Congress is finally taking up its constitutionally mandated duties of oversight and responsible budgeting – at least on U.S.-Africa policy. From humanitarian relief for northern Uganda to the Jubilee Act on debt relief, Congress is making some very important steps forward on the side of the African people. Although there have been a few major disappointments like the Farm Bill, the legislative branch is beginning to ask the right questions about responsible U.S. engagement with the African continent, particularly with regard to the U.S. military.

In mid-July, Congress held a hearing on the progress of the new AFRICOM planned to become fully operational in October. Chairman John Tierney (D-MA) and at least five other members of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Oversight Committee expressed stern skepticism and borderline anger at the expansion of the U.S. military in Africa. Representative Stephen Lynch (D-MA) notedthat leading with the military is a “projection we don’t want to make on the continent.”

AFRICOM’s explicit aims are to increase security in Africa by sending soldiers to conduct diplomacy and humanitarian aid as well as administer expanded military programs. In fact, the new Africa Command is designed to increase access to Africa’s oil, counter terror, and offset China’s economic influence in the region. The new command is coming on line just as the United States is beginning to buy nearly one-quarter of its oil from African sources.

General William Ward, commander of AFRICOM, has insisted that AFRICOM’s goal is to empower Africans to solve African problems. But as Representative Tierney suggested in the subcommittee hearing, if the goal is to help address Africa’s needs, we are wrong to send in the military. The people of Africa need education, health care, and good governance – diplomatic tasks, not military missions. The Pentagon may say it will help the African people, but as Tierney remarked, “who’s going to buy that?” To him, “it looks like [AFRICOM is] going over there to protect oil and fight terrorists, the same misguided way that we fought terrorists in other places.” He speculated further about the U.S. reaction if China or Russia were to set up a military “outpost” in Africa.

Each of the members’ questions contained a similar thesis: the priorities of the U.S. government are misguided and out of order. Representative John Welch (D-VT) noted that it sounds like AFRICOM is “establishing a process that’s in search of a problem.” While the previous Congress complied with Bush’s request for military spending, certain members of this committee certainly seem to have learned their lesson.

According to the testimony of John Pendleton of the Government Accountability Office, AFRICOM is estimated to cost $4 billion between 2010 and 2015 (including $2 billion for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa base in Djibouti). Presumably, this excludes many of the other current military programs in Africa, all of which total several hundred million dollars a year. Congressman Welch asked the panel what the comparable State Department and USAID budgets are in Africa, but no one seemed to have a clue. According to a recent report, the United States spends approximately 30 times more on military operations globally than it does on diplomacy and development under the State Department and USAID. Additionally, the Pentagon now controls over 20% of U.S. Official Development Assistance while USAID controls only 40% of aid abroad. For Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), the fact that USAID has to have an office of military affairs to communicate with the Pentagon “means that something has gone horribly awry.”

Congress and the next administration certainly need to develop a new strategy for working with the world. Today, the United States maintains a powerful military apparatus, but when it comes to putting our civilian foot first, “there is no strategy,” said Congressman Tierney. The members may prefer the State Department to exert more influence over the Department of Defense, but their budgeting and oversight must match their words for U.S. foreign policy to shift in the right direction.

Foreign Policy In Focus ( contributor Beth Tuckey is the associate director of Program Development and Policy at Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) in Washington, DC.

By Beth Tuckey