Rare Visit Underscores Tangles in Obama’s Ties to Africa

from The New York Times..

By  and 

June 28, 2013

DAKAR, Senegal — As a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama told a packed auditorium in Kenya’s capital, “I want you all to know that as your ally, your friend and your brother, I will be there in every way I can.”

But he will not be there. President Obama, who Wednesday began his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, will skip his father’s homeland once again, a reflection of the many challenges that his administration has faced in trying to make a lasting imprint across the continent.

Despite decades of American investment to promote stability in the volatile region of East Africa, Kenya just elected a president indicted by the International Criminal Court, accused of bankrolling death squads driven by ethnic rivalry. It was the outcome that Washington had desperately tried to avoid, and Mr. Obama’s advisers determined that a photo op of the American president shaking hands with a man awaiting trial was not one they needed.

“It just wasn’t the best time for the president to travel to Kenya at this point,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

For Africans across the continent, the election of an African-American president signaled a transformative moment in their relationship with the United States, one that would usher in a special understanding of their hopes and needs.

But Mr. Obama’s own aspirations for changing Africa have been strained by security threats that have been mounting across vast stretches of its territory, by the spotty human rights records of nations that the United States has worked with to contain them — and by the president’s notable absences from the continent where his father was born.

His two immediate predecessors in the White House made big gambles and left large legacies on the continent, but Mr. Obama has struggled to gain much traction on his stated aims in Africa: consolidating democracy, protecting women’s rights and reducing hunger. Some wonder whether this trip may be his best opportunity.

“This is the last chance for the administration to salvage an Africa legacy,” said Todd Moss, a senior fellow of the Center for Global Development, a research group in Washington. “But it is very late in the day.”

Mr. Obama’s only previous visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president was a brief stop in Ghana in 2009, despite the heightened economic and strategic stakes at play on the continent, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and some of its most vexing security problems.

China’s top leaders, by contrast, have busily traveled to dozens of African countries in recent years, investing billions of dollars in natural resources, building infrastructure on a vast scale and giving rise to criticism that the United States is ceding a rising region.

Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged the breadth of activity by China and other nations, but they said the president’s trip would deliver a message that the United States intended to “be present” in matters concerning Africa.

“We can send a signal of increased U.S. engagement through this trip,” said Mr. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

As the president flew to Senegal on Wednesday to begin a tour that will also take him to South Africa and Tanzania, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said the administration’s approach to Africa was similar to the one it had taken toward Asia, where Mr. Obama has insisted on greater attention and investment.

The Obama administration has spent billions of dollars on aid to Africa every year, building on a rapid expansion under President George W. Bush. And while Mr. Obama’s achievements in Africa may not always be flashy, they are not inconsiderable, said J. Stephen Morrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There has been no big vision, big-ticket stuff, but there is plenty of senior-level, grind-it-out diplomacy,” Mr. Morrison said, adding that Mr. Obama has made Mr. Bush’s AIDS and malaria initiatives much more efficient and effective. He also cited the administration’s vital role in improving Somalia, a country whose troubles have bedeviled several American presidents.

For many, Mr. Obama’s presence has been more evident on the battlefield. He pushed for the NATO military campaign that helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, launched deadly strikes against extremists in Somalia, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train African armies to fight Islamist militancy across the Sahara and set up a drone base in Niger — all while continuing to support less-than-democratic allies like Ethiopia and Uganda.

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Link to the entire article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/27/world/africa/rare-visit-underscores-tangles-in-obamas-ties-to-africa.html?ref=africa

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