American economy. New markets for our companies means more production for our plants and more production means more jobs."
On human rights, Hayes said, "I think the Obama administration deserves high marks. We have set a high standard for Africa and have made it clear that we expect those standards to be met. Those expectations were clearly stated in Obama's Ghana speech and they were underlined further by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip through Africa in August."
"One of the most important parts of her trip was the visit to Eastern Congo where so much brutality from rape to murder has become endemic. It was one of the first times a political leader from any nation has expressly focused on one of the most brutal spots in the world, and especially on the brutality of women. It was an important visit that will require follow-up," Hayes said.
Hayes also praised Obama's building on the successes in Africa of the Bush administration, including the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the military's U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). "I think it is a wise leader who does not automatically negate the successful programs of a previous administration. For this, I think Obama deserves an A."
In the Americas, the Obama administration has shown support ranging from providing hundreds of millions of dollars to help Mexico battle narco-terrorism through the Merida Initiative to helping the region overcome security and development challenges through the Caribbean Security Basin Initiative.
At the Summit of the Americas last April in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Obama set the tone for a new approach to the hemisphere's problems based on multilateral consultation, saying, "I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration."
Obama said, "By working together, we can take important steps forward to advance prosperity and security and liberty. That is the 21st century agenda that we come together to enact. That's the new direction that we can pursue."
Peter DeShazo, a former State Department official in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs who now heads the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told America.gov, "Obama is strongly popular and got off to a very good start in terms of re-engaging with key partners in the region."
"He has shown considerable attention paid that certainly stimulated a lot of expectations. But it has taken a while for the Obama [Americas policy] team to be constituted, and so it remains to be seen how his new policy of engagement with the region" will turn out.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)